Next Generation Access Networks are a big topic around the technical press in the UK currently. The trials by Virgin Media of its DOCSIS 3.0 implementation, fibre roll-out by Openreach in Ebbsfleet and fibre traveling along the sewers are just three instances of how next generation speeds may be delivered to consumers and small businesses.
Ed Richards who is Chief Executive of Ofcom delivered on 16th April a speech to the Institute of Engineering and Technology on future prospects of UK Broadband and Next Generation Access. A copy of the speech is available for reading on the Ofcom website.
" But if you were to ask me whether in 10 or 15 years’ time most developed markets will have very-high bandwidth networks available to many, many households, if not universally: I would say the answer is almost certainly ‘yes’.
Super fast broadband – next generation access and networks – are crucial to the UK’s future. These networks form part of the critical infrastructure of the country’s economy and will be central to the way we live our lives in the future.
Speeds are continuing to rise - with typical headline speeds of up to 8 Mbps, and prices falling very substantially,
It would be incomplete to leave the story there however. There are also some real challenges to consumer satisfaction.
The evidence, so far, is that this is more to do with the quality of technical help-desk support than with line speeds or usage limits. That may be beginning to change, as more and more users realise that adverts promising ‘up to X’ in headline line-speeds are in fact a far cry from their individual day-to-day experience.
So we would encourage the ISPs to provide more hard information up-front to consumers and is undertaking research which, we hope, will lead to reliable quality of service metrics which will let consumers compare which ISP is most likely to provide the kind of service that consistently matches the individual’s maximum line-speed. In other words a real indicator of quality to complement the more transparent information on price.
As well as new services, operators are experimenting with willingness to pay simply for more bandwidth. Results though are mixed. In the USA, there has been significant interest in Verizon’s 20 Mbps symmetric package, even without IPTV applications and despite its premium of $35 a month over copper access. Comcast and Time Warner are experimenting with premiums for use of bandwidth hungry services as well.
But getting customers to pay a premium for something that has been introduced as ‘free’ or very low cost is a marketeer’s nightmare. Most Korea Telecom customers currently remain on their 4Mbps service. In Singapore the highest speed SingTel advertises is 10 Mbps. They have ceased to promote their 30 Mbps offering; and in France the fibre access offering is priced at the same level as DSL service. So there are some real challenges on the revenue side.
But the direction of travel is clear, towards higher and higher speeds and bandwidths. The questions are ‘how?’ and ‘when?’ not ‘whether?’ In this, market players, the regulator and government all have a part to play.
We are clear that, as regulator, we must be engaged and proactive – which we have been and will continue to be.
Our obligation is to remove as many obstacles as possible to next generation deployment and to ensure that there is a framework against which companies and investors can make decisions that will see next generation access emerge."Extracts from Ed Richards speech
The issue of 'up to' speeds arises again, the phrase is usually used as a way of expressing the reality that ADSL and ADSL2+ both suffer from decreasing connection speeds as line length increases, and for all consumer connections it also reflects the contended nature of the actual download speed you will experience. A great many providers provide some form of line speed guidance at sign up, but the language used in sales calls, if ad-hoc reports are correct, can be misleading or easily missed/forgotten in the sign up process. A great deal of education is needed starting with the people who man technical support desks. They don't need to be broadband experts but at least understand the nature of the beast they are supporting.
Of course if we move to a fibre based future then the issue of distance causing speed drop off is removed, but the issue of describing contention remains and how do consumers compare one 50Mbps provider against another. The difficulties this causes are a marketing persons dream, as you can just throw superlatives all over the advertising to make your product look better than a competitors. As broadband speeds increase this situation is not likely to get better.
So here we are, talking about where broadband is going, and as usual no-one can be certain. The economic situation is one that is unstable for many and may result in the big communications providers opting for less exciting incremental upgrade paths. The issues of how you upgrade the local loop from copper to fibre either completely or incrementally are very big, and when so many other essential goods and services are increasing in price a rise in the price of a broadband connection for many would see them downgrading to a cheaper product. There will be the speed freaks among us who will pay the premium, the big question is whether this 10 to 15% of the broadband community are a big enough group to make further local loop investment worthwhile?