SBC Speeds Web at Work

It uses zero watts, it's the size of a pack of gum and it's the key piece of SBC Communications' strategy to bring broadband to 9,000 businesses by the end of next year - and to millions of homes in the future.

It uses zero watts, its the size of a pack of gum and its the key piece of SBC Communications strategy to bring broadband to 9,000 businesses by the end of next year — and to millions of homes in the future.

Its a splitter, a broadband passive optical network device. Ross Ireland, chief technical officer at SBCs Project Pronto, raves about how it will help give interactive managers the VCR-quality videoconferencing and high-speed multicasting that only large businesses could previously afford.

"A couple of years ago, I would have guessed that this technology wouldnt mature during my career, or during my lifetime," Ireland said last week. "But as I speak, we are rolling customers onto this technology."

SBCs passive optical strategy will first serve businesses in Houston. The move is an extension of its Project Pronto, a $6 billion attempt to connect 80 percent of its customers to lines that give them high-speed Internet access.

The new phase will bring voice, video and data over a single optic fiber from a central office or remote terminal to 32 homes or 12 businesses, and will first focus on serving business customers. SBC did not disclose prices.

"The fact that SBC is taking a leap forward and deploying is a sign that passive optical has a big future," said Blaik Kirby, vice-president at consulting firm Adventis.

A single optic fiber is divided into a few dozen wavelengths, each carrying traffic destined for a different end user. At that point, a splitter is attached, and traffic flows out its back end on individual fibers destined for individual homes, offices or apartment units. The splitter, made by Mitsubishi Electric subsidiary Paceon, needs no electricity, operating somewhat like a prism, which needs no power boost to make a rainbow across a sunny living room.

The combination of the zero-power splitter and a steep drop in the cost of Wavelength Division Multiplexing equipment has made the strategy economically feasible years before expected, Ireland said.

Studies have found that if bandwidth-gobbling tasks, such as high-quality video and music, are ever to reach most homes, passive optical devices are the only way to make it cost-effective.

"If they execute, they will provide stiff competition and a good example for everyone," said Marian Stasney, an analyst at The Yankee Group. "One question is whether they can follow it up with customer service."

SBCs rollout of Project Pronto Phase II, and its emphasis on the small-business customer rather than the residential customer, came as Congress debated a bill that would ease restrictions on regional Bells such as SBC.

Tom Nolle, president of market research firm CIMI, said Irelands talk was "eye candy" to Congress and the American people. "He was suggesting that if the bill doesnt pass, businesses would be the priority for Project Pronto, and that residential fiber deployment and DSL would become a backburner issue," Nolle said.

About the time Ireland was giving his talk, a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives approved the bill backed by the regional Bells. It faces a tougher battle in the rest of its journey through Congress.