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Broadband World Forum 2016 Conference Report

Broadband WorldForum logoBBWF is a major event for wireline networks, both cable and traditional telephone/broadband. Held in the London’s ExCel centre, it was co-located with the Virtual Reality World next door, with free exhibition passes available for both. Key themes were the growth of on-demand video, deployment of G.Fast to provide ever faster speeds on local loop copper wires alongside the growing customer dissatisfaction with their in-home Wi-Fi.

There seemed to be a more focussed participation this year, with less of the IoT crowd promoting their wide range of alternative radio interfaces for smart homes and the like. The major exhibitors were either showing off higher speed wireline networks (G.Fast in particular) or more configurable customer premises equipment (the virtual CPE concept being particularly popular).

Operationally, the show is very well produced and executed by KNect365, part of the Informa group.

Keynote speakers included this "fireside chat" interview with Gavin Patterson, CEO of BT.

BBWF Gavin Patterson

On-Demand Video is the key growth driver

There’s no doubt that data consumption growth has been mostly driven by on-demand video, such as Netflix. Kurt Rodgers of Chorus, a New Zealand wholesale broadband provider, showed a graph and explained why their planned 50% growth per year was breached in a single quarter after Netflix rolled out in Q1 2015, resulting in heavy strain, overloading and customer complaints. Heavy investment has resolved the issue and growth rates are back to a more normal 50-60% per annum. Average household broadband consumption is running at 117GBytes/month with peak traffic between 8-10pm daily.

ZTE ran a side event on this theme (the Big Video Summit), highlighting how much video we watch across all our devices. Their CTO questioned whether TCP/IP is really the best protocol to use for internet video streaming in the future – “it’s like building a 1,000 lane highway made from cobbles rather than tarmac”. They launched their TITAN flagship optical access product geared towards Terabit datarates to meet this demand.

Several fixed/cable networks set a cap of 1 TByte/month which few users would reach. Much more data is encrypted, which makes it more difficult to manage.

The crunch comes when you try to make a profit from higher speeds, at a price that covers costs - something true for any wireless or wireline business. Jack Zhu of Huawei summarised this as the ABC Curve for Business Success, shown below. Connecting everyone directly to fibre just wouldn’t be viable at the prices customers would pay.

Huawei ABC Curve

Ever faster residential broadband

UK wholesale network provide BT Openreach were keen to point out they are ready to accelerate G.Fast deployment, aiming for 140,000 homes passed by end Q1 2017 and up to 10 million by end 2020. It will be done by adding a “sidepod” to the existing street cabinets, cleverly designed so it doesn’t actually touch the ground. This not only simplifies physical installation (needing fewer technicians, groundworks) but also bypasses the need for extra planning permission. The existing power supply and fibre feed to the cabinet should suffice.

Openreach GFast Sidepod

Homes within about 300 metres range can then get the higher speeds; elsewhere a separate standalone G.Fast street cabinet would be installed to serve more remote clusters of homes. The in-home modem would then be swapped out (potentially by the homeowner themselves) and speeds between 150 and 1Gbps are feasible.

Swisscom have been first to deploy, already with 1,000 customers connected. BT will be next, having deliberately delayed awaiting the 106b standards variant that increases the range.

A panel session noted that different countries have a different mix of single vs multi-dwelling premises – the UK is about 89% single-dwelling (i.e. standalone houses vs blocks of flats), this figure is lower elsewhere.

Other countries may not benefit from a legacy of street wiring. Fixed wireless continues to be attractive for cost effective Internet service in some areas.

Wi-Fi complaints on the rise

While headline Wi-Fi datarates from the latest variants such as 802.11ac attract interest, the real world is suffering from ever poorer in-home Wi-Fi. Several speakers commented that it’s not the access network that’s throttling data today, but instead the Wi-Fi for the last few feet.

