Broadband’s race towards gigabit

Gigabit broadband has gathered momentum in the past year. But what’s behind the surge in faster services and will fiber-based networks come to dominate? Let’s explore the latest shifts in broadband technology.
Teresa Mastrangelo

2020. Perfect vision. A palindrome. The beginning of a new decade. If we wanted to look at 2020 from a numerology perspective, we would find that the double numbers mean the effects are doubled and amplified. You could say this was true as it related to the importance of broadband.

With the rapid transition to online applications for work, school and nearly all facets of daily living, operators finally realized the importance of providing adequate broadband capabilities to their customers. As such, 2020 will be viewed as a watershed moment in the broadband industry, as the race towards offering gigabit speeds gathered renewed energy.

Gigabit broadband for consumers is not a new concept – that distinction belongs to a handful of ISPs in Sweden, as well as Hong Kong Broadband Network as far back as 2005. However, when Google Fiber announced its “Think Big with a Gig” initiative in 2010, a shift in market momentum occurred. Not only did Google Fiber demonstrate innovation on pricing and packaging of broadband services, but the simple threat of their entry into a market, forced many operators to improve the quality, speed and cost of their broadband products. 

More importantly – and for the first time – the concept of gigabit broadband speeds was viewed as a real possibility for many consumers, rather than a futuristic pipe dream.

“10 years, man!”

10 years. If you’ve ever watched the movie Grosse Pointe Blank, there is an infamous scene where Jeremy Piven’s character yells (in disbelief and realization) “10 years, man!” when thinking about how long it had been since they graduated from high school, and sometimes that is exactly how this path towards gigabit broadband has felt.

Unfortunately, until very recently, most regulating entities did not even entertain, let alone have a gigabit initiative. The European Commission’s Digital Agenda set milestones that did not encourage the deployment or the necessity of gigabit broadband. Instead they set a requirement for universal coverage with 30Mbit/s broadband and half of all subscriptions to be for 100Mbit/s connections or faster by 2020 – this allows a technology-agnostic approach which makes sense when time is of the essence. Although they revisited these targets with the EU 2025 Connectivity, it still only set goals of 100Mbit/s networks reaching all European households by 2025, with gigabit connectivity targeted towards ‘connecting all main socio-economic drivers – such as schools, universities, research centers, transport hubs, hospitals, public administrations, and enterprises relying on digital technologies.’ 

The US maintains a broadband speed requirement of 25Mbit/s, although recent government funding has “encouraged” a speed tier of 1Gbit/ downstream and 500Mbit/s upstream, it did not require it. Even the recently passed infrastructure plan that allocates $65 billion towards broadband – has only set a target of 100Mbit/s downstream and 20Mbit/s upstream – again to allow non-fixed technologies. A missed opportunity in my view.

Last but not least, the United Kingdom joined the gigabit party on a larger scale in March 2021, when the UK government announced its Project Gigabit with plans to deliver nationwide coverage of gigabit-capable broadband to the most commercial 80% of the country by 2025 and backing it with £5 billion so hard-to-reach communities are not left out of this revolution in connectivity.

Shift in broadband technology

Historically, broadband operators have looked towards solutions that could address the immediate time-to-market, competitive and regulatory challenges. This drove continued investment in copper-based broadband technologies (VDSL, Vectoring and as they allowed faster speeds in the shortest amount of time. However, many factors – beyond just faster speeds – such as support for converged (residential and business) networks, support for 5G networks, better reliability and opex reductions – have also factored into the shift towards fiber-based networks.
Another shift that has occurred is the move from asymmetrical towards symmetrical broadband services. Typically reserved for business class services, more and more operators are launching symmetrical residential services. This has led to a rapid switch in the type of broadband equipment as operators are purchasing more 10G-PON equipment than GPON equipment.


Additionally, there is growing enthusiasm for even faster services as the industry looks beyond 10G-PON solutions. The ITU-T has approved the standards for 50G-PON, while the 25GS-PON MSA was formed to promote and accelerate the development of 25 gigabit symmetric passive optical network technology. 

Drivers for gigabit broadband

A key driver for demand has obviously been the current global pandemic causing a rapid shift in usage patterns as both consumers and enterprises quickly shifted to remote applications. Additionally, the value of the cloud has been more pronounced than ever, enabling a range of new services, applications and business models across multiple verticals and industries – while allowing users to access their content anywhere, at any time and on any device. As such, demand for more robust broadband services has surged over the past 18 months.

According to the 2Q 2021 OpenVault Broadband Insights report, there was strong growth across the highest speeds tier as demand for speeds greater than 500Mbit/s grew from 5% in 2019 to 15.2% in 2021. Demand for speeds below 100Mbit/s declined from over 50% in 2019 to just 20% in 2021.


While early deployers of gigabit broadband already understood the value of offering gigabit speeds, momentum has accelerated over the past year, as operators of all types seek that competitive differentiator that will enable both retain subscribers and grow revenue. The surge in government funding has been driven by the need to rapidly close the digital divide.

While the deployment of fiber-to-the-home has been the choice of forward-thinking operators for nearly 20 years – the growth in streaming video, gaming and remote applications, combined with a proliferation of connected devices, have finally driven operators to embrace the benefits of FTTH technologies for their network. 

The force is strong with this one ...

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