Technology Will Demolish Slow Internet Speeds

Broadband Internet has opened up almost unlimited possibilities for commerce, distance learning, civic participation, and knowledge sharing. But we are only scratching the surface of what's to come.

There are several new technologies rolling out today or on the drawing boards, including DOCSIS 3.1 G.fast and 5G LTE, that will deliver multi-megabit, sub 100ms latency broadband internet to much of the world.

According to Akamai's Q3 2016 State of the Internet Report, the average global connection speed was 6.3Mbps. That sounds good, until you try to download HD videos and stream music while surfing the Web and talking over Skype. In other words, typical day-to-day activities of a connected household just about anywhere can overload the average hook-up.

Higher-speed regions, like South Korea, with an average Internet connection speed of 26.4Mbps, push Akamai’s average number up. The average speed in the US is around 15Mbps. But most people in the world access the Internet with connections of around 4Mbps.

That’s OK for entry-level ecommerce activities and knowledge sharing. But it falls short for what most people want to do online. Compared to where we want to be, the Internet is still stuck in the Dark Ages.

But not for long. "In three to five years you're going to see a high penetration of gigabit service available to the home," says Greg Smith, manager, Market Management, SP Infrastructure, for Cisco's service provider business unit. "That's the timeframe cable operators are all doing their planned upgrades. Verizon FIOS, AT&T, they've got a lot of fiber to the home. The only subscribers left are going to be some of the rural areas, but 5G starts to provide the promise of that. But that might be a little bit longer."

Where is the bottleneck?

The "core" of the Internet, backbone provider networks and many ISP networks, is already fast. Core routers move content using 100Gbps interconnects. And, with 200Gbps InfiniBand switches on the way from Mellanox, data centers can take advantage of 16Tbps of network capacity with a latency of 90 nanoseconds from a single chassis. Not to be out-done, Cisco has over 100 ISPs using its cBR-8 200Gbps broadband router, enabling service providers to move terabits of data per second out to their customers.

According to the US Federal Communication Commission's 2016 Measuring Broadband America Fixed Broadband Report the median speed for US broadband subscribers using either fiber, cable, or digital subscriber line (DSL) in 2015 was 39Mbps. This is a 22% increase over 2014. Most cable and fiber providers met or exceeded their advertised speeds most of the time. DSL providers struggled to do so, but that may change soon.

Of course, "the Internet" is no single entity. It is a network of networks, each dependent on its peers for bandwidth and latency. So even though undersea cables can deliver up to 40Tbps (80% of which still goes mostly unused today) to a headend station, and the terrestrial backbone providers, Level 3, Verizon, AT&T, etc., are moving data through their networks at terabits per second, if your local ISP's core routers can't match this performance and your router can't pass it along fast enough to your devices it doesn't matter. Consequently, your Internet will still be "slow".

Affordable 802.11ac gigabit Wi-Fi routers are widely available today, however, alleviating this problem for a significant portion of home users, should they choose to spend the money.

Again, this all very region-dependent. If you live in the US city of Chattanooga you can get 10Gbps over fiber to the home (FTTH), but one county away, you might just be lumbering along in the single digit Mbps range using DSL -- less in rural areas with limited broadband options.

But with the widespread rollout of 4G LTE wireless networks about five years ago, such areas are increasingly hard to find. According to OpenSignal, which crowd-sources data on mobile network providers, US 4G subscribers get LTE speeds 81% of the time.

Fixed broadband – DOCSIS, G.fast, and Mulitcasting

FTTH is expensive to install, which is why some vendors have scaled back their rollouts. And while there is fiber available nationally, coverage is spotty and only available street by street. But this may not matter much longer. Two data communications standards are challenging fiber for fast last-mile coverage: Full duplex DOCSIS 3.1 and G.fast. Each of these technologies uses fiber to a distribution point (FTTdp) for backhaul, but let service providers omit running fiber to each subscriber's home.

