Futureway Communications is currently constructing an all-fiber network beneath several Ontario neighbourhoods. When complete, residential customers will have the best of today's broadband services and the promise of tomorrow's technologies.
May 1, 2000
For Futureway Communications Inc., its new all-fiber optic network starts at the residential connection beside the wall of customers’ homes.
To Futureway, that is the “first mile” in the network, not the “last mile,” as characterized by traditional telecommunications carriers. It is a semantic difference. But it is also a critical difference in philosophy, in construction and in operation of this Competitive Local Exchange Carrier (CLEC), located just north of Toronto in Vaughan, ON.
That is not the only difference between Futureway and current telecom carriers. A second major difference is the fact that Futureway emerged from the construction and development industries. The fledgling CLEC, which received its certification from the CRTC on August 18, 1999, is an affiliate of Metrus Development Inc. of Concord, ON. Metrus is a real estate company that is building new homes in suburbs of north Toronto and has strong associations with utility construction companies. And thirdly, Futureway is full-fledged Internet Service provider (ISP) with its own dot-ca and dot-com registered domains.
THE CONSTRUCTION PHASE
Futureway started its construction in March of 1999, and began providing services to customers in September 1999. As of spring 2000, Futureway was under construction in seven neighbourhoods in five municipalities in the York and Peel Regions of southern Ontario, and the company was working with a host of real estate developers.
At the beginning of the second quarter of this year, Futureway’s network was approximately 130 route miles, with hundreds of miles of fiber optic cable installed. Additional plans include extending the reach of the network further within the province.
While Futureway is not involved in the inside wiring, it has persuaded builders to use Category 5 cable. A new Category 7 wiring system from IBM is also currently being tested.
Building networks underground was a key factor in the launch of the company. One of the major partners in Futureway is Con-Drain, a large utility construction company in Thornhill, ON, which handles sewer, water, road and municipal infrastructure construction throughout the province. With the reduction in residential lot sizes, telecommunications “street furniture” — the access boxes and pedestals required for services — was becoming unacceptably obvious and numerous in a number of residential suburbs. This trend caused difficulties for both real estate development and construction companies.
“In one dramatic case, a resident had two cable pedestals, a phone pedestal, a transformer and a super mailbox in front of one house,” says Futureway president Steven McCartney. “They were very frustrated. The infrastructure really had to be improved. We all know there’s an evolution…and the development community said look, its time to now take them (communications pedestals) and get them out of sight. And so Futureway does that.”
The backing of Con-Drain provided the construction expertise, the research and development capability, and the impetus to design, build and install underground network vaults. (See sidebar story on p. 33).
END-TO-END FIBER NETWORK
As a brand-new carrier, Futureway has the freedom to experiment with network equipment and services, and to test-trial those services to residents.
“We’re running end-to-end fiber,” says McCartney. “We support all of our own infrastructure so our central office, our points of presence in the various municipalities, they’re all interconnected by fiber. From there, there’s a fiber distribution on the plant right to the homeowner, and it’s at that point that it’s converted.” He says they are doing this today with two manufacturers — Marconi of Warrendale, PA, and Optical Solutions Inc. of Minneapolis, MN.
The Marconi equipment in use in Futureway is part of the DISC*S (Digital Intelligent Subscriber Carrier System) family of products, access technology that provides multiple services over fiber distribution or termination. Such services may include traditional POTS, Internet via Ethernet and conventional LAN connectivity, video via standard CATV coax and DSL. These multiple services may be located in a single family home or a multiple dwelling unit, all hauled back over fiber. Other Marconi equipment includes ATM switches and Sonet transport systems.
The other supplier, Optical Solutions, delivers fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) solutions. A 1999 agreement between the two companies outlined that Optical Solutions would provide Futureway with up to 20,000 FTTH units of the company’s FiberPath product. This product encompasses a central office, or head-end bay, to send and receive laser signals to and from a residence-mounted node via optical cable lines. Optical Solutions has developed a patented Universal Demarcation Point (UDP) terminal device which converts light into electrical signals needed for in-home devices and services.
With a 144-fiber optic line trunk and 24 fiber optic cable branches, the Futureway network runs a pair of synchronous fiber optic cables to each home on the network, using fiber optic cable from Optical Cable Corp. (OCC), Roanoke, VA. cable. Switching takes place in a Nortel Networks’ DMS500 switching environment. From a point of presence, Futureway distributes “in the residential environment to each and every house on home-run fiber pairs,” says McCartney. “The house has a direct relationship on the fiber, so we don’t have boxes along the way that split and then split again.”
