Telecoms operators’ broadband infrastructures proved to be a critical lifeline in the past decade – so much so that numerous governments and private investors around the world started to significantly accelerate their investment into broadband network development and deployment. Overwhelmingly, the focus of this increased focus on broadband converges on fiber access infrastructure. More precisely, the vast majority of all new broadband deployments and overbuilds is focusing on passive optical networking (PON), because it combines excellent performance in terms of bandwidth and connection quality, cost efficiency, and support for future technology roadmap.

But even as great majority of global operators continues to deploy and densify their PON (today, predominantly XG(S)-PON) footprints, the needs stemming from upcoming applications in residential, SME, enterprise and wholesale market segments are starting to define future capabilities of next-generation PON technology, designed to be a foundation of operators’ broadband business well into the 2030s.

The requirements stemming from next-generation broadband use cases and applications roughly define the following characteristics for future PON:

  • Ample and symmetrical bandwidth: Broadband usage in most markets is evolving. Beyond already traditional growth in sheer volume of data transferred, the applications like metaverse, VR, AR, ultra-high-definition video streaming, game streaming, cloud gaming, and two-way video communication require operators to increase downstream and upstream bandwidth of their broadband products, in line with customer perception of connection bandwidth as a guarantee of quality experience. When the needs of SME, enterprise or wholesale users are considered, it quickly becomes evident that current mainstream products offering around 1Gbps speeds may become insufficient to satisfy the growing bandwidth demand in foreseeable future.
  • Controlled latency, timing, and synchronization: Another common trait of consumer and enterprise use cases and applications that drive forward the bandwidth requirements is their needs for precisely control connection quality parameters, like latency. Along with the demand for increased and controlled connection quality, wholesale use cases that operators increasingly use to justify their next-gen broadband investment, like mobile transport, require precise timing and synchronization.
  • Advanced QoE control mechanisms: Next-generation PON technologies need to provide operators with real time visibility into all connection parameters, and with ways of tightly controlling them. This is primarily given by the increasing complexity of broadband use cases spanning different use segments. In some cases – like households which also serve as home offices – per-application control of QoE may be needed.

Faced with this set of requirements telecoms industry – operators and their ecosystem of equipment and component vendors – have reached a consensus on 50G PON as the next-generation platform for broadband development. The technology, standardized by the ITU-T in September of 2021, brings a set of features closely aligned with evolving requirements of telecoms operators and their clients:

  • Significantly increased bandwidth and options for symmetrical access: 50G PON, as defined in the ITU standard, offers options for broadband access of up to 50 Gbps symmetrical bandwidth on OLT port, providing operators capabilities significantly higher than today’s mainstream XG(S)-PON, which provides maximum 10 Gbps on OLT port. In practice, 50G PON can be used to provide multiple types of broadband services from the same node, tiered by bandwidth and symmetricity, to satisfy different types of customers and applications.
  • Low latency, timing, and synchronization: 50G PON has been designed to provide significantly lower system latency than legacy and currently mainstream PON technologies, making it suitable for use cases where low latency is a key feature. Chief among those is the use of PON for small-cell mobile (predominantly 5G) transport, but other applications – like cloud gaming in residential segment, or cloud applications in enterprise can benefit from this feature. Implementation of timing and synchronization mechanisms in service of mobile transport have also been demonstrated on 50G PON platforms and which makes the technology suitable for 5G (and possibly 6G) small cell deployments.
  • Legacy service coexistence: Importance of legacy service coexistence has led to 50G PON design options allowing for deployment of the new technology concurrently with existing GPON or XGS-PON. Most operators will likely choose the path of XGS-PON and 50G PON coexistence, however for some coexistence with GPON may be an option.
  • Re-use of existing passive infrastructure: 50G PON has been trialed over already deployed ODN (optical distribution network) infrastructure and should provide around 20km reach, which is in line with currently used PON technologies.

50G PON capabilities are more advanced

Taken together, this new set of capabilities can enable operators to significantly expand their broadband business with support for multiple different use cases over the same infrastructure, continuing the trend already visible with mature technologies like XGS-PON. However, the 50G PON capabilities, especially in terms of low-latency, and latency-differentiated traffic, are more advanced, thus making it much more capable in mobile transport roles and opening new ways for operators to monetize their broadband infrastructures. Same can be said for enterprise use cases or select consumer application types where low latency can be of special interest to clients, like with cloud gaming or metaverse in the future.

Although 50G PON is currently in its infancy, the industry support behind it is already formidable. Operators in China, the world’s largest FTTx market, consider 50G PON their future broadband platform, while several global operators like Orange, Swisscom, and others, have voiced their support for 50G PON. Beyond ITU-T standardization, the 50G PON ecosystem of solutions is growing, which is especially important considering the technology still needs to evolve to achieve its full potential. This relates to the development and commercialization of key solution components, like DSPs, LDPC encoding, or transceiver components, which are likely to benefit from development in adjacent fields, like radio access, high-speed optical transport, or data center networking, respectively.

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Considering all key features of 50G PON systems as designed and demonstrated, the capabilities it brings can be viewed as a key component of operators’ efforts to expand their broadband business and ensure its growth in the foreseeable future. Unlike its predecessor technologies, it is designed to support multiple use cases, and the design envisions operators deploying 50G PON to satisfy the needs of multiple customer types. With already established customer support, ITU backing, and expanding component and supplier vendor ecosystem, and early commercial deployments planned for 2024, mass introduction of 50G PON will mark the transformation of FTTx into next-generation universal broadband infrastructure, bolstering operator’s fixed and mobile access business, while enabling customers to enjoy qualitatively better broadband experience.