Kevin Mukai of ASSIA, who have a system to handle and manage residential Wi-Fi, reported some surprising statistics:

  • 50% of customer care calls (for wired broadband) relate to Wi-Fi problems
  • 30% of those calls result in a truck roll (ie technician visit)
  • 80% of those visits swapout the router
  • 90% of the returned routers are diagnosed “no fault found”
  • 30% of cases result in a second customer call/complaint

One reason for this is that we have many more Wi-Fi devices in our homes today – between 10 and 20 is typical. This is likely to grow to perhaps 50+ by 2020, as we install more smart home gadgets and connected devices. The coverage footprint of Wi-Fi would then suffer. The industry focus on speed, using 802.11ac to achieve 100 Mbps headline rates, hasn’t helped – there is no coverage benefit at the edge of the cell.

Operator panel sessions reinforced that the pain points in the industry have moved, with Wi-Fi now the limiting point for wired broadband (and backhaul for the mobile network).

The Wi-Fi industry is working to resolve and improve that. Qualcomm explained to me how their latest Wi-Fi chipsets take advantage of 802.11k, r and s to fix mobility issues such as sticking with a distant access point rather than switching to a closer one. These features are already supported by the latest handsets, while other techniques (such as tweaking the signal strength) are used to deceive older devices to reselect alternative access points. Other chipset vendors have also been working on similar techniques.

Several vendors have products with these features available today, and the photo shows some with Qualcomm customers.

Qualcomm powered Wi Fi APs

We can expect these Wi-Fi products to become more prevalent next year, although the question is whether all network operators will make the investment to upgrade residential customers or not. Poor customer satisfaction and the cost of handling complaints should encourage them to do so.

Many of the Asian CPE vendors had an extensive range of products on show – Sercom’s being a good example. The mobile network can also be used as a backup for when fixed broadband connections fail, with some routers even having built-in batteries so they could continue to operate during short power outages.

 

BBWF Sercom

Askey took a more focussed approach, highlighting the key themes of access modems/routers, LTE/Wireline channel bonding and Wi-Fi mesh. Bonding between fixed DSL lines and wireless LTE can boost peak data rates when required and is apparently quite popular in Germany.

BBWF Askey Wi FI Mesh

Wi-Fi standards are promised a further shake-up with the introduction of 802.11ax, which will re-engineer both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. Meanwhile, this will compete with LTE running in unlicensed (MulteFire) and shared spectrum.

Amazon’s Snowball is the modern equivalent of “pigeon post”

Amazon Web Services explained how their data centres have enabled small startups to grow on demand, efficiently scaling compute resources as required. With low latency/high capacity links, they can directly provide Cloud services to anyone, anywhere. The choice of which data centre to use is based on latency, regulatory compliance (eg keeping user data in country) and cost. They continue to grow 64% Year-on-Year and have now reached $10 Billion annual revenues.

There are several methods of providing high quality feeds to upload data into the system, such as a Persistent Connect service for broadcasting TV and Audio. But what caught my eye was the Snowball suitcase used for really large bulk uploads. With a capacity of 60 TBytes and a 10Gbps interface port, the 50 lbs box can be loaded with your encrypted data, shipped to their datacentre and uploaded into the Cloud overnight – pretty low latency perhaps but vast amount of data throughput. Handy if you need to transfer 1 Petabyte a week.

Key Takeaways

End customers continue to focus on speed (running speed tests is on the increase), which drives demand for higher bandwidth. On-demand video is the primary cause of capacity growth. G.Fast provides faster speeds and extends the life of the legacy copper twisted pair networks, competing with DOCSIS 3 from the Cable TV companies, fibre to the premises (where viable) and fixed wireless broadband in some situations.

In-home Wi-Fi has become overloaded, resulting in large numbers of complaints. Faster Wi-Fi (802.11ac) hasn’t solved the issue; smarter Wi-Fi is needed that provides seamless handover and consistent service throughout the home. This is coming next year, enabled by more intelligent routers and standards.

Residential small cells weren’t in evidence at the show, where before they were an option for customer equipment. However I do hear of continued activity elsewhere – the higher quality and consistency of wireless service they provide over some of today’s overstretched Wi-Fi continues to be an attractive benefit for some.

Next year, I understand the event will move from London to Berlin.

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