Why did I miss American Pai?

The star speaker on the final day of Broadband World Forum 2017 was supposed to be FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, but he ended up blowing it out.

No explanation was offered by super-sub Don Stockdale – Chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau at the FCC – only that Pai expressed his regrets. Stockdale delivered a perfectly good keynote but we will never know whether Trump appointee Pai, who hasn’t been shy about creating headlines in his brief time in charge, would have made any contentious comments.

The essence of Stockdale’s presentation was that the current version of the FCC is all about light-touch regulation – trying to give the private sector as many tools as possible to do its thing and then getting out of the way. This philosophy manifests itself in three key ways.

Firstly the FCC wants to make as much spectrum, both licensed and unlicensed, as possible available to CSPs, then to be flexible about what it can be used for. The 600 MHz auction of broadcast spectrum was cited as one example of this as well as the freeing up of 150 MHz in the 3.4 GHz band. Now the FCC is trying to make loads of higher frequency spectrum available for all manner of 5G goodness.

Secondly the FCC want to create a regulatory environment that incentivises companies to invest in infrastructure. Apparently there has been a fair bit of moaning in the US about burdensome bureaucracy (as ever) and the FCC is currently consulting on what can be done to lighten that load.

Lastly we were told that Pai’s top priority is to ‘close the digital divide’. Apparently there are still loads of rural places in the States that don’t have access to high-speed broadband and that makes Pai sad. To help with this the FCC is going to conduct a bunch of auctions where companies can bid for public funds to help build infrastructure where previously it was considered uneconomical to do so.

To anyone who regularly listens in on Pai’s public statements there was probably nothing new there. But we don’t get much opportunity to hear directly from the FCC Chairman here in Europe and it was disappointing that he had to cancel.

NBN legitimises G.fast by adding it to the Aussie mix

Australian public broadband initiative NBN has announced it will be incorporating G.fast into its technology mix from next year.

This marks a significant endorsement of the much-maligned technology by a major infrastructure player and has been one of the talking points of Broadband World Forum 2017. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with G.fast, of course, but it has generally been viewed as a compromise move rather than going all-in on fibre-to-the-home.

“Bringing G.fast technology to the NBN access network in 2018 again shows our commitment to being at the cutting edge of emerging technologies,” said JB Rousselot, Chief Strategy Officer of NBN (pictured at BBWF 2017 above). “Adding G.fast to the toolkit for the FTTC and FTTB networks will allow us to deliver ultra-fast services faster and more cost effectively than if we had to deliver them on a full Fibre-to-the-Premises connection.

“Our FTTP and HFC end-users already have the technology to support Gigabit services and adding G.fast over FTTC provides the upgrade path for those end users to ultimately receive Gigabit speeds too.”

As we wrote previously the industry seems to have got the memo that banging on about FTTH the whole time isn’t very constructive. It remains the ideal fixed line technology but it just isn’t practical or economically viable in many cases – especially more remote locations. So the sensible approach is to be open to a mix of technologies and use the most appropriate one for the location.

NBN is a few years ahead of most infrastructure players in adopting that kind of pragmatic approach, according to Netcomm Wireless CTO Steve Collins, who we met at the show (pictured below) and whose company is one of NBN’s technology partners for this G.fast initiative. NBN is a public initiative and launched at the start of the decade with all sorts of lofty FTTH ambitions, but has since had to introduce other technologies as the sheer enormity of the task hit home.

Netcomm BBWF 2017

The other tech partners for this gig (excuse the pun) are Nokia and Adtran, who also have a conspicuous presence at the show. Nokia’s stand, in fact, seems to have been over-run the entire time and while Huawei is also here in force, Ericsson is conspicuous by its absence, but then again fixed-line isn’t really its thing.

We also caught up with Federico Guillén, President of Fixed Networks at Nokia. He has been stressing the mixed technology message at the event and said NBN’s approach is a great illustration of his point. He has been talking about ‘fibre to the most economical point’ for a while and you get a sense that he feels that’s finally paying off.

The NBN news has contributed to a general sense at this year’s show that we’ve moved on from stigmatising G.fast as a compromise technology. Yes, it allows infrastructure companies to further sweat their copper assets, but if end users are getting a good level of broadband performance – most importantly a guaranteed acceptable minimum – then what’s the problem? You can read further analysis of the NBN announcement at UBB2020.

Let’s not obsess about FTTH – Broadband World Forum 2017

The first full day of Broadband World Forum 2017 saw both operator and vendor keynote speakers explore strategies for achieving ubiquitous gigabit connectivity.

On the operator side Franz Seiser, VP of Core Network and Services at Deutsche Telekom (pictured) set the tone by urging the industry discard its legacy systems and habit in order to embrace the possibilities offered by 5G. “We can only enable the new if we throw away the old,” he said, adding that the current focus on enhanced mobile broadband is still too narrow.

