Broadband, in a large scale sense, has hit a road block. Using the current technology, delivery of high speed Internet is, in the most part, restricted to certain areas and distances in most countries. For broadband to truly immerse the world of tomorrow, it will need to evolve into something that we can share to all users, far and wide, regardless of infrastructure, location or income bracket. The race is on for this to be accomplished with some promising technology leading the way, but which horse should you bet on?
BPL (Broadband Over Powerlines)
If there has ever been a broadband technology that has received countless amount of arguments for and against, it is Broadband over Powerlines. BPL is basically the use of your existing powerlines to deliver high speed broadband and other data services. What providers hope to achieve is broadband so convenient, all you have to do is plug a BPL modem into any power socket and you instantly have a high speed connection which, on paper, sounds almost too good to be true. To do this, BPL uses a different frequency spectrum to the actual power, so data and power can co-exist on the same powerline at any given time.
But why BPL? the main issue with broadband in today’s current market is coverage. xDSL services are limited to certain distances from enabled telephone exchanges, and are also prohibited from use over pair-gain systems and RIM setups. Traditional DSL is very much a temporary solution to the world wide broadband scene. Cable, on the other hand, is not cheap nor easy to lay down and can only viably be rolled out in high density areas, also making it redundant for the widespread broadband of tomorrow. Wireless Internet is a growing technology that has a bright future of its own, however the costs involved in deploying current wireless technology is far to high for serious coverage. Satellite, whilst providing excellent coverage, conflicts with the idea of value for money due to its high cost, not to mention high latency, making it unsuitable for many would-be broadband users.
BPL, on the other hand, works over the existing powerlines to every house and business that receives power (according to providers), so there is no need for laying new infrastructure. It can also operate at high speeds (currently 45Mbps using the DS2 chip, 200Mbps in the future as said by Mitsubishi), so it has the head room to far exceed DSL and Cable for speeds to the house, and it is also very cost effective when rolling out, infact, it is far cheaper to implement BPL than it is rolling out new DSLAMs for DSL access. Like many Cable systems though, BPL is based on shared bandwidth for nearby users, so top speeds are not guaranteed, but anything is better than dialup right?
However it isn’t all green lights for BPL, amateur radio users insist BPL is not a technology for the future, claiming radio interference is being caused by the world wide trials. Reports vary, but there is indeed a real threat involved with interference on BPL that now seems impossible to avoid. BPL uses your powerlines for “last mile” delivery, and in most world wide cases, these are above ground cables without any sort of shielding whatsoever. Cable TV/Internet gets around this by placing its cabling underground with suitable cable shielding, so in reality, if interference does become a problem for BPL, it could end up resulting in required upgrades to power networks worldwide, almost certainly eliminating the cost effective nature of ideal BPL and almost certainly making it just as bothersome as Cable to deploy.
With most failed trial reports coming from the US, it is no surprise that these small scale BPL networks fail – with a significant amount of Internet users in the US still on dialup, the companies are rushing their way into the market hoping they can cash in on this emerging technology without properly considering the consequences. BPL is a technology that doesn’t even have set standards of implementation, and many companies aren’t whiling to wait until it does, creating what one could only describe as a messy network of immature technology.
BPL’s problems could go beyond interference though, some suggest that the PLC community are not telling the truth when it comes to BPL distance and latency over certain power setups. It is also said the actual BPL signal itself could easily be interfered with itself by other sources, rendering the BPL service out of use, however these claims can not be confirmed quite yet, unfortunately the only trial results that seem to be available to the masses are based on old technology, the results of newer generation BPL technology seems to be very closely guarded by the industry. In any case, it is completely possible every BPL system will be unique and could vary when concerning the above issues, only time will tell.
The final word on BPL: BPL has been given a bad wrap by many news sources and at this stage it is really impossible to tell whether the Interference complaints are legit for the actual technology as a whole or whether they are based purely on BPL networks that were not researched or planned well enough before deployment – some reports even suggest false claims have been made to try and derail the deployment of BPL by pro-radio enthusiasts. With most information about BPL being very dated, it is hard to say what we can expect, there is nothing we can do but sit back and hope this technology can become sturdy enough for widespread deployment, because the potential is almost unmatched.
