Around the world, billions of dollars are being spent trying to bring “broadband” to everyone. However, broadband is defined loosely. Some say anything over 1 megabit per second (Mbps) is broadband, while others are looking at much higher speeds. Cellular wireless defines broadband at much slower speeds than fiber to the home (FTTH), cable modem or digital subscriber line (DSL) service. For the real world of the Internet today, anything less than 10 Mbps to the home or 4 Mbps over the cellular network is likely to disappoint users.

Two major shifts in Internet use have escalated the need for bandwidth. The first shift is in the nature of Internet traffic. Over the last few years, downloading video entertainment (movies, TV and short features such as YouTube content) has grown from virtually nothing to representing half of all Internet traffic. Netflix alone represented one-third of all Internet traffic in late 2011.

Netflix also had some interesting statistics on real network speeds. Since the company can measure how long it takes to download a movie, it can calculate actual Internet speeds, which are surprisingly slow. Customers using networks specified at 10–20 Mbps connection speeds are seeing actual download speeds averaging only 2–2.5 Mbps, indicating that the Internet service providers (ISPs) have not built up adequate bandwidth in their own networks to support high traffic levels that result from many users downloading big files, such as movies, at once.

Furthermore, I often check the speed of my own Internet service, a cable modem system. At 10–11 a.m., I routinely get 17–18 Mbps, but around 3–4 p.m., the speed drops to one-tenth of that, only about 2 Mbps, as everyone comes home from school or work and starts downloading entertainment for the evening.

The second shift in Internet use comes from the explosive growth of smartphones and tablets (really the iPad, since it accounts for the bulk of all tablet sales). When Apple introduced the iPhone 4, AT&T said its data traffic on its cellular network had increased 7,000 percent in the three years since the iPhone launched. Only six months later, just after the iPad was released, AT&T’s network traffic had grown another 10 times!

A fundamental change in the PC business caused this shift. Sales of desktop PCs have stagnated over the last decade as users shifted to laptops. Now many of those users are switching to smartphones and/or tablets for many of the things for which they once used their PCs, such as email, web surfing, and even creating, reading and sharing documents. These miniature devices now have the power to do most tasks that occupy users most of the time. Around the world, more smartphones are being sold than regular phones, and tablets are wildly popular. Together, they outsell PCs by more than 2-to-1.

I’ve been traveling with only an iPad and an iPhone for almost a year. Not only can I use the iPad for email, web surfing and documents, it is the best device ever invented for giving presentations using a PC projector (in my opinion). To use the iPad anywhere, all I need is wireless service. That being said, wireless service is not very predictable.

Why are wireless networks encountering the same problems? Many technology owners are using their smartphones and tablets for downloading entertainment, creating exactly the same speed problems with wireless networks, overloading networks and slowing service to a crawl. Cellular providers have actually been more open than most ISPs at admitting their networks need upgrading and are working overtime to add more bandwidth, but the same problems are affecting most Wi-Fi networks, especially in public places such as airports, convention centers, hotels, libraries, etc.

The logical conclusion is that emphasis is being put on increasing speeds of the links connecting the users, while upgrades to the rest of the network is lagging, causing major slowdowns. To use the highway analogy, we are building on/off ramps to bumpy two-lane roads. The network needs more fiber and more communications equipment, especially Wi-Fi access points. But upgrades are expensive, and fiber/cable suppliers are being pushed to their limits.

While much of the focus of expanding broadband Internet access is on the speed to the user, the installation of more network capacity is becoming an issue. To provide a reasonable level of service, networks in public places need upgrading, calling for installation of more Wi-Fi access points with better network connections and higher capacity. Contractors need to know how to design and install these network upgrades, which means not only knowing all about cabling but also about wireless systems. Today, the two technologies are inseparable.


HAYES is a VDV writer and educator and the president of The Fiber Optic Association. Find him at www.jimhayes.com.