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Study: Fiber-optic to make itself at home

Despite obstacles, more and more American households will be able to tap into fiber-optic access to the Internet in coming years, according to a new survey.

Despite obstacles, fiber-optic broadband is set to show up on a growing number of U.S. doorsteps, according to a survey released Tuesday.

The new study, conducted by market research firm Render, Vanderslice & Assoc., shows a fiber-optic broadband market growing steadily despite the economy's downturn, with the fast Net connections expected to become available to about 1 million United States homes by 2004.

Fiber-optic connections to individual homes are viewed by many in the technology industry as the next leap forward in broadband Internet access, as they are far faster than DSL (digital subscriber line) or cable connections. But because the technology requires expensive investments in new infrastructure, the networks remain relatively rare. This means few mainstream consumers have access to the connections at home, and even fewer actually sign up for the connections, which often cost more than today's average $50 monthly broadband fee.

The survey forecasts that the number of households with fiber connections available to them will triple next year to more than 315,000 homes. The survey results are based on 600 interviews with companies ranging from equipment vendors to local municipalities and other network builders, and are based on existing construction schedules, the research firm said.

"This study clearly shows?that the number of homes with fiber installed will reach a critical mass within a few short years," said James Salter, president of the Fiber-to-the-Home Council, an industry group holding a conference in New Orleans on the subject this week. The research, which focused on the availability of fiber connections rather than actual subscriber growth, was commissioned by the group and released at the conference as part of an ongoing survey documenting the technology's spread.

Fiber-optic Internet access has received attention across the technology industry out of proportion to its actual subscriber figures, as Internet content and infrastructure companies call for faster home connections to support video, music, telephony and other advanced Net services.

Industry lobbying group TechNet has called on policymakers to support the installation of 100MB per second fiber-optic connections--roughly 1,800 times faster than a dial-up modem--in 100 million homes and businesses by the year 2010.

However, the construction and financial requirements of building out fiber-optic connections to homes make it impractical or wildly expensive in urban regions and other areas with a developed infrastructure. As a result, fiber-to-the-home services are largely becoming available in new housing developments or in smaller cities with municipal governments willing to take on the costs and headaches of recreating their infrastructure.

An earlier study produced by Render, Vanderslice & Assoc. found that about 72,000 homes in the United States will have fiber-optic connections available to them by the end of 2002. As with DSL and cable services, only a small minority of people who have broadband services available to them subscribe to the services, however. According to the survey, about 21 percent of people with access to fiber-optic connections actually sign up.