As mentioned earlier in the BPL section, Wireless Internet is currently not viable for the long term in a deployment sense, with most base stations based on 802.11b 2.4GHz technology, the coverage is far from great making any truly widespread implementation very costly. Enter 802.16, also known as “WiMax”. The problems facing current wireless in a broadband sense are, as mentioned, coverage and the delivery of the service, which WiMax will set out to improve upon. First of all, as far as coverage goes, no certain figure can be said as it will very much depend on the equipment and environment, however it has been suggested that distances of up to 30 Miles from each base station at a maximum shared speed of 70Mpbs can be expected, which far out performs current Wireless technology. However, a base station isn’t exactly cheap, it is said up to $100K may need to be spent per base station installation, which could mean that early in the deployment process, lower population areas with no broadband support may still be denied service for some time, so with that said deployment of WiMax is still obviously prone to commercial interest and needs to be able to make profit, much like the problems facing DSL and Cable.
The other improvement can be found in the delivery of the service, which in this case of wireless is from base station to household. With current Wireless, not only do you need to be within the coverage area, you also need Line of Sight for a sturdy connection to the service, something which kills the chances for many people, whether they are behind a hill or surrounded by trees. Whilst again the details are sketchy, WiMax is touting no requirement for LOS whatsoever, which is a huge barrier to break for wireless data networks, allowing true coverage rather than inconvenient hotspots with patchy access.
WiMax isn’t necessarily here to conquer other forms of broadband either, it could quite easily be used to simply extend current services. For example, ADSL has distance limits of around 3-5KM in most countries, not to mention other possible technologies preventing its delivery, however if a company were to install WiMax as a method of delivering the DSL connection from the exchange to the house, obviously thousands more could now use the service. Whilst it is true 70Mbps isn’t a whole lot of bandwidth to share between thousands of potential customers, WiMax could certainly change the way we use broadband as a society with its seemingly non-discriminate coverage.
What this does is it allows WiMax to become an effective “last mile” solution. The problem with current broadband is certainly its “last mile”, which is a term given to the method in which the broadband is delivered to the household. For DSL, the last mile is the phone line from house to exchange – if it is too far, not made purely out of copper, goes through some sort of repeater or anything of that nature, chances are you won’t be able to get DSL access (depending on the Telco’s requirements). Practically every form of acceptable broadband currently available is the same; there is always something physically stopping it reaching everyone, so with WiMax, this could finally be eliminated as an issue. Instead of a phone line, you may have a small WiMax antenna directed towards your nearest telephone exchange, and enjoy all the same services as you currently do and more, or maybe a base station will be installed with a direct connection to your local Internet backbone giving complete high speed mobile access to anyone in the area; the possibilities are endless.
The final word on WiMax: Wireless Broadband has already taken a huge step forward worldwide, here in Australia for example Sydney is facing almost complete coverage in the near future from various companies adopting various technology with DSL like speeds and prices, however none of the current systems seem economically viable for widespread coverage. Although true field tests have not yet confirmed the on-paper features, unlike BPL WiMax is a technology that has very little going against it, and with backing from companies like Intel, it is hard to imagine WiMax not making a huge impact. Look out for its retail release some time in 2005. If you want to learn more about that, check out our top wireless routers roundup.
FTTH (Fiber To The Home)
The first thing that the house of tomorrow would surely have is a simple connection delivering all the basic data and voice services – Broadband Internet, HDTV, VOIP telephone, and god knows what else. Well, the day your house features this very service may not be too far away, as Telco’s worldwide stand up and take note to what could be the connection of the future.
Right off the bat it is clear that FTTH is the most impressive technology discussed here, an ideal implementation of the service will eliminate any need for dedicated telephone lines, satellites, TV cabling etc as everything will be delivered on the one high speed optical line straight to your house. The exact details of such a system are not set in stone, but generally existing telephone exchanges will act as the hub to which the fiber is connected to, inserting all of the available services into the line to each house with high reliability and low maintenance.
Some Telco’s have announced their plans to develop FTTH as a viable service; for example, here in Australia Telstra will undergo tests and small scale deployment to gauge the potential of the service in the near future. However, like Telstra, many of the Telco’s have made it clear that FTTH is not going to replace their current infrastructure, it will only be deployed in new areas and estates, atleast for the time being. Of course, this is understandable when taking the costs into consideration, however obviously this makes FTTH hardly a solution for broadband’s future – sure, the people using it will have the best technology of its kind in the world, but for the majority of people, i.e. the ones who won’t be getting it, it doesn’t really make much of an impact at all, certainly not for people out of reach of current broadband.
