A client asked me recently for an update on all of the technologies used today to deliver broadband. The last time I talked about this topic with this client was three years ago. As I talked through each technology, it struck me that every technology we use for broadband is better now than three years. We don’t spend enough time talking about how the vendors in this industry keep improving technology.
Consider fiber. I recently have been recommending that new fiber builders consider XGS-PON. While this technology was around three years ago it was too expensive and cutting edge at the time to consider for most ISPs. But AT&T and Vodaphone have built enough of the technology that the prices for the hardware have dropped to be comparable to the commonly used GPON technology. This means we now need to start talking about FTTP as a 10-gigabit technology – a huge increase in capacity that blows away every other technology. Some improvements we see are more subtle. The fiber used for wiring inside buildings if far more flexible and bendable than three years ago.
There have been big improvements in fixed wireless technology. Some of this improvement is due to the FCC getting serious about providing more spectrum for rural fixed wireless. During the last three years, the agency has approved CBRS spectrum and white space spectrum that is now being routinely used in rural deployments. The FCC also recently approved the use of 6 GHz WiFi spectrum that will add even more horsepower. There have also been big improvements in the radios. One of the improvements that isn’t mentioned is new algorithms that speed up the wireless switching function. Three years ago, we talked about high quality fixed wireless speeds of 25 Mbps to 50 Mbps and now we’re talking about speeds over 100 Mbps in ideal conditions.
All three major cellular carriers are in the process of building out a much-improved fixed cellular broadband product. This has also benefited from new bands of frequencies acquired by the cellular carriers during the last three years. Three years ago, any customer with a cellular hotspot product complained about slow speeds and tiny monthly data caps. The new products allow for much greater monthly usage, up to unlimited and speeds are better than three years ago. Speeds are still largely a function of how far a home is from the closest cell site, so this product is still dreadful for those without good cellular coverage – but it means improved broadband with speeds up to 50 Mbps for many rural households.
Three years ago, the low-orbit satellites from Starlink were just hype. Starlink now has over 1,000 satellites in orbit and is in beta test mode with customers reporting download speeds from 50 Mbps to 150 Mbps. We’re also seeing serious progress from One Web and Jeff Bezos’s Project Kuiper, so this industry segment is on the way to finally becoming a reality. There is still a lot of hype, but that will die when homes can finally buy the satellite broadband products – and when we finally understand speeds and prices.
Three years ago, Verizon was in the early testing stage of fiber-to-the-curb. After an early beta test and a pause to improve the product, Verizon is now talking about offering this product to 25 million homes by 2025. This product uses mostly millimeter-wave spectrum to get from the curb to homes. For now, the speeds are reported to be about 300 Mbps, but Verizon says this will get faster.
We’ve also seen big progress with millimeter-wave mesh networks. Siklu has a wireless product that they tout as an ideal way to bring gigabit speeds to a small shopping district. The technology delivers a gigabit connection to a few customers and the broadband is then bounced from those locations to others. Oddly, some companies are talking about using this product to satisfy the rural RDOF grants, which is puzzling since the transmission distance is only a quarter-mile and also requires great line-of-sight. But expect to see this product pop up in small towns or retail districts all over the country.
Cable company technology has also improved over the last three years. During that time, a lot of urban areas saw the upgrade to DOCSIS 3.1 with download speeds now up to a gigabit. CableLabs also recently announced DOCSIS 4.0 which will allow for symmetrical gigabit plus speeds but which won’t be available for 3-5 years.
While you never hear much about it, DSL technology over copper has gotten better. There are new versions of G.Fast being used to distribute broadband inside apartment buildings that is significantly better than what was on the market three years ago.
Interestingly, the product that got the most hype during the last three years is 5G. If you believe the advertising, 5G is now everywhere. The truth is that there is no actual 5G yet in the market yet and this continues to be marketing hype. The cellular carriers have improved their 4G networks by overlaying new spectrum, but we’re not going to see 5G improvements for another 3-5 years. Unfortunately, I would bet that the average person on the street would say that the biggest recent telecom breakthrough has been 5G, which I guess shows the power of advertising and hype.