Understanding the future of broadband requires an alchemy of futurism and number crunching. Operators must sift through more than one crystal ball's worth of predictions -- and then decide which ones will come to fruition and are worthy of their investment. They must then add in a healthy dose of 5G prognostications, a touch of skepticism and hope government regulators support their visions with investment funds.
After all, you can find a growing number of use cases out there for multiple anticipated trends for high-speed broadband -- just take a look on the Internet, in business meetings, at events and in conversations. Here are just a couple:
- "I want to watch the Super Bowl live, in low-latency 360 VR sport in 8K."
- "By 2025 there will be more than 75.4 billion IoT devices and by 2040 all cars will be driverless."
Let's number crunch.
The first example, according to a January 2018 Bell Labs paper, "Towards Low-Latency and Ultra-Reliable Virtual Reality," requires latency of less than 20ms, and to give the user a realistic view, 15.5 billion pixels per second to generate 2K resolution -- let alone 8K. To create this, you need a pipe (a smart one at that), of at least 100 Mbp/s. (Interested in the full math? Download the white paper, but this snippet certainly gives you an idea of a future broadband requirement.)
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Bell Labs' report discusses mmWave, edge computing, proactive computer caching (PCC), URLLC and many more technologies that we won't go into here, but deftly illustrates the technological complexity involved.
IoT, self-driving vehicles, smart homes and smart cities create another set of complex requirements, not only in terms of speed and latency, but also due to their convergence with other technologies, such as cloud computing, fog computing, network virtualization, slicing and more.
Now think of that piece of copper hanging from your telegraph pole. It has an awful long way to go to the futuristic vision of VR and IoT.
Bridging the connectivity gap
In Europe, average broadband speeds vary from 7.4 Mbp/s in Italy, to 19.1 Mbp/s in Sweden, according to Fast Metrics. The UK comes in at 13 Mbp/s, Germany 12.9 Mbp/s, Spain and Portugal both clock 12.1 Mbp/s, the Netherlands nears the fastest at 17 Mbp/s, while France languishes at 8.9 Mbp/s. Across the pond, the US only does a little better at 14.2 Mbp/s. They're all far from the utopian 100 Mbp/s demanded by VR.
Of course, this picture is a little misleading. There are cities such as London, where some areas hit 30 Mbp/s+ thanks to extensive fiber coverage, often by multiple providers. But if you want to find the true gigabit speeds capable of powering IoT and Smart Cities, Auckland in New Zealand now boasts a spectacular 900 Mbp/s downloads in some areas.
The question then, is what are countries in Europe doing to catch up?
In the UK, an unstable political climate is underpinned by a weak coalition government, Minister for Digital, Margot James said announced a further £9 billion of funding for business broadband.
"Our rollout of superfast broadband across the UK has been the most challenging infrastructure project in a generation but is one of our greatest successes," James said at the time.
Under the British government's Universal Service Obligation, it claims by 2020, 98% of the UK will have "superfast" speeds of 24 Mbp/s. It also has set out plans to deliver "nationwide gigabit-capable" connectivity by 2033, as part of its modern industrial strategy. This will be underpinned by full fiber broadband coverage, which the government claims is "vital to underpin 5G coverage." (See Britain's £95M Boost for Local FTTH, 5G .)
Jeremy Wright, UK Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport said: "This radical new blueprint for the future of telecommunications in this country will increase competition and investment in full fiber broadband, create more commercial opportunities and make it easier and cheaper to roll out infrastructure for 5G."
In Germany, whose government was also weakened when incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel was forced to form a coalition in the country's most recent general election, is powering ahead with investment in its national network infrastructure.
The German federal government aims to bring "gigabit speeds to every part of the country by 2025," wrote Mirko Hohmann (@mirkohohmann), project manager with the Global Public Policy Institute, wrote on the eve of the coalition's formation. This is underpinned by subsidies of €12 billion to support rollout, with 5G spectrum auctions generating the funds. Germany plans to introduce a 5G communication standard by 2022.
While these are great aspirations, Hohman points out that four years ago, the same coalition promised 50 Mbp/s in all homes by 2018 and "failed miserably." He points out that Germany ranks 28 out of 33, according to the OECD's rankings of members with fiber connections,.
Interestingly this week, German regulators laid out plans for 5G auctions, saying mobile operators need not provide 5G services to the whole country. No doubt incumbents Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone and Telefonica Deutschland welcome this news.
However, Germany's antitrust regulator called for a fourth mobile operator to enter the country, with cartel office chief Andreas Mundt underscoring concerns that market concentration has left Europe's largest economy lagging its rivals in emerging competitive arenas like connected factories and self-driving cars.
The 2013 French high-speed broadband plan seeks "to ensure that the entire country is covered by cutting-edge digital infrastructure, the digital transition's backbone," according to L'Agence Du Numérique.
The plan involves bringing very broadband speeds of at least 30 Mbp/s to every home, business and government office by 2022 and is a €20 billion investment, predominately through low-interest loans that make it cost-effective for operators to invest in a countrywide fiber roll-out. The French government will then fill in the gaps outside metropolitan areas.
