Political leaders have a fine line to tread when it comes to declaring their policy ambitions for future broadband rollout. Businesses and individuals expect to hear about faster speeds, and more widespread availability. The service providers who will deliver it need to champion realistic expectations, preferably under a regulatory regime that offers complete certainty.
You can’t blame the European Commission for trying to set the bar high. In its latest draft proposal published in September, EC President Jean-Claude Juncker has set out a more nuanced set of aspirations than we’ve seen before. Geared to the year 2025, the new strategy supersedes earlier targets for 2020, and should begin its passage through the European Parliament imminently. All being well, it could be adopted by early 2018.
Reading between the lines, what’s striking is how it makes the case for a specific set of next generation broadband access technologies. In other words, to make the aspiration a reality, it is abundantly clear which new technologies the EC is effectively asking service providers to deploy. By the same token, without naming any names, it calls out other technologies as obsolete.
By the way, I don’t think any of this contradicts the European Commission’s constitutional commitment to technology neutrality. If the EC wanted citizens to eat more Omega 3 oils, then it would be a boon for fisheries and nut producers, and one in the eye for someone else. Aspirations naturally qualify appropriate means of realising them, at the expense of others.
At the centre of the new broadband proposals is a target to guarantee 100Mbit/s connectivity for all households throughout the European Union by 2025 – a significant uplift from the current 2020 target of 30Mbit/s for all. Crucially, it specifies that these connections must have an evolutionary path towards 1Gbit/s broadband services. Hence, the EC is able to describe its plan as the strategy for ‘a European Gigabit Society’.
Gigabit services are a commercial reality today, and a booming one at that. According to a Viavi report published in August, there are more than 500 Gigabit broadband deployments worldwide, and the number is expected to rise significantly in the future. The majority, however, are situated in urban centres. The question is how to make these financially viable and technically sustainable for suburban, rural and ‘hard-to-reach’ areas too.
VDSL access networks cannot meet this requirement, even with vectoring and super-vectoring improvements. Even G.fast networks – when situated at the roadside cabinet – can’t cut the mustard when it comes to Gigabit scalability in most residential scenarios, achieving the benchmark over tens of metres whereby the average distances between cabinets and homes in the EU can run into the hundreds of metres. Copper-based broadband access networks have been the packhorse for two decades of digital enablement, but their time – according to the EC – is all but at an end.
The one exception to this is where G.fast technology is deployed closer to homes, either from the distribution point (so-called FTTdp) or within multi-tenanted premises (Fibre-to-the-Building). These are deep fibre deployments, but they enable the service provider some latitude to continue exploiting existing copper assets, and defer the digging and installation costs associated with new Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH) infrastructure to a more commercially sensitive point in time. Service providers can mix and match access technologies within the same locality by taking advantage of flexible broadband access platforms that support both G.fast and FTTH service delivery. This enables service providers to effectively guarantee the upgrade path from 100Mbit/s to 1Gbit/s, either by maintaining the subscriber on their G.fast connection (where this is viable) or migrating them to FTTH.
The new EC targets will also be music to the ears of the international bodies who have finished ratifying the latest generation of passive optical network (PON) and cable (DOCSIS) standards. Look away now if you can’t stand acronyms, or say hello to the likes of NG-PON2 and XGS-PON if you can. These are robust technologies that absolutely support the stated EC aspiration of ‘very-high-capacity’ networks.
The big question in all of this is, why should service providers pay any attention? Can’t they just carry out deploying the infrastructure they wish? First of all, any available government funding from member states (for example, to support rollouts in underserved areas where market forces have failed) will have these strings attached. Secondly, these are good, positive aspirations – not to mention, very sensible technology choices – and not a million miles from what large European service providers already privately enthuse about in their long term roadmaps. Thirdly, unlike the previous targets, aspects of the proposals are planned to be legally binding and inserted into legislation. Precisely how that legislation works in practice is a matter for the European Parliament and the courts, but we could see a situation where individual member states have a greater set of proverbial sticks and carrots than ever before with which to encourage change.
How likely is it that the proposed EC strategy will stick? “There is very broad support for these proposals, so I expect they will go through the process very quickly,” said telecoms regulatory expert and former advisor to the Commission, Tony Shortall of consultancy firm Telage, speaking at the recent ADTRAN Connect EMEA event. Deployment and upgrade programs already underway for SuperVectoring or cabinet launched G.fast are likely do be largely complete before these draft proposals are enshrined into EU legislation, thus providing operators the space to apply the targets to subsequent network upgrades and expansions.
The runners and riders are lining up. It’s time for service providers to place their bets.