Besides the questionable reach of FTTH, there is also the matter of equipment costs. Laying cable is never cheap, which is why Cable Internet has failed to provide a widespread broadband solution, but the real costs come with the end user equipment. It is estimated that under the current market, it could cost the Telco’s up to US$1000 per household to cover the total installation costs of FTTH which includes the equipment needed to convert the optical signal to an electronic signal. When every service under the sun is being delivered obviously it is only a matter of time before revenue starts paying off the costs, however this also means the growth of the network will be very slow and will require serious investments – by the time FTTH can be delivered to a significant amount of people, multiple other solutions may already be well established with more features.
The final word on FTTH: Whilst FTTH is by far the most impressive and feature filled technology on display here, the likeliness of it ever reaching a wide audience isn’t very high, atleast not in the near future. Many leading Telco’s around the world have decided to merge into a pure IP network in the near future for data and voice which will fuel the expansion of FTTH, however FTTH is very much viewed as a technology for new estates and areas, not necessarily current establishments. For the lucky few who will be able to use FTTH in the near future, you can probably expect Telephone, Broadband, TV and other services delivered by a conventional highspeed connection directly to your doorstop, but for the worldwide broadband scene, I wouldn’t get your hopes up, it will be a very long time before this makes any sort of widespread impact if any at all.
Just when you think you’ve heard of every possible way to get your broadband Internet, someone comes out with a concept labeled “Stratellite”. Like Satellite technology, the concept of Stratellite Internet evolves around a broadband station in the sky with huge coverage capabilities, however unlike a Satellite, which is placed in orbit, a Stratellite in placed in the earth’s Stratosphere, 13 miles above ground.
To put the potential of Stratellite in perspective, imagine if Satellite Internet was somehow, defying the laws of physics, incredibly responsive, in the range of 20-50ms in latency. Obviously, you’d have the ultimate broadband solution on your hands – fast, responsive and as close to complete coverage as you’ll ever get. Well, unfortunately Satellite will never become this, but something else might, and that something else is Stratellite.
Since the “air ship” as it is called is only located 13 miles above ground, the distance for the data to travel is much shorter than with Satellite, so in theory the latency is comparable to existing ground level broadband solutions. On top of this, whilst the coverage is obviously not at the same level as Satellite’s due to its much lower altitude, it has been suggested that only 12 Stratellite air ships could one day be needed to cover the entire United States – metro, rural, heck even remote. This means that everyone who can see the sky above them could have complete access; the pipe dream of the broadband industry?
Like FTTH, a Stratellite is anticipated to be able to deliver a variety of services including broadband Internet, HDTV, telephone as well as 3G/4G mobile phone services. The actual technology used to deliver much of this however is a mystery, with even WiMax only being able to deliver 70Mbps in total bandwidth, one has to wonder just how, exactly, it is planned a Stratellite will be able to give potentially millions of people high speed broadband and high bandwidth HDTV at the same time, not to mention how it plans on connecting to existing networks such as an Internet backbone or a mobile phone network with a fast enough link. Nevertheless, this is a serious technology that could prove to be the sleeper out of the draft class.
Once again the lack of concrete information is the only problem stopping the Stratellite concept from becoming the clear leader for tomorrow’s broadband. It is hard to tell at this point how economical it will be maintaining such a hard to reach beast. Sanswire, who are the leading force behind Stratellite’s, suggest each air ship is designed to stay in its exact location for 12 months, after which it will then be replaced by another air ship. Whilst it is true this may be more of a hassle than Satellites, which typically last in orbit much longer, the ability to directly manage a Stratellite gives it a huge advantage for upgrades and repairs, but only time will tell just how viable it is having such a small life span. At this point in time, the cost of each air ship is also uncertain, but one could only presume its costs will far outweigh that of a wireless base station, which could one day deliver the same services and coverage.
