Broadband Connection: The Most Basic of Human Needs

By John Cioffi

It is assured by law as a human right in Costa Rica, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece and Spain. It is a key part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

While most of us think of water, electricity, and gas as the basic utilities for survival, broadband connectivity is rapidly becoming one of the top – if not the top – essential service for the world’s population, providing communication with others and opportunity to grow through education, employment, and connection to so many essential information and services.

Though it seems like broadband has existed forever, the progress to this point has been fairly fast and the possibilities are incredibly exciting.

From Zero to Fast in 30 Years

Early broadband started in the 1990’s when we enabled high speed web browsers and some initial video with digital subscriber line (DSL) technology – prior to that, the average consumer’s digital-connection world was largely about e-mail and perhaps some occasional file transfer. In the early broadband days, speeds increased by nearly 1000x over those evident in the then existing voiceband network. Broadband started with wired connections before expanding to high-speed wireless data about 10 years later.

Residential broadband connection use went from zero in 1996 to 2M users in 2001 to 800M fixed-line broadband connections today, along with 2.5 – 3B broadband capable wireless connections. DSL is already running at speeds of up to 10Gbps, while the cable modems that came a few years after DSL also are now approaching those same speeds. Wireless is also on the broadband path to similar high-speed levels, with 5G initiatives to address future needs and to manage bandwidth to support them.

While broadband expansion to date has been rapid, the scale and scope of the next billion users will expand geometrically faster. These users may well be connected by drones, balloons, and other more rapidly deployable technologies. While this user expansion is ongoing, the much-discussed Internet of Things will bring tens of billions of appliances, sensors, vehicles, and other devices into the connected world, as these “things” exploit broadband’s provision of information instantaneously.

The next generation of broadband connection will be integrated into our environment, inside the home or office, inside the room, inside our vehicles, and yes – even inside our bodies – or outside as well. When we want something, it will be delivered to us. We will not know, nor care, if connections are wireless or wireline. Broadband is the heart of the upcoming artificial intelligence (AI)-powered world in which your devices learn your patterns and needs and communicate with the network to deliver on them.

While many of these communications will work well over low bandwidth, home cameras, video sensors and the like will require broadband. Today’s infrastructure is not yet equal to the task, but there are some key developments that will help us get there.

New Generation Wireless Connections

Wireless communication at increasingly higher frequency bands to wavelengths measured in millimeters and even micrometers will open incredible, yet very open spectrum for use, particularly as technologies related to large numbers of coordinated antennas mature. Speeds of 10’s to 100’s of Gbps connectivity will be possible over shorter distances, as well as longer distances when focused on a line of sight to deliver wide bandwidth to/from a local cell.

Further, wireless technologies can be deployed where there is no infrastructure by using drones, balloons, and the like and thus offering a faster way to connect all the earth’s inhabitants (and things).

New Generation Wireline (Copper) Connections – Yes, Terabit DSLs!

While some service providers continue to talk about fiber to the home, basic twisted pair keeps on giving and offers the business model we need for speed at scale.

Specifications for terabit DSL were proposed last year and are now undergoing early research testing, funded by the National Science Foundation at Brown University.

Operating in the terahertz band, terabit DSL relies on having a wire next to a wireless signal as a “wave guide” to help propagate that signal. As with many advancements in communications, the basics are there to say that this should work but we will only learn when we test under different circumstances. The potential of Terabit/s (1000 Gbps) connections to the home on the existing copper is a game changer.

If such technology works as projected, the business model is impressive. There are 1.3B twisted-pair connections globally and their upgrade to fiber would cost $3000 each on average. Upgrading all twisted pair to fiber would run roughly $4 trillion – significantly more than the annual US federal deficit. Terabit/s speeds on existing copper reduce the cost down by a factor of 20 and offer a much more attractive economic case for consumers who are willing to pay $40-$50 / month for broadband.

The Terahertz Generation

As we just see initial standards for 5G mature, some propose a Terahertz Generation or TG , centered on significant unlicensed (or possibly licensed someday) spectrum above 100GHz. While use of those frequencies today is somewhat difficult, important progress is underway to make that spectrum productive. My colleague, Andrea Goldsmith wrote an excellent post on this topic that I encourage you to read: https://marconisociety.org/the-road-ahead-for-wireless-tech/.

The new area of quantum communications is more about security than bandwidth. Nonetheless, there will be security challenges with many of these new applications and quantum communications moves security practice closer to the physical connection, which may be essential to secure and private communication for those who have need in the future. Marconi Society Young Scholar Joe Lukens of Oakridge National Laboratory has some ground-breaking work in this area and wrote about it here: https://marconisociety.org/quantum-communications/.

What Next?

As broadband connections become the backbone for more intelligent services and deliver higher speeds to more consumers, businesses should anticipate what that greater connectivity will mean for their products and their customer experience. If there is an alternative to a product or service that involves connectivity, business leaders should be thinking about moving in that direction. While retail sales is a classic example of this shift, nearly every industry will be impacted. Consider the effects on healthcare as more people have sensors in their bodies and homes. Their service provider will know about a health problem before the individual or their healthcare professional. Other service providers will know of issues/needs and address them, often long before their customers know themselves.

Tomorrow’s broadband applications will encompass nearly everything from financial services to education to vehicles to farming. It would not surprise me if pollution problems can ultimately be solved by using broadband to provide the right activities in the right places at the right times to consume excess carbon dioxide. Feeding the world is a major logistical problem and broadband can help improve food production in the developing world by an order of magnitude.

The only thing we know is that in order to survive and thrive, consumers around the world need access to broadband connections as surely, and perhaps more so, as they need food and water.