NBN 101: The need for speed

A look at the trends in speeds and downloads over the Internet

This article is part of Computerworld Australia's NBN 101 series, in which we take a look at the arguments surrounding the fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) network, and dissect them one by one. The articles are meant to be an overview of the debates central to the national broadband network (NBN) to give you a grounding as more and more media outlets and commentators speak out on the project. We encourage people to take the discussion further in the comments section.

In our first article we took a look at how Australia’s NBN plan compares to the rest of the world. This time we strap in for a tour of speeds.

Note: This article doesn’t delve into the debate between wireless technologies (such as 4G technologies WiMAX and LTE) and optic fibre – we’ll be doing that in the next article. Instead, we aim to provide an overview of the general trends towards faster and faster speeds – or perhaps, more accurately, wider bandwidth.

The Trend

When you talk about speeds you really should be thinking how much, not just how fast. Advertised speeds for Internet connections really indicate how much data you can download at any one time; that’s why the NBN is referred to as ‘broad’-band as opposed to narrow band. Some even call it wide band.

So whether you have 1 megabyte (MB) travelling over a fibre optic network or 5MB, they both travel at the same speed over the actual glass in the pipes– i.e. each data packet travels at the speed of light. The difference is how much you can get through all the associated routing and switching equipment at one time, and the ability of this equipment to process the packets and hand them off to the next location, finally ending up at your target destination.

So the speed reflects how much data you are trying to download / upload at any one time. The same principles apply for whatever Internet technology you are using, whether it is satellite, wireless, fibre or DSL.

Now, this really is a highly simplified explanation of Internet speeds and there are a lot of factors that will come into play when trying to work out what speed you will actually receive that are beyond the scope of this article.

However, we can talk about what has been a very clear trend towards higher speeds and more downloads in Australia over the past 10 years; one that is reflected across the globe. It is this trend that informs a lot of the decision making behind investment in high-speed broadband networks. As part of the recently released NBN Implementation Study, co-authors KPMG and McKinsey & Company pointed to statistics provided by networking giant, Cisco, that global IP traffic in 2013 would be five times that in 2008, with the Asia-Pacific region having a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 42 per cent. It also noted the vendor predicts video traffic – which requires much higher bandwidth than text or audio – will account for 91 per cent of Internet traffic by 2013.

Now, Cisco does have vested interest in presenting this kind of research – the company has invested heavily in video conferencing platforms and video cameras, for example.

But other analