In the digital economy, speed and bandwidth are everything. As costs have decreased — compared to other traditional copper cable solutions — and deployments have increased, fiber-optic networks have become the preferred solution to address today’s broadband demands.

Getting fiber near customers is a fairly well-established process. But making the “last-mile” connections to each individual customer is still regarded as the most expensive piece of a build-out.

Multidwelling units (MDUs) — such as apartments, high-rises and senior living centers — are an attractive prospect because of the opportunity to reach numerous customers at a single structure or a group of related structures.

Fiber offers multiple advantages in MDUs as the backbone of the communication infrastructure. Its reliability and massive bandwidth capabilities make it a relatively future-proof selection. It also offers great flexibility in how it can be deployed within an MDU, whether the facility is being built new or retrofitted. Future upgrades are simple, since customers can typically swap out the network equipment in their units without the entire network needing to be replaced.

Multiple Potential Approaches

The added complexity of designing and deploying fiber to MDUs can give developers and service providers pause, but there are a variety of feasible methods and architectures that designers can employ. These are the three most common types of fiber architecture that can be used in MDUs:

  • Centralized split — All network endpoints lead back to a single location.
  • Distributed split — The network includes intermediate split points, such as one for each floor.
  • Segmented split — Each endpoint within the network cascades off another like a waterfall.

Which architecture to utilize can depend on several factors, including owner preferences and building restrictions. Centralized splits require the fewest splice points and splitters, reducing the number of potential points of failure and subsequent bandwidth loss. However, the greater fiber quantities and number of cables to run can make them more challenging to install, especially in retrofits.

Another factor that can dictate how a retrofit is ultimately served is if the existing drop can be accessed to be replaced. In situations where the existing drop is a Category 5e (Cat5e) or greater copper line, an internet service provider (ISP) could use a fiber-to-the-IDF (individual distribution frame) approach instead of a fiber-to-the-unit approach and still provide gigabit service. This would be deployed by utilizing existing localized points on-site to access and use compatible drops when running fiber all the way to the customer isn’t an option.

A hybrid option, called G.Fast, brings the fiber-optic line to the facility and then utilizes existing internal sub-Cat5e (coaxial, twisted pair, Cat3, etc.) copper lines to deliver bandwidth approaching gigabit-per-second standards within relatively short localized loops.

A Model for Efficient Deployment

MDU owners and developers should also consider the merits of an open-access model for the facility’s communications infrastructure. Consider for comparison the electrical panel commonly found in a residential basement. All electrical assets in the house are served by that single panel, with one provider delivering the power.

In the open-access model, instead of having a single provider, there can be several accessing that same point and using the same in-building network to serve different customers. This offers advantages to customers, who benefit from increased competition, and building operators, who can minimize the necessary physical networks being run through their buildings. The fiber itself is a commodity.

Partnering for Progress

ISPs are not always sure where to begin when looking to extend service to MDUs. Partners who are experienced with both facilities and fiber deployments can collaborate to develop practical, customized solutions that are cost-effective.

With a growing population facing a housing shortage, MDUs are going up across the country. And as baby boomers continue to scale back and downsize, condos and senior living centers are increasingly in demand. All of these MDU facilities represent large pools of potential customers for ISPs eager to serve the growing demand for broadband.

These are great opportunities for communications capacity demand and supply to meet. It is much easier to design and deploy the fiber networks as new buildings are constructed, but there are viable options for retrofitting older structures as well. The key, as in so many aspects of life, is making the right connections to move toward the objective.


With increasing global needs for staying connected, the demand for broadband infrastructure is growing. From network modernization to asset renewal and wireless communications, we partner with you to bridge the digital divide.

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Brian Sanfilippo leads fiber business at Burns & McDonnell. His experience includes managing and developing robust telecommunications solutions at locations across the United States.