The Natural Evolution of Technology

I’ve been thinking lately about the future of current broadband technologies. What might the broadband world look like in twenty years?

The future of broadband technology will be driven by the continued growth in broadband demand, both in the amount of bandwidth we use and in the broadband speeds the public will demand. Technologies that can’t evolve to keep up with future demand will fade away – some slowly and some virtually overnight.

I don’t think it’s a big stretch to say that within twenty years that fiber will be king. There is a huge national push to build fiber now, with huge funding from federal and state grants, but also unprecedented amounts of commercial investment in fiber. Fiber will be built in a lot of rural America through subsidies and in a lot of small and medium towns because it makes financial sense. The big challenge will continue to be urban neighborhoods where fiber construction costs are high. Twenty years from now we’ll look back on today as the time when we finally embraced fiber, much like we look back twenty years ago when DSL and cable modems quickly killed dial-up.

It goes without saying that telephone copper will be dead in twenty years. To the extent copper is still on poles it will be used to support overlashed fiber. DSL will serve as the textbook posterchild about how technologies come and go. DSL is already considered as obsolete, a mere twenty years after introduction to the market. In twenty more years, it will be a distant memory.

I don’t see a big future for rural WISPs. These companies will not fare well in the fierce upcoming competition with fiber, low-orbit satellite, and even fixed cellular. Some stubborn WISPs will hang on with small market penetrations, but research into new and better radios will cease as demand for WISP services fade. The smart WISPs are going to move into towns and cities. WISPs willing to adapt to using millimeter-wave radios can grab a decent market share in towns by offering low prices to consumers who value price over big bandwidth. I predict that WISPs will replace DSL as the low-price competitor against the large ISPs in towns and cities.

Low orbit satellites will still serve the most remote customers in twenty years – but this won’t be the technology of choice due to what will be considered in the future as very slow bandwidth. Two decades from now, a 150 Mbps download connection is going to feel like today’s DSL. The satellite companies will thrive in the third world where they will be the ISP of choice for most rural customers. Interestingly, when I look out forty years, I think it’s likely that residential satellite broadband will fade into history. It’s hard to envision this technology can have a forty-year shelf life in a world where broadband demand continues to grow.

The technology that is hard to predict is cable broadband. From a technology perspective, it’s hard to see cable companies still wanting to maintain coaxial copper networks. In twenty years, these networks will be 70 years old. We don’t talk about it much, but age affects coaxial networks even more than telephone copper networks. Over the next decade, cable companies face a hard choice – convert to fiber or take one more swing at upgrading to DOCSIS 4.0 and its successors. It’s hard to imagine the giant cable companies like Comcast or Charter making the decision to go all fiber – they will worry too much about how the huge capital outlay will hurt their stock prices.

I expect there will still be plenty of coaxial networks around in twenty years. Unfortunately, I foresee that coaxial copper will stay in the poorest urban neighborhoods and smaller rural towns while suburbs and more affluent urban neighborhoods will see a conversion to fiber. For anybody who doesn’t think that can happen, I pointto AT&T history of DSL redlining. Cable companies might even decide to largely abandon poorer neighborhoods to WISPs and municipal fiber overbuilders, similar to the way that AT&T recently walked away from DSL.

It’s easy to think of technologies as being permanent and that any broadband technology used today will be around for a long time. One only has to look at the history of DSL to see that broadband technologies can reach great success only to be obsolete within just a few decades. We’re going to see the evolution of technology for as long as the demand for broadband continues to grow. Much of the technology being touted today as broadband solutions will quietly fade into obscurity over the next twenty years.

This is the biggest reason why I think that only technologies that can be relevant a decade or two from now should be eligible for federal grant funding. It’s shortsighted to give tax dollars to technologies that are not likely to be relevant in the somewhat near future. We saw a great example of that with the CAF II program that funded already-obsolete DSL. More recently saw federal grant money going to Viasat and to rural WISPs in the CAF II reverse auction. There are smarter ways to spend valuable tax dollars.


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