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Newly adopted standard means bandwidth boost for IPTV offerings

The recently ratified standard for optical access could be key to offering interactive and high-definition IPTV in the future.

As telephone companies go through the biggest network makeover in their histories to get ready to offer a triple-play package of services--including voice, video and high speed data--a new optical-access technology is set to take center stage.

The standard for a technology called gigabit passive optical network, or GPON, was recently ratified by the International Telecommunications Union. GPON promises to boost bandwidth to 2.4 gigabits per second (gbps) downstream, or toward the user's computer, and 1.2gbps upstream.

The previous generation of technology, known as broadband passive optical networks, or BPON, supports 622mbps of downstream bandwidth and 155mbps upstream.

While BPON technology provides more than enough bandwidth for today's network needs, new services such as interactive television based on Internet Protocol technology, as well as high-definition television, or HDTV, programming will eventually fuel demand for equipment sporting the new GPON standard.

Several vendors have already announced prestandard GPON gear, and earlier this week Alcatel announced the first product that uses the newly ratified standard from the ITU. The 7342 Intelligent Services Access Manager (ISAM), which is part of a broad family of optical-access products from Alcatel, will be highlighted at next week's Supercomm trade show in Chicago, along with other GPON products from companies such as FlexLight Networks.

Passive optical network technology, or PON, is an optical-access system that lets multiple homes or businesses in a neighborhood share fiber from a service provider's central office. The most widely used PON standard today is BPON. It uses Asynchronous Transfer Mode to transport traffic, while GPON is based on IP, the Internet Protocol method of sending data over the Internet. Some experts claim this distinction makes GPON a more flexible technology. It also provides more high-speed connections.

Verizon Communications, which is currently building the largest fiber-to-the-premise network in the United States, has already started deploying BPON technology. But the carrier has said it is very interested in GPON.

"We haven't named any vendors or where we plan to deploy the technology yet," said Mark Marchand, a spokesman for Verizon. "But we are evaluating it and considering GPON for the future."

Verizon's initial television offering will use traditional broadcast technology and will not need the amount of bandwidth that GPON offers, but the company acknowledges that as it starts to deploy IP-based television service, which will be interactive, GPON could be very useful in boosting capacity.

New high-definition programming will also be a big driver for GPON, since HDTV could increase bandwidth demand on the network by four to five times what is required for traditional broadcast television.

Upgrading a fiber network from BPON to GPON will not be as large-scale an effort as the one currently required to put the fiber in the ground. GPON would simply require swapping out the electronic and optical equipment in the carrier's central office. Verizon doesn't anticipate replacing any of the BPON gear it has already deployed for a long time but, Marchand said, GPON technology could be used in new in deployments.

Analysts agree that GPON will become popular in the future, but they acknowledge that BPON will still have a home for awhile.

"The shift will be evolutionary," said Bettina Tratz-Ryan, principal analyst at Gartner. "None of this technology will become obsolete overnight. It will take years for new content to push the limits of the network."