Perhaps more significant is G.fast, which was approved by the ITU as a standard in 2011, and is finally starting to be rolled out now by ISPs around the globe. G.fast works over coax, too. But its biggest impact will be on DSL subscribers because DSL is more widely available than cable, especially in rural areas.

G.fast promises speeds of up to 500Mbps over a 100-meter run of twisted pair copper telephone lines with faster speeds over shorter runs. This helps offset the considerable last-mile cost of running FTTH. There are more than a billion people worldwide with installed copper links readily available to them.

Mobile broadband – 5G LTE

As important as it is to increase bandwidth for fixed broadband, mobile is where the need for more speed and lower latency is most acute. According to Cisco, mobile IP traffic is expected to grow three times faster than fixed IP traffic, totaling 16 percent of all IP traffic by 2020. Akamai's numbers show that while voice cell phone traffic grew by just 46% over the last five years, data traffic grew by 1,600%.

This is a worldwide trend. In Africa there will 700 million smartphones in use by 2020, double today’s numbers in North America. According to the ITU/UNESCO State of Broadband Report 2016 (PDF), there were about 4.7 billion mobile subscribers worldwide by the end of 2015, equivalent to 63% of the global population.

Right now, the average mobile bandwidth speed is 4Mbps with many countries (the US is not one of them) breaking into low double digits. The UK stands well above all other regions with 27Mbps average mobile broadband connection speeds.

And while 4G LTE networks are common today, they still aren't nearly fast or low-latency enough to meet most user's needs. Technically, the 4G LTE standard calls for moving data at peak speeds of 100Mbps, but real-world numbers don’t come close.

Newer smartphone users (iPhone 6, for example) can take advantage of LTE Advanced, a more capable version of LTE that ties multiple spectrum bands together to increase throughput -- if it's offered by their carrier. Verizon and AT&T advertise LTE Advanced peak speeds in the 225M to 300Mbps range. LTE Advanced is offered in cities across the US but, according to OpenSignal, economic and political reasons have slowed widespread adoption.

Not much talked about these days, WiMAX is another mobile broadband standard similar to LTE sold by some service providers to deliver over the air broadband to customers. Its speeds are similar to 4G LTE, but it is being phased out by many carriers in favor of LTE.

With the eventual roll-out of 5G networks sometime in the early part of the next decade, wireless broadband is expected to compete with terrestrial copper and fiber on speed and latency. 5G is expected to deliver 1ms latencies and 100Mbps average speeds to 95% of end users. Peak speeds will be in the 10Gbps range. This type of throughput and latency would allow thousands of users to stream 4K video simultaneously.

The promise of 5G means that people living in rural areas could finally get easy access to true high-speed broadband. Cell phone carriers will have to upgrade their head ends to handle the traffic, but 5G would bring true high-speed broadband to many areas by bypassing the need for terrestrial copper to cover the last mile.

Other considerations

For many in the broadband industry, economics is the key factor in improving overall Internet speeds and capacity, not technology. Today, ISPs and multiple service operators (MSO) have figured out what people are willing to pay for. But once a baseline of quality has been achieved, say 30Mbps and sub-10 millisecond latencies, where should additional investments go?

"We can give everybody a gigabit but right now we'd be hard pressed to consume that much bandwidth as an individual or household user," says Dave Belson, author of Akamai's State of the Internet Report.

There's no question that hundreds of megabits or a gigabit of Internet service is overkill for most of today's home users when Netflix only requires 25Mbps to access its 4K ultra HD service.

But with global internet traffic in 2020 projected by Cisco to be "95 times the volume of the entire global Internet in 2005" (an increase of 14GB per user over today's 7GB) there's also no question that demand for content and services will rise in lock-step with the ability to deliver that content and those services over IP networks.

In the end, there is no one technology to "rule them all". The hardware, software, firmware, protocols, chipsets, applications, network architectures, devices, routers, cabling, switches, standards-setting bodies, politics, and so forth, it takes to the make the internet "faster" is mind-numbing.

Most of these technologies discussed are years-old but only now making their way to end users. It takes an army of business leaders, investors, designers, engineers, regulators, and politicians years to agree on the best approaches.

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