It is always nice to be exposed to the things you did not know you did not know. Such was the result of a recent conversation I had with John Cioffi, CEO and Chairman, and Steve Timmerman (News - Alert), SVP Marketing, at ASSIA, a leading supplier of DSL solutions that I track. Let’s just say they had me with the headline of an item Timmerman recently posted, “DSL is Alive and Well.” In fact, he points to research that not only is it far from dead but it is growing globally. Who knew?
A drum roll please
Before going into my chat with ASSIA, a little context is in order. No less an authority than the Broadband Forum recently released market statistics gathered by Point Topic. The highlights were:
- Broadband growth of 12.3 percent annually is the largest increase in the last five years.
- For the year, 65,493,596 lines were added, bringing the worldwide total to 597, 322, 636, a quarterly increase in the final quarter of 2011 of 2.6 percent.
- IPTV (News - Alert), the driver of the need for speed, now has 58.2 million subscribers with explosive growth in places like China and Russia being experienced along with growth in Europe.
While all of this is good news, more interesting is the makeup of these broadband connections. As the chart below shows it remains predominantly DSL.
Source (News - Alert): Point Topic
On top of this static view is the description that there is an expectation that hybrid fiber/DSL deployment solutions will continue to grow because they can deliver significantly more bandwidth to users while allowing efficient re-use of existing infrastructure.
In fact, it is the business of ASSIA to help service providers improve the performance of DSL giving even more impetus to why hybrid fiber/DSL solutions will continue to flourish. The reality is that next-generation VDSL with vectoring is capable of extending the life of existing copper plant by delivering speeds in excess of 100Mbps, and is the perfect complement for provisioning broadband from fiber-to-the-curb into homes and businesses. In short, it is a lot cheaper than digging, giving operators a much improved return-on-investment along with capabilities that are future ready for the quite some time. ASSIA, with over 60 million lines under contract, knows from whence they speak.
Thinking about Electronic Bundling
The above validated what I knew about the market. I will admit I was not fully aware that DSL deployments are performing so well in replacing POTs lines or the optimistic trajectory for continued growth. What caught my interest was when Cioffi and Timmerman introduced me to the concept of “Electronic Bundling.”
This is an answer to the cellular offload challenge that is worth a look. As Cioffi stated, “Cellular networks cannot handle the coming explosion of data.” Indeed, despite better compression, deployment of femto cells (especially to accommodate the needs of the heaviest users), more efficient spectrum usage, etc. (that will be on display here in the U.S. at the coming CTIA (News - Alert) show in New Orleans), there are absolute limitations that must be addressed. The reality is that putting aside “throttling” and new pricing models for macro-cellular services, offloading to a wireless network that is connected to a wired one is an imperative. Cioffi added, “doing so to Wi-Fi is the obvious solution.” The reasons cited are its low cost, increasing pervasiveness and high capacity.
I got the low cost and pervasive parts. The kicker was high capacity. The two executives next described what electronic bundling is and how it can very inexpensively, in conjunction with DSL, provide an impressive amount of capacity. How so? I will be brief.
“Electronic unbundling” refers to the practice of unbundling the broadband capacity from each consumer’s subscription in a neighborhood and sharing it among participating users. It is capable of delivering 1Gbps and at marginal cost. Below is ASSIA’s view of what such a network would look like.
Here is the explanation of the benefits which have been extracted from a briefing sheet ASSIA provided.
DSL’s speeds have increased to 100’s of Mbps on a single line at 1km length of copper. A Wi-Fi connection when operating properly in a single 20MHz channel also can carry about 100 Mbps. Thus, the copper/Wi-Fi aggregate bandwidth easily can be 100’s of Mbps to share among the participating broadband consumers. For instance, there are 22 20-MHz-wide WiFi (News - Alert) channels in the 2.4 GHz and 5GHz unlicensed bands in the USA. If, say, 10 DSL/WiFi connections participate on 10 of these channels, each at 100 Mbps, then the total data rate available is 1 Gbps. Twenty such channels, each carrying 200 Mbps (which is possible on the so-called phantom DSLs that use two lines or four pairs of copper) and full 802.11n multi-antenna WiFi of 200 Mbps or more could carry 4 Gbps. All is possible without a single strand of fiber within one km of the consumer.
The incremental cost of each consumer having this capability is well below $100, as compared to the thousands of dollars that fiber – minimally – costs in PON per customer (and at a shared data rate limited to less than 1 Gbps in either direction), which is less than what the 10-20 copper DSL connections can provide with the electronic unbundled help of WiFi.
It is critical to note that neither the WiFi nor the DSL alone is better than fiber, but together they can provide a nearly immediate and cost-effective large bandwidth increase that could be electronically allocated to any unbundled service/application provider.
All of that being said, a good way to think of this is that at very low cost consumers could do with bandwidth what many have touted as a raison d'etre for putting in solar panels, e.g., to sell excess capacity back to the power company.
Interest and hurdles in a game-changer
While conceptually simple, getting to a world where neighborhoods can group together to leverage electronic unbundling still needs to overcome some hurdles. ASSIA is working with several interested parties on overcoming them and has an interesting list as to what they are:
- Broadband access link optimization: Each broadband access link, usually DSL, needs active management to produce stable, high-speed performance.
- Wi-Fi/Wireless optimization: Multiple, high-speed wireless links will require active management to ensure maximum utilization of available spectrum.
- Multiple Simultaneous Service Set Identifier (SSID) support: Residential wireless access points (WAPs) will need to support simultaneously multiple SSIDs so that a consumer can reserve part of their wireless broadband capacity for themselves while offering excess broadband via a separate SSID. ASSIA says that most enterprise-grade WAPs already support dual or multiple SSIDs, but the functionality is not routinely offered in consumer-grade WAPs.
- Multiple transceiver support: Establishing multiple, simultaneous Wi-Fi and other unlicensed wireless data links requires multiple transceivers in both the mobile device (smartphone, tablet, etc.) and the WAP. Hardware advances and software development have made “software-defined radios” increasingly practical for such applications.
- Market exchange for broadband: Although the sharing of excess broadband could be arranged easily by informal communication within a neighborhood, an “online broadband exchange” would facilitate the process.
What Cioffi and Timmerman also noted was that the business model that enables mobile service providers to capture the revenues from sessions that are predominately off-loaded will be an issue where the wired carrier is not somehow affiliated with the cellular provider.
Is there interest in electronic unbundling? You bet there is. In fact, with predictions of a “cellular data apocalypse,” about to hit the global airwaves, interest is keen in finding solutions in the face of data overload that are financially viable for service providers and consumers alike. Private conversations about precisely what to do about this at CTIA should be fascinating. Oh to be a fly on the wall!
As I stated at the top, who knew?
Edited by Rich Steeves