The final word on Stratellite: Probably the most “far out there” concept in this roundup, Stratellite is actually much closer to reality than what you may think, Sanswire insist they will extensively trial a real air ship in January 2005 after a successful demonstration of the technology already completed in 2004. This is a promising technology that could combine the best of Satellite and wired Internet – fast, low latency and hugely widespread, atleast in theory. Whilst it is still unclear how exactly a floating broadband hub could haul its data back down to earth wirelessly with acceptable bandwidth keeping in mind its potential ability to serve millions of people at a time, rest assured this is a prime candidate for tomorrow’s broadband world. Whether or not it will get the industry support required however is yet to be seen.
DSL is by far the most popular broadband solution currently in existence, usually in the form of ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line). The reason being is its low cost, high performance and for some people, its high availability. Unfortunately however, many people can not receive DSL services because of many potential factors, including distance from exchange, line type, the equipment the line passes through and so on. This has forced many customers to look elsewhere for their high speed connections, often failing to find any other suitable alternative.
ADSL2 and ADSL2+ are here to try and set ADSL back on the right track, by not only bringing better distance reach to the table, but by also bringing much higher speeds. For instance, ADSL2 will scale up to 12Mb/s, compared to the current 8Mb/s max of ADSL, and will reach a further 600 feet from the exchange than what ADSL currently can. ADSL2+ will scale up to 25Mb/s and should be able to reach a total of 5000 feet from its exchange, which is roughly 1.5KM’s. The way ADSL2 achieves these enhancements is by more efficient signal processing algorithms and by adding further downstream bandwidth, 0.14 to 1.1MHz for ADSL2 and 0.14 to 2.2MHz for ADSL2+.
On top of this, Like ISDN lines, ADSL2 can multiplex lines together to create further bandwidth which will certainly spell the end of E1/T1 connections should it become widely available. To think, a business could have 100Mbit ADSL2+ by simply bonding 4 copper lines together, or heck, maybe even more. Of course strict distance limits apply for ideal ADSL2+ (5000 feet), but the potential is certainly there for some serious bandwidth.
Of course, ADSL2 is going to be far more home-user driven than ADSL2+ which appears to be designed for business connections, so a further 600 feet (0.18KM) doesn’t sound like much at all really, and it isn’t, but we must remember that is under the best conditions of 12Mb/s, so at comparable speeds to current ADSL, say 1.5Mb/s, the distance should (hopefully) equate to much more, but whether or not that makes a considerable impact will have to be seen, it is suggested that each ADSL2 application could be given a max speed at almost any realistic distance, even if it ends up slower than ISDN. However sometimes distance isn’t the only issue for prospective ADSL customers, as mentioned earlier line type and certain equipment on lines can prevent ADSL, which ADSL2 doesn’t seem to address.
Experts predict that ADSL2/+ will bring the service beyond just broadband and telephone, including other services such as HDTV with the increased bandwidth. On top of this, ADSL2/+ also has the ability to become completely digital, removing the POTS portion of the frequency spectrum, hence removing the voice capabilities, adding an extra 256Kb/s of bandwidth to the data connection. This is comparable to IDSL, which is 144K ISDN without the 16K D channel normal ISDN has for call handling, however obviously the technology on hand with ADSL2 is far superior.
The final word on ADSL2: Is it too little too late for DSL? Only time will tell just how efficient ADSL2 will be at offering a better service to a wider range of customers. The impression given is that ADSL2 is really more of an addon to the current ADSL rather than a completely new revolution; whilst it sounds fantastic for current ADSL users to upgrade to, it doesn’t seem to seriously address the issue of ADSL reach. ADSL2 hardware, depending on your location, could be available right now, and the service itself may be as well with trials underway worldwide, but the fact remains you’d still have to be quite lucky to get it if you currently can’t get ADSL.
Out of what we covered here today, it is hard to pick any one as the definite solution for tomorrow’s world of broadband; when it comes down to it, each technology is very much racing towards the finish line, with the winner being defined as the first technology that can adequately deliver speedy, cost effective and easily accessible broadband. Even if such a technology can be implemented widespread it is likely we’ll keep seeing more and more methods to truly blanket as much of the World as possible, after all the broadband market is far from its peak and there is always room for competition where ever physically possible. It is an exciting time for prospective and current broadband users, even if your high speed haven isn’t directly in your sight, you can atleast rest easy knowing it is only a matter of time.