In terms of current and near-term use, the capacity of Futureway is virtually “limitless,” says McCartney. The company guarantees “not less than one Meg of bandwidth” both upstream and downstream, as opposed to competitors who guarantee “up to one Megabit.”
“Our client base is structured that even if every Futureway customer was on the network at the same time, they would still have not less than one Megabit per second,” he says.
With an individual fiber capacity rated at approximately 1.2 Gigabits on one synchronous cable, service permutations are variable and the network delivery of capacity to homes is scalable.
“We support all the telephony, but we’re designed against the data,” McCartney says. If a customer wants to increase capacity to 10 Meg for one month, all that takes is a phone call. The network can handle data bursts as well.
SERVICES FOR RESIDENTS
Futureway is offering residential customers a host of broadband services. All of the Futureway ISP and data facilities are housed within the network. Internet service between Futureway customers is encrypted; that, combined with the security of fiber optic technology, helps ensure data security. Telephony services are currently offered with a full range of contemporary call options. Data services are listed as one Meg Ethernet to the desktop or to a laptop.
Futureway pricing is somewhat less than competitive service providers, but the price difference is not substantial.
“Our pricing wasn’t based on being cheaper than Bell,” says McCartney. “We really don’t want to get into a price war with anybody. They’re all bigger than us… What we are is a better quality of service and in some cases, services you simply couldn’t get unless you had that infrastructure.”
The company is also working with LOOK Television, offering MMDS digital video services, picked up off-air and transmitted over Futureway’s network.
PARTNERSHIPS ON TAP
While the company runs its own Internet service, that service may one day be operated by an outside partner company. Similarly, while Futureway is installing large-scale servers to handle real video-on-demand, that service also may one day be provided by an outside company. True video-on-demand may evolve into a totally different service from that envisaged by current communications carriers. Eventually, it may see provision of only one channel at a time to a residential television set, instead of the current “always-on” availability of all channels.
That capability would save time, effort and money, but may require more sophisticated home-based t
echnology. While Futureway can handle that kind of capacity, “in order to do that you’d have to be in control of that equipment; if it responds to a server, it’s best that we control that server,” McCartney says. “We certainly wouldn’t want someone else to be doing it (video-on-demand in this configuration), tell the customer he can have it and not do it very well.”
In one section of its service area, Futureway is working with an incumbent cable company, offering standard 750 Megahertz cable service. In other areas, as noted, the network is working with LOOK Television, offering digital video services. The company will follow the progress of both sets of distribution technologies to see which one performs best over its network.
Trials are also planned for the new generation of television set-top boxes. Different set-top boxes are providing unique services through various protocols. As McCartney observes, Sony hopes to drive most home entertainment through Sony PlayStations; the CATV industry hopes to implement multifunctional DOCSIS cable boxes, currently in rapid development; and Microsoft is building its TV Platform capability for television, which Microsoft feels is actually an Internet appliance.
“We have no intention of trying to invent all this stuff,” says McCartney, “There are too many great minds sitting out there in basements somewhere. We’re just trying to create the path between them and a client base.”
A LOOK AHEAD
Futureway’s mission statement says it intends to use technology to change the way people work and live. An informal goal is to be “the Swiss bank of communications,” with a network secure enough and broad enough to handle the intelligent home services and the communications and entertainment needs of the future. IBM Home Director software can operate through Futureway’s network, and one of the companies related to Futureway, Concillium Utility, offers up remote energy management and meter-reading within the Futureway network as a possibility.
And, in the not too distant future, a full range of intelligent appliances will be able to utilize the broadband access that Futureway provides. Bar-code readers on refrigerators and microwave ovens that track available food products, cooking methods and recipes, in addition to remote security services which would allow long-distance home inspection, are some of the visionary technologies that can be accomodated. While such devices are not yet available, Futureway intends to ensure that when they are, the network is ready.
McCartney recognizes that some people fear the new technologies of the wired home, in addition to the power of the Internet.
“We believe that people should decide what they want when they want it,” he says. “We really do want to change the way people live, but in a positive way, one thing at a time, whatever they can absorb.”
Yet, the rate at which new technology is adopted, and then moves into general and widespread use, has been accelerating. From the introduction of radio and television, through the adoption of fax and cell phone technology, and now the globalization of the the Internet and the WorldWide Web, when technology is available and affordable, people want it. The uptake on broadband, high-capacity fiber optic networks like Futureway’s may depend only on their implementation. CS
Daphne Lavers is a Toronto-based freelance journalist specializing in science, technology, communications and broadcasting.