Here we go again. Just when I thought I was enjoying affordable, high-speed Internet access, along comes yet another new technology that makes my once-fat data pipe look like a swizzle stick. I’m talking fiber.

Fiber-optic Internet access (known as Fiber-to-the-Home, or FTTH) has been around since early 2001, when Usen Broad Networks launched its Broad-Gate 01 service in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward. Later that year, NTT began offering a similar service under the B Flet’s name and Tokyo Electric Power Co. launched its own trial optical fiber service. Yet only recently have fiber-optic connections become practical for the average consumer.

One reason for this was the high cost for fiber. Unlike DSL and CATV, fiber doesn’t rely on existing telephone or cable TV lines to transmit data. Instead, fiber-optic cable (by design delicate and expensive) has to be pulled all the way to your home or office, and this is rarely a trivial task. As a result, setup costs often easily exceeded 30,000 yen. Monthly service fees for FTTH until recently had also been much higher than DSL.

Another obstacle to the growth of FTTH was simple availability. While coverage was available in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, smaller markets were not being served.

Today, however, major cities in most regions enjoy coverage and the service areas for all providers are expanding rapidly.

Fiber service is also becoming more accessible in terms of cost. Competition among the various FTTH providers is heating up, and the big three — NTT, Usen and Tepco — have begun courting subscribers by waiving startup fees altogether and bringing the monthly costs more closely in line with DSL.

NTT and Usen have even relaxed their policies on wiring communal dwellings, and will now often agree to wire units in apartment buildings and condominiums even where there are few or no other subscribers.

As a result, the number of FTTH subscribers has doubled from 172,000 to 347,000 in the past six months, according to the Home Management, Public Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications Ministry. This more is more than twice the growth rate for DSL subscribers (41.6 percent) during the same period.

But putting accessibility and lower cost aside, the main reason FTTH is so popular is performance. At 100 Mbps, nothing else even comes close. Also, unlike ADSL, which is optimized to work best when downloading data, FTTH is ultrafast in both directions, making it equally suitable for sending high volumes of data.

FTTH also addresses a major shortcoming of DSL — distance. DSL and CATV signal strength, and thus performance, degrade the farther you are from the nearest exchange. This means that while you may have signed up for a particular service hoping for 8 Mbps of bandwidth, at the end of the day you might find you are getting much, much less. Fiber-optic signals, on the other hand, experience almost no degradation as distance increases.

This is particularly important for business users, for whom guaranteed bandwidth is a requirement rather than a frill. Corporate users should avoid Internet service providers that don’t offer a strong Service Level Agreement (a document which clearly spells out the degree to which the provider guarantees the performance and availability of a particular service). Without one, you essentially have no recourse in the event of lapses in service quality.

Corporate consumers for whom the Internet is a business-critical resource have consequently had to rely on other technologies such as leased lines, which meant paying much higher fees for far lower bandwidth.

Fiber providers have responded by offering “business grade” service plans aimed at corporate customers who require guaranteed, high-performance and other optional services. What’s more, these plans are available for a fraction of the cost of leased digital circuits but still boast superior performance.

There are still very few providers offering fiber-optic service in Japan. NTT’s B Flet’s service ( ) might be the most well-known. After signing up for B Flet’s, however, it’s up to you to locate a supported provider for Internet access and other value-added services, such as IP telephony.

Usen’s Broad-Gate 01 service ( ) is a “one-stop” service targeted at residential consumers. It includes the fiber-optic connection, Internet access and up to five fixed, public IP addresses.

Tepco’s Hikari service ( ) requires that you sign up directly with a supported provider (such as Asahi Net, Biglobe, or So-Net) and the provider coordinates directly with Tepco on the installation of the fiber-optic line. Payments are also simplified with this service because the fees for both the provider and Tepco are paid to the provider.

FTTH isn’t available to everyone yet, but for those urban dwellers craving the next level in high-speed Internet access, fiber is well within reach.