IFITL – Bellsouth’s Dumb Fiber to the Home Play

AtNex has been providing service over IFITL since we started business.  And IFITL has been less than stellar the whole time.  Here’s the story behind IFITL and why it is so bad.  Fortunately, ATT is replacing it – slowly…

IFITL stands for Integrated Fiber In The Loop.  In the mid 1990’s, BellSouth (hereafter referred to as “BS”) had the brilliant idea of competing with cable companies by providing phone, internet and TV over fiber.  New subdivisions in Acworth, Woodstock, Duluth, Norcross, Lawrenceville, Alpharetta and other places were fibered up with the new service.  Unfortunately, the design team made some really dumb choices when the did it.  I’ll come back to that.  First, let’s see how it works.

Near the entrance to the neighborhood stands a Remote Terminal – a big box that holds electronics.  In that box is a fiber based ethernet switch.  two fibers and some very small copper power wire go out to a pedestal that typically serves 4 houses.  From that pedestal, an ethernet wire, perhaps some coax, and some phone wire lead to the house.  So far, that doesn’t sound too terrible.  But here’s where the dumb stuff comes in:

  1. Because BS had fibered up the new subdivision and offered TV, phone and voice, the cable companies decided not to bother building cable into the neighborhood because they wouldn’t get enough business to be worth the cost.  So there was no competition and no alternative to BS’s lines.  I suppose that was smart on BS’s part.  So we’ll give them a point for that.
  2.  At first, BS supplied TV, phone and Internet.  But they found the market for TV too small and ultimately bailed on that part of the business leaving customers with no TV.  And for a while no alternative.  People weren’t happy.  That did leave an opportunity for cable companies to move in, but it took them years to do it.
  3. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, BS would not provide a static ip to residential customers.  So some people would change their home phones to business lines because BS told them they only sold statics to business customers.  But then they couldn’t get DSL, because BS wouldn’t sell IFITL to a business as it was only a residential product.  So then they would call us and we would sell them a static on a residential line.  Thank you, BS!
  4. Now for the dumb design…  The switch at the head end had only 10Mb ports serving the pedestals.  If that wasn’t bad enough, they chose to divide that 10M up statically between 4 houses and a control channel, giving each only 2M maximum.  Despite the fact that many houses did not subscribe, they could not reallocate the division of bandwidth and give any more to the houses that did.  So, 2M max. How could any household possibly need more than 2Mbps of Internet???  Dumb…
  5. They used very small wire to bring power to the electronics in the pedestal.  So small, that it was insufficient to power better electronics (so they told us).  And thus, they could never upgrade beyond the 10M.  So, while copper DSL got improvements that lead to 6M speeds, IFITL customers were stuck in the dark ages.  Dumb…
  6. BS used multimode fiber for the network.  That was pretty common in the 1990’s.  But single mode has been the standard for a long time now.  Dumb, but not really foreseeable at the time discover this info here.
  7. The middle part of the network was built on Nortel Shastas.  The Shastas were a monumental failure, although that was really Nortel’s fault for building in too many features and destabilizing the system.  BS was foolish enough to buy them.  There are still a few operating in the network now, though that is something of a miracle.  And BS was not alone in that bad purchase.  Australia’s telco bought big into the Shastas and soon lost a lot of money when they tossed them out.  Nortel ultimately went bankrupt.
  8. BS also  didn’t feed the neighborhood switch with enough bandwidth to satisfy the demand.  But that was a common problem with BS.

In general, the IFITL network was more reliable than copper DSL.  But its limitations have really caused customer dissatisfaction for many years.  When AT&T bought out BS, they inherited the lame neighborhood networks.  But IFITL is an infinitesimal portion of the overall customer base. So they didn’t spend any effort fixing it.  Until…..  Google Fiber announced their intent to come to Atlanta.  Suddenly, ATT has become interested and is overbuilding the IFITL network with a GPONS network that they call “Gigapower”.  I’ll write more about the difference between IFITL & GPONS in another post.