The future of fixed broadband
As the uptake of 3G services continues to spur the rollout of broadband networks, a key question arises: what is to become of the fixed-line network?
Fibre-to-the-home is well-suited to deliver next-generation triple play services, such as HDTV, yet with the further development of wireless broadband technologies such as femtocells, some have questioned whether the mobile broadband network will supplant the fixed line network entirely. In light of other metro-scale mobile broadband technologies, such as the Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMAX) and Long Term Evolution (LTE), this suggestion could have some merit.
However, as will be discussed in this article, the fixed-line broadband network will have stout legs for many years to come. The mobile and the growing backhaul tidal wave Although the 3G standard was ratified over seven years ago, only recently have mobile broadband services seen the kind of consumer uptake that has been hyped since the technology’s inception. Services such as music and photo downloads, mobile video, and other broadband applications – particularly since the advent of Apple’s iPhone – have led to increased demand for mobile services in the consumer mass-market, as download speeds have reached 14.4 Mbps.
This is a significant improvement over the 500 Kbps that was initially possible using the original 3G standard – Universal Mobile Telecommunications Systems (UMTS) and Code Devision Multiple Access 2000 (CDMA 2000).. The failure of the initial 3G standards to deliver true mobile broadband had the effect of preserving the central role of the fixed network in delivering high-bandwidth services. However, High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA), High-Speed Uplink Packet Access (HSUPA) and now High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA+). have inaugurated a new era of super-fast mobile broadband services, making the prospect of genuinely mobile, multimedia services a reality.
As metro-wide technologies such as LTE and WiMAX begin to come online over the next few years, the wireless-only broadband network has become a viable concept. To what extent, then, will wireless displace wireline in the broadband future? What are the benefits to residential and business consumers? The answer, at least this point in time, is ‘plenty’. Perhaps the most pressing imperative facing the fixed-line broadband network is not a consumer-facing application. Rather, it is the unglamorous – yet critical – role of backhauling data traffic from the remote cell site (or Digital Subscriber Line Access Muliplexer [DSLAM]) to the central office.
The backhaul network consists of the cellular base station at the network edge, the base station controller or radio network controller, as well as other aggregation and switching elements in the access and metro networks (excluding the transport segment). This infrastructure is very expensive for cellular operators to maintain, and can represent up to 25 per cent of the mobile carrier’s operating expenses. With the advent of higher-speed air interfaces, network infrastructure costs are likely to increase. Over one million new wireless base stations will be installed by 2010. These new access points will be accommodating older technologies – such as CDMA, UMTS, General Packet Radio Services (GPRS) and Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) – yet they will also be delivering services based on next-generation mobile standards. As such, the amount of traffic they are projected to carry is expected to grow exponentially.
In addition, at least one million existing base stations will need backhaul upgrades, from their current one or two E1/T1 lines. The tremendous growth in backhaul capacity is projected to first emerge in developed markets, such as Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), North America, Japan and the large hyper-developing cities in China. The second wave is expected to come from emerging markets – including India, the Far East, Russia, and South America. In terms of backhaul at least, the burden of making mobile broadband a reality in these markets falls to the fixed-line network. There is broad consensus that leasing additional E1/T1 lines to accommodate mobile broadband traffic is not economically feasible.
Then too, trenching fibre to remote locations is similarly cost-prohibitive. The answer somehow must be a point-to-point microwave alternative, and/or leveraging the existing copper network to some extent – even as the fixed broadband network migrates to a fibre-to-the-curb/home/pedestal architecture over coming years. “We see the increased demand for bandwidth to support 3G and WiMAX applications,” says Yoav Valadarsky, Associate Vice President, Vertical Markets, at ECI Telecom.
“The question for operators around the world is how to deal with this increase in a cost-effective way, while maximizing the infrastructure currently installed.” Mr Valadarsky points to options such as multi-service provisioning platforms, which simultaneously support Time-Division Multiplexing (TDM), Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) and Carrier Ethernet in a mobile backhaul context: “These types of strategies allow carriers to make an optimized transition without jeopardizing the existing infrastructure and services being offered.” Leveraging the copper network to deliver needed backhaul is another key focus for many carriers.
