Do we Really Need Superfast, Hyperfast, Ultrafast Broadband?

When shopping around for the best broadband deals, what’s the first thing you look for?

On moneysupermarket.com broadband packages are evaluated by provider, price, package, speed and usage. With so many providers it can be a really hard choice! Especially if, like me, you’re not clear on what your average internet usage actually looks like…

BT advertising fibre upgrades
BT advertising fibre upgrades

What we’re told, at least through advertising, is that faster internet is better internet. Internet providers worldwide have been actively advertising upgrades to fibre as a way to shout about the faster internet they can offer you.

I even got a letter last week from my internet provider to let me know my internet will be speeding up to with no extra cost to me.

Brilliant!

But the question that came to my mind was do we need really these faster speeds?

In preparation for the Broadband World Forum this year, I recently spoke to Doug Williams who works in the strategic arm of BT trying to answer some of the most challenging problems facing operators today. Such as can operators realistically keep offering faster speeds and more bandwidth for the same or lower prices? Is it something they need to do to remain competitive? Or are they simply preparing for a future with higher demand?

Doug was telling me that he and his team have been working to model future demand levels.

Doug Williams
Doug Williams, Project Manager, BT

“When developing solutions and technologies it first makes sense to have a good understanding of the root causes of bandwidth demand and of how they develop over the years. My team within BT has been studying new broadband related applications and services for some years.  Many of the applications that have emerged have surprised us; we didn’t really predict Facebook nor twitter and we didn’t guess that there’s be a fascination in 4 minute home movies such as you find on YouTube.  Nostra Damus we are not.   But, and it is an important but; we are very focused on the reality of bandwidth demand these new services create. If you work through that thinking for all the services you think are likely you start to develop a view of how much bandwidth a household will need.  And that can inform answers to questions like “do we need G.Fast yet?”

I was fascinated by his work so thought I’d ask a couple more questions to share some of his insights with you:

So Doug, what do you think future demands for speed and bandwidth look like?

“That’s the question! As I have said, I am no Nostra Damus, but based on the model we have developed and the assumptions we are using, yes we see demand rising, but we don’t foresee an inexorable exponential need for bandwidth.  There is a limit to the number of things that can go inside a household that demand significant bandwidth at any one time, and there is a limit to the amount of time we can do stuff; we still have to sleep eat and go out of the house.  So when we work the numbers through some of the answers may appear quite modest”

So why it is all operators are focusing on delivering faster speeds and more bandwidth?

“To be clear our model suggest that existing products like ADSL2+ will not be sufficient to deliver the video based service that will be so common place; there is absolutely a need for fibre based services – so right now the headline numbers are still a sensible parameter.  Looking further ahead I reckon speed, like the top speed on a sports car, will remain important in marketing.  It’s a number to which consumers are emotionally drawn so it can offer a competitive advantage at the point at which consumers are making a purchasing decision; even though, to go back to the car analogy, they may find their journeys are not completed any more quickly. ”

And what are your conclusions on G.Fast?

“It’s not a simple picture; it seems unlikely that every line will need to be upgraded to G.Fast but also entirely plausible that for some houses – like those situated so far from the cabinet that the speeds available from VDSL solutions are not significantly different from those available with ADSL – that G.Fast is an option.  Unfortunately complex geographies, physics, and economics mean the answer is not simple.  More work needs to be done.”

I have no doubt that some of you may have your own opinions on this so let us know what you think! Do you disagree with Doug or have you seen the same thing? What are your predictions for the future? We would love to hear your comments.

This topic will also be addressed in depth during the “Reinventing Broadband” track at the Broadband World Forum (21-23 October, RAI, Amsterdam)- take a look at the agenda online now for related presentations.

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