Consumer broadband habits versus next-gen services

G-PON as we know it today is rapidly approaching the end of the growth phase in its technology lifecycle, writes Adtran’s Ronan Kelly. There is a surge in gigabit broadband service offerings that began in the US and is becoming increasingly prevalent across Europe. From the consumer perspective, there is a wave of new technologies such as 4K and virtual reality, which while still in their early stages, are expected to gain significant traction in the coming years.

Whilst today’s gigabit-enabled consumer is not yet utilising the service to its full capacity, this will change in the next three to five years as applications begin to emerge that take advantage of the capacity on offer. When that happens, we will reach the tipping point where G-PON deployments are no longer prudent, and next generation PON technologies such as NGPON2 and XGS-PON become the de facto standard.

If an average consumers’ available broadband data were quadrupled today their usage patterns would not change for three to four months. This is because their experience when using online services is largely informed by service capabilities and once a better service is available it takes time to find out what they can do with it.

As upgrades are rolled out, consumers tend to continue using their bandwidth as before, albeit with a better experience, whilst slowly exploring services that were not previously usable. With that in mind, everything we are using today is largely created for the bandwidth that has been available for the last four or five years.

What’s behind the change?

Historically, bandwidth always comes before an application; nobody develops an app that needs more bandwidth than is available to the mass market, otherwise it would be useless. This is no great secret.

Look at the technologies we take for granted today, such as FaceTime, video streaming and massive attachments like photographs. We would have a very different experience trying to use them on the 1MB connections we had in 2011. But with exponentially faster bandwidth on the horizon, we are only just beginning to see what developers can create. With the emergence of cloud-first services and entertainment such as virtual reality, high quality video services like Netflix and Amazon, 4K and higher resolutions will be the norm on all screens.

If you walked into Currys two years ago you would have struggled to find more than a handful of 4K televisions available in a small premium suite. Today, however, you’re spoilt for choice on what 4K screens you can purchase, and HD TVs are tucked away in a corner. With PC displays now matching 4K resolutions, and tablets set to follow, it’s obvious that the consumer electronic manufacturers have historically driven uptake in the consumer space.

It’s true to say that it’s always a race in the consumer electronics space. The moment one manufacturer releases a tablet with 4K capabilities, the others quickly follow suit. Before you know it, the market has shifted, leaving the vast majority of consumers with 4K ready technology. Similarly, when a consumer upgrades to the iPhone 6S and starts recording video, that video is now recording in 4K. Other consumers then move to the next phone, start recording and without any conscious thought drive more change.

With screen resolution constantly increasing, and us being at the benchmark level for 4K within those screens, when people stream content via services like Netflix or Amazon they already have a 4K offering. Consumers start using these services on these devices and, by default, again start to change and influence their broadband usage behaviour.

It took HD 10 years from when it first appeared to get to the point when there was a decent amount of content available for consumers, because satellite and cable TV companies dictated its proliferation. Until they upgraded their background infrastructure, users couldn’t watch HD content on anything but a Blu Ray player. 4K is at this early stage; there is currently next to no live broadcast content yet available and all 4K offerings come via streaming.

Back when HD launched, streaming services didn’t exist. Coupled with the flat screen TV revolution, the HD capability became a common feature in lounges across the country faster than HD broadcast content was made available. Due to the absence of competing streaming services, there was no major pressure for content providers to start broadcasting in HD. It’s different now – major pressure is coming from the over-the-top (OTT) providers, which is why we’re starting to see a more rapid push from some of the dominant players, who are gearing up to have 4K content ready even though the consumers are not adopting as quickly as they did when flatscreens first became available.

The agent of change is now different. Me getting rid of the huge TV taking up space in my living room was a compelling argument to move to flatscreen, and having HD as part of that transaction was a nice bonus, but it wasn’t the primary driver for change. Now, the consumers have the flatscreen and a 4K flatscreen coming along isn’t quite as compelling, so the rate of change, unless pushed by the electronics manufacturers, will be slower. Typically TVs have a 10-15 year lifespan before they’re replaced. If we reflect on the timeline of the flatscreen revolution, the early adopters are now well in that window. Will this serve as the catalyst that accelerates 4K adoption?

While some of these factors have long been the cause of change in bandwidth speed, the surge in adoption of services from OTT services is driving demand for even higher speeds. As consumers move to 4K, they will be met with a very different experience; every TV is now smart, so more streaming content will be accessible than ever. Similarly the gaming industry now pushes consumers to download or stream games, so the distribution model for that industry has totally shifted to a cloud-based model, much like the music industry.

Looking ahead

Looking ahead there are technologies coming that will put a huge strain on the network, the connected car being at the forefront of that charge. Autonomous vehicles offer countless benefits, the most obvious being the socioeconomic impacts: with cars essentially driving themselves, the ‘driver’ takes back the productive or leisure time which had previously been lost to travel.

However, we still have a long way to go to achieve this. The capacity requirement to implement this is typically up to 27mbps per car. Take 100 square metres of London on any given day and imagine the number of cars using broadband, and you’ll quickly get a sense of the capacity that we’ll need.

With these factors in mind, it’s vital to continue to develop next-generation broadband technologies, such as,NG-PON2, XGS-PON, and, that use existing infrastructure and enable gigabit speeds in a timeframe that matches demand. As technology advances, so too must our available broadband offering. If the two cannot progress at similar speeds, or if broadband cannot keep up with the digital consumer, then society will suffer.

Ronan Kelly is CTO at Adtran and a frequent commentator on broadband issues.