The plan is complemented by a so-called "dead zone" coverage plan to provide "at least 3G" service to 800 tourist sites, as well as small towns.
Currently, only half the country can access speeds of 30 Mbp/s and a late 2017 update by Reuters suggested that 2025 is the new target for the superfast deployment.
"After 2022, we'd have to finalize the roll out of FTTH throughout the whole country by 2025," Antoine Darodes, who heads France's digital agency, told Reuters.
Spain's national broadband strategy calls for 100% coverage at 30 Mbp/s, with 50% of homes getting above 100 Mbp/s by 2020. To achieve the EU's Digital Agenda for Europe, Spain is removing regulatory barriers around spectrum to promote the deployment of ultrafast broadband.
Fiber makes up the backbone of Spain's network and the country boasts the widest fiber optic network in Europe, with more than 33 million access points, covering 75% of the population. Today, 4G covers more than 95% of Spain's populace.
"Spain has been the fastest country to develop a fiber-to-the-home technology (FTTH) network in Europe, thanks to the right competitive and regulatory conditions," wrote Enrique Medina, Telefónica chief policy officer in a late 2017 report.
Operators also use DOCSIS 3.1 to augment fiber, with Vodafone Spain deploying the technology to 12,000 D-CCAP sites this year. Again, this puts Spain well ahead of its geographic neighbors, with the largest DOCSIS network in Europe.
Home to Broadband World Forum 2019, the Netherlands is largely dominated by cable players, with Ziggo rated as the fastest supplier of broadband, followed by the country's largest telecom operator KPN and Tele2 Nederland. The market is characterized by infrastructure completion from these cable players.
The low-lying country famous for dykes and windmills, boasts a next-generation access (NGA) network providing a minimum of 30 Mbp/s in 98% of urban and rural areas.
Based on a technology neutral approach, the Dutch authorities have set the target of 100% coverage of 30 Mbp/s and 50% coverage of 100 Mbp/s by 2020. However, fiber is growing more rapidly than other technologies. Also, 4G is widely prevalent, offering download speeds in excess of 40 Mbp/s on average.
The emphasis in the Netherland is on local or regional investment in broadband infrastructure with a number of regional authorities investing, rather than a national approach.
How the United States fares
In comparison with top performing European countries, the US market is more mixed, though not necessarily in a bad way. Currently, 4G speeds in major cities are catching up quickly, often boasting 30 Mbp/s speeds. And operators are heavily conducting 5G trials.
In fixed-line, fiber is becoming more dominant, with both AT&T and Verizon switching away from hybrid copper-fiber networks to pure fiber. AT&T plans to provide 1 Gbp/s FTTP to 12.5 million premises by 2019. In the cable market, operators are deploying DOCSIS 3.1 to provide similar speeds.
The US broadband market is substantially less competitive than in many other countries. Decades of experience with a company such as AT&T illustrate a persistent anti-competitive DNA. For example, AT&T argues forcefully that it is "commercially reasonable" to levy roaming charges (a wholesale cost) on small wireless operators whose customers roam on to its networks that are equal to or even higher than prevailing retail prices for wireless services. Allowing a company such as AT&T to operate "at its sole discretion" -- a favorite phrase in its Federal Communications Commission filings -- is an invitation to abuse," wrote Financial Times writer and management consultant Martyn Roetter (registration required).
However, the FCC is pushing for change after a report found only 41% of ISPs could offer 100 Mbp/s and that most consumers had little choice in supplier. (See (See FCC Awards $1.5B to 103 Providers for Rural Broadband and States Sue FCC Over Net Neutrality Rollback.)
"The progress of broadband deployment slowed dramatically in the wake of the Federal Communications Commission's 2015 Title II Order that regulated broadband Internet access service as a utility, according to the agency's 2018 Broadband Deployment Report," wrote the FCC this year, before removing Net Neutrality rules. "However, steps taken last year have restored progress by removing barriers to infrastructure investment, promoting competition and restoring the longstanding bipartisan light-touch regulatory framework for broadband that had been reversed by the Title II Order."
On reflection, there seems to be good progress in Europe towards creating a broadband infrastructure capable of supporting the technology of the future --though no nation is there yet. A common issue, however, seem to be closing of the final 5% to 10% in rural areas without good access. That issue that seems greater in the US by comparison.
5G still is very much at an embryotic state. Standards are coming into place and spectrum auctions are planned, but it will be some years before 5G really exists. As Broadband World Forum's report, "Your Role in 5G," states: "The hype around 5G has been building for so long now that it can be easy to forget that it will not become widely commercially available until 2019 at the earliest. Even then, uptake will be minimal -- just 0.09% of all mobile data traffic will be carried over 5G."
If you want to know more about the European broadband market and its opportunities take a look at the agenda to this year's Broadband World Forum in Berlin, October 23-October 25. If you like what you see, don't forget to book your free visitor pass here or explore our interactive brochure here.
— Niall Hunt, Digital Lead, Content & Communities, KNect365. Follow him on Twitter @Niall_Hunt and learn more about Broadband World Forum here.