Do We Really Need “Superfast” Broadband?
By Keith Oddy, ISPreview UK | July 27th, 2014
Do we really need 1Mbps, 10Mbps, 100Mbps or even 1000Mbps (1Gbps) of Internet download and upload speed to enjoy the online world? It’s an interesting question and one with many different answers, usually depending upon both your perspective and personal expectations. But how much Internet speed is really enough?
Some of us still recall the dreaded days of 30-50Kbps (0.03-0.05Mbps) narrowband dialup, where a trek into the online world usually started with series of whistles and crunches from a small box (modem) next to your computer and a minute or so later you’d be connected. Back then it wasn’t uncommon for websites to take a minute or two to load, assuming they didn’t fail first, and even small file downloads could take hours, with some needing days or occasionally weeks to complete. A dire existence by modern standards, perhaps, but at the time this was considered normal.
Back in the days of dialup the idea of streaming even standard definition quality video online was something that only those able to spend £20,000 on a 2Mbps Leased Line could envisage and that would quickly clog up the network for hundreds of workers, yet today almost everybody has this ability. How times have changed.
Mercifully the modern Internet, after initially being revolutionised by the first-generation of affordable ADSL and cable (DOCSIS) based broadband connections at the start of this century, is much improved. Today most websites feel practically instant to load, while the wealth and quality of online content is vastly improved.
In fact you can still do almost everything you want online with a stable connection of 2 Megabits per second, provided you don’t mind waiting or doing it in a lower quality, so why even bother going faster? Obviously anybody hoping to stream a good HD video/TV show or wanting to get other things, such as big file transfers, done in a shorter period of time will laugh at that. Plus what’s HD today will be 4K tomorrow and then 8K after that.
At the same time many of us have perhaps become conditioned by our perceptions and experiences of current Internet technology to expect and accept delays and waiting times as normal.
Speed vs Need
Back when dialup was king a big website that loaded in 20-30 seconds was considered “fast” because that was the norm and then broadband came along to make it virtually instant, which is now the new norm. Perceptions change as technology evolves. Today the UK Government has defined “superfast broadband” as being connections able to deliver Internet download speeds of “greater than 24 Megabits per second“, which rises to 30Mbps for Europe’s universal 2020 Digital Agenda target.
Meanwhile a recent report from Cable Europe predicted consumer demand for broadband ISP download speeds will reach 165Mbps (plus uploads of 20Mbps) by the same date as the EU’s target and some others suggest that we should be setting our sights even higher and aiming to achieve 1000Mbps+. Naturally all of this takes money and usually the faster you go the more it costs to build and deliver (a national 1Gbps+ fibre optic network might need £20bn-£30bn to deploy), which is one of the main reasons why progress has been so slow.
Next to all this there’s no shortage of reports and ISPs telling us that most people will only “need” a much slower speed, such as this BSG study which suggested that a “median household” might only require bandwidth of 19Mbps (Megabits per second) by 2023. Never the less when we survey readers to find out what they want, most people always end up picking the fastest options. Naturally if you could buy a Supercar today then many probably would, so long as they could afford it.
Admittedly 24-30Mbps+ of speed is enough to run several HD video streams at the same time, while a 20-50GB (GigaByte) video game download over Steam or Xbox Live etc. could be done within just a few hours. In fact this is even enough to view a stable 4K video stream over Netflix, so long as nobody else is trying to gobble your bandwidth at the same time. Modern connections also have pretty good latency, which should be fine for playing games.
Make Everything Instant
So why go faster? Firstly it takes time, years in fact, to build out a new infrastructure and what is fast today will just as assuredly be deemed slow tomorrow. In other words, if you’re expecting to need a lot more speed in the future then it’s perhaps best to get started now than wait until tomorrow has arrived.
People might not all “need” that speed yet but the infrastructure should be there to support whatever they want, be it 20Mbps or 2000Mbps, and right now the only way to get that is by building a true fibre optic network (FTTH/P). Granted most of us will be happy with the hybrid-fibre solutions that are currently being rolled out but, as above, we need to be ready before tomorrow arrives and some of today’s hybrid solutions have big limits.. especially at distance (FTTC).
Meanwhile we’re all still conditioned to expect a delay. Every time you download a big multi-GigaByte file or attempt to upload a complex new drawing to a business contact, there’s a delay. Sometimes it’s a few seconds, others it can be minutes and for some it’ll be hours. A huge transfer will almost always attract some delay (especially if you’re the one uploading because upstream traffic is usually much slower). Time is what makes speed matter.
However one of these days we’d like it to be instant or at least as close to that as possible. For example, in an ideal world a 20GB game download wouldn’t take hours or even minutes, it would instead be done only moments after your click. No more long waits. So perhaps when next a telecoms company says “nobody needs more than xx Megabits per second” we should respond by saying, “Kindly be quiet! I want everything to be instant, now make it so“.
The problem is we’d also expect this to be affordable and thus it won’t happen, at least not for most of us and probably not for many more years, and even if it did then by the time you could achieve that the 20GB would have become 200GB or 2000GB and you’d be back to square one. But wouldn’t it be nice if, just for once, we built a national infrastructure that was way ahead of expectations and delivered Gigabits of speed no matter how far you lived from your local node / street cabinet.
Some providers are doing this already (e.g. Hyperoptic, CityFibre), albeit to a much smaller scale and focused on more viable urban areas, yet making the investment case for a 100% national deployment is much harder (you have to cater for sparse communities too) and we can’t blame some for choosing the halfway house of hybrid-fibre. It’s quick to roll-out, comparatively cheap and should help to plug the performance gap for most people. But it’s also likely to need significantly more investment in the future.
Now, does anybody have a few billion pounds going spare so we can do the job properly and keep it affordable?