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 G.fast) 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.