Seiser also touched upon what was probably the central theme of all the morning’s talks: that it’s most unrealistic and blinkered to focus solely on FTTH as the answer to our future bandwidth needs. He noted that it would cost €80 billion to build fibre to every home in Germany, so that’s not going to happen anytime soon. To satisfy short and mid-term demand we need to be investing in technologies like G.fast and fixed wireless access.

This was echoed by the CIO of BT Group Howard Watson, when asked about G.fast, who agreed that the technology will do just fine for now, as BT has been insisting at this event for years. He spent most of his talk bigging up the work of his company and its subsidiaries EE and Openreach, as well as delivering a montage of recent BT press releases, but he also confirmed DT’s assertion that on the 5G side it’s all about eMBB for now.

The vendors were all keen to stress the multi-technology approach for satisfying bandwidth demand. Both Huawei and Nokia echoed a major theme of yesterday’s keynotes that wifi is an often-overlooked piece of the puzzle. Both companies now offer managed wifi solutions to their customers and seem to think that can be a differentiator.

Federico Guillén Nokia’s president of Fixed Networks, was especially keen to stress the need to embrace a number of technologies and strategies in order to solve tomorrow’s connectivity challenges. “The strategy of deploying fiber to the most economical point in the network is still valid, but the combination of fixed fiber, wireless and other access technologies is now even more crucial to the operator’s business case,” he said.

“Fixed networks are going to be essential for the growth of 5G, for example, as they will complement wireless for mobile transport. We will also see a combination of fibre and fixed wireless access to deliver ultra-broadband to the home using technologies such as WiGig.”

Guillén also insisted that virtualization has finally reached the mature end of the hype cycle and has become a reality, but we’re not sure all operators would share his bullish stance. He did, however, concede that virtualizing everything is not, by itself, the answer to our connectivity challenges, once more stressing the need for a hybrid approach.

The morning session concluded with a talk from Ronan Kelly, EMEA and APAC CTO of Adtran, who chose to reflect on the underlying trend of symmetry being introduced to previously asymmetrical industries, such as video entertainment being disrupted by user-generated content or the taxi industry turned on its head by Uber.

Telecoms are having to invest in capacity without getting any return because it’s all being used by OTTs that cut them out of the commercial loop – the old ‘dumb pipe’ dilemma. Kelly reckons greater flexibility of product offering – such as the ability to buy ad hoc increased bandwidth when needed – is going to be a key part of tackling that issue for CSPs.

On the whole this was a balanced, mature set of keynotes that avoided some of the buzzword hype of previous years and focused instead on looking facts in the face. Gone too is FTTH dogma, replaced by an acceptance that if alternative ‘last mile’ technologies like G.fast, DOCSIS 3.1 and FWA get people close to 1 Gbps fixed-line connectivity, then that will do for now.

Can broadband keep up with the multi-screen family?

The Broadband World Forum 2017 event opened with a panel discussion on the readiness of fixed line infrastructure to meet future challenges.

As ever, especially on the consumer side, broadband connectivity challenges focus largely on the ‘last mile’. Most developed countries are doing a decent job of installing a fibre backbone, but extending that all the way to the home – FTTH – is another matter entirely. BBWF is typically the place where technologies like G.fast get their annual moment in the spotlight as telcos fret over sating our voracious appetite for lovely data.

Gary McLaren, CTO of the Hong Kong Broadband Network, raised an interesting point in relation to Hong Kong, but which can probably be applied to much of the rest of the world too. One of the things really driving demand for bandwidth isn’t just OTT video, or even higher resolutions, but the fact the people increasingly consume that video on personal screens.

This is certainly true of the Telecoms.com household, where Mrs Telecoms.com and the little Telecoms.coms each get to satisfy their unique, and often highly questionable, viewing tastes via tablets or whatever. The result is often four or more separate video streams being demanded of the network.

Apparently in Hong Kong it’s not uncommon for families, even when sat around the same dinner table, to still be in their own little televisual worlds. We draw the line at that at the Telecoms.com dining table but are conscious of swimming against the cultural current. What happened to the good old days when we all sat together and watched the same screen without interacting with each other eh? It’s shocking what the world is coming to, we’ll be forgetting how to talk next, you mark my words.

Another issue this discussion raised was the wifi router as a significant broadband customer pain-point. With all these video streams flying about the place a dodgy router can seriously mess with the user experience. It’s all very well having gigabit speed coming into the house but if it struggles to make that final journey to the device, the punter will still be unhappy and will probably blame their CSP.

Panel moderator Ronan Kelly of Adtran, and President of the FTTH Council Europe, noted that until a year or two ago CSPs figured the router was the customer’s problem, since they’d done their bit and served the home with lashings of juicy bandwidth. But now they’ve realised it’s in their interests to ensure the entire connectivity experience is as satisfying as possible so they’re taking the whole router and managed wifi issue a bit more seriously.

We never really got round to answering the stated premise of the panel: will we be ready for 2020? But it was an interesting chat nonetheless and reminded us that for all the talk of G.fast, FTTx and FWA, the ultimate aim is to provide an experience so good that end-users don’t even need to think about their broadband provider, let alone moan about them.

BBWF 2020 panel