Fit for Purpose Networks – ‘There is more to life than increasing its speed.’

"Aerobic exercise - public demonstration05" by myself - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia CommonsThe UK Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) hit the national headlines last week by claiming that the UK’s broadband network is not fit for purpose, with the current network holding back the growth of FSB member companies and the UK economy.

So what training does the FSB propose in order to get the UK’s unfit network back into shape?

Speed, speed and more speed. And nothing else.

Within the BBC article, the FSB is calling on the government to commit to delivering a minimum of 10Mbps for all homes and businesses by 2018/19, with an increase to 100Mbps by 2030. As highlighted by John Allan, chairman of the FSB; “The fact that we have around 45,000 businesses still on dial-up is unacceptable and many more throughout the country, even in London, are receiving poor service.”

Although one would argue that a UK business still operating on dial-up in 2014 says a lot about the business owner and as well as the broadband network, this dial-up number is certainly unacceptable. However, the FSB is wide of the mark in viewing higher speed targets as the magic fix.

Indeed, in light of the Broadband Stakeholder Group’s November 2013 report stating that median households ‘will require bandwidth of 19Mbps by 2023,’ the FSB’s foreseen 71Mbps jump in demand in the seven years to 2030 looks questionable.

Furthermore, through researching with industry for the past month it is becoming clear that the idea of over provisioning on speed as the key to network performance is one that is running out of steam.

Many regard UK and EU government-enforced broadband speed targets as contributing to the problem, not solving it, with viewpoints such as; ‘If you go faster and faster, eventually you are going to run out of road,’ and ‘engineers are looking at this black hole of money thinking ‘there must be another way?!’, highlighting that there is a resistance to blindly increasing speeds.

What is really needed, and where I feel the debate is headed, is the development of truly fit-for-purpose broadband networks. These require working in a smarter way within current speeds and making networks more resilient.

But, what can we do to create a smarter network in a world where the money has run out?

Other than letting networks clog up or increasing prices to nose-bleed inducing levels to limit demand, one potential fit-for-purpose solution I have been directed to is the development of Demand Attentive Networks (DAN).

As championed by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), DAN is a new fit-for-purpose network philosophy that could achieve the perception of unlimited bandwidth through a combination of technical standards, network architecture and smart regulation organising the demand for bandwidth in real time.

With high speed capacity not being needed everywhere and at all times, DAN sees future networks as being attentive to the bandwidth demand being placed upon them and providing sufficient resources to meet the demand at the time.

However, big commercial issues could exist around implementing DAN for service providers, with aspects such as schedulability potentially adding an interesting angle to the ongoing consumer net neutrality debate.

Indeed, while DAN is a very interesting potential technical solution in the evolution to fit-for-purpose networks, the consumer engagement and marketing angle around fit-for-purpose networks could be just as interesting.

In the move away from speed and towards fit-for-purpose, engineers will need to engage marketers to evolve product messaging to help consumers and enterprises lose their addiction to speed and educate the public of this new network reality.

On this point, last week a parallel was drawn for me with the digital camera industry. With the genesis of the megapixel, consumers witnessed a war of attrition between manufacturers about which camera had the most megapixels.

Now however, with there being diminishing returns in the difference between 16 and 17 megapixel cameras, digital camera companies are now focussing their marketing messages around different product features – shutter speed, accuracy, image stability etc.

This should now be the same for communication service providers in the near future, with an evolution away from selling speed and a move towards messaging attached to other network features such as the guaranteed delivery of Netflix or low latency Xbox Live gameplay (within certain parameters).

This gradual and underlying shift in the industry debate is something that we are taking a keen interest in here at the BBWF and is something that we will be able to make an announcement on very soon.

Until then, we will continue to investigate how we can remove the addiction to speed, address underlying fit-for-purpose problems within networks and meet the future bandwidth challenge head on.

What do you think? Do you want to be fit-for-purpose or is speed the key?


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