This means increasing the reach and rate of DSL lines, while improving the service level these facilities offer in order to meet carrier-class standards for reliability, flexibility, and quality of service. One key option within this space is Carrier Ethernet over copper infrastructure. “Ethernet has traditionally been an enterprise local-area network technology,” says Tom Costello, Vice President of Conference Development at the International Engineering Consortium. “However, groups such as the Metro Ethernet Forum are working to make Ethernet a viable option for carrier-class, end-to-end data transport. These kinds of innovations will significantly extend the value and economic viability of the copper network in meeting the exploding demand for wireless backhaul.” Eric Vallone, Vice President of Marketing at Actelis Networks concurs. “When the industry overcomes the Quality of Service and deployment challenges in making Ethernet data service over copper a reality, then fixed-line and mobile operators will have a way forward in terms of backhaul.”
This, then, signals a promising future for the fixed, copper-based broadband network, at least over the midterm. IPTV – the other fixed-broadband juggernaught In addition to mobile backhaul, another major driver for the fixed broadband network is Internet Protocol Television (IPTV). Despite the hype surrounding the application, it is becoming clear that many consumers want IPTV – and they want it fast and good. Verizon Communications recently reported a 9.8 per cent increase in profit for the first quarter of 2008 – due in significant part to the growth of its FiOS TV service. The telco reports that subscribers increased by 263,000 during the first three months of 2008, bringing the total IPTV customers to about 1.2 million. Similarly, AT&T’s U-verse TV service garnered an additional 148,000 new customers during the same period. This success echoes the positive experiences of other IPTV pioneers, including PCCW and France Telecom.
Delivering HDTV to multiple TV sets in the home requires fibre – ideally, fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) – although some carriers are betting on a combination of fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) and Digital Subscriber Line (DSL). Verizon’s FiOS service is built around an FTTH architecture, which is intended to provide the necessary bandwidth into the foreseeable future. AT&T’s IPTV service, in contrast, utilizes a FTTN system with Very High Speed Digital Subscriber Line (VDSL) bridging the final leg to the home. Either way, IPTV appears to be the residential ‘killer app’ that will breathe extended life into the residential, mass-market, fixed-line network for years to come. “We needed a better product to justify FTTH and FTTx,” said Allen Easty in a recent interview with Light Reading. Easty is CTO of Fision, a subsidiary of Optical Entertainment Network, which provides IPTV services to residential subscribers. “By itself, broadband Internet is still a low-margin business. But we can provide a better TV service, and that’s a 40 per cent margin business.”
It’s the services, dummy Easty’s comments highlight the fact that it is services that customers wish to purchase, as well as how and where they want to receive them, that will ultimately drive the future of the fixed broadband network, and the mobile one as well. “For example, mobile TV is a great thing, and we can all get ready for it,” says the IEC’s Costello, “but if consumers don’t really want to watch TV shows on a handheld device, then it’s a non-starter.”
Similarly, if throughput and quality of service issues surrounding applications like IPTV require a wireline connection – in the near term at least – then this will also bode well for the fixed network. “A lot of people are saying the future has arrived already and that download speeds of 7.2 megabits per second [over wireless] are here,” said John Frieslaar, senior consultant at Huawei Technologies in the United Kingdom, during a keynote presentation at a recent Telecoms World Congress in London. “I’m sorry, but I still prefer to use my fixed broadband link. “There has been a lot of talk about WiMAX versus LTE,” he adds. “Whichever one wins, we will still end up with a high-speed wireless network, but will I give up my high-speed gigabit passive optical networking (GPON) link that gives me HDTV so I can view it on a compact device? Yes … if I’m desperate.”
Going forward Regardless of the ascendancy of any one wireless or wireline broadband technology, it is most likely to be a mix of services and networks that will spell success for carriers of all varieties. Arriving at this correct technology and services mix has been – and will continue to be – the main challenge facing service providers in the new world of broadband communications. In the past, successful service providers have been flexible and open to new technology options as well as to new services and the means to deliver them. Fixed vs. mobile should not be the focus. The focus should be delivering innovative services anywhere, anytime.
|Issue:||North America 2008|
|Topic:||The future of fixed broadband|
|Organisation:||International Engineering Consortium (IEC)|
John Janowiak is President of the International Engineering Consortium. Mr.Janowiak has 25 years of industry experience; he is responsible for IEC’s business and market development activities having grown the 63-year old association’s domestic activities to a truly global level. Mr Janowiak serves as the IEC’s principal liaison to many information industry corporations and non-profit organizations. He also guides the organization’s university relations ensuring technology transfer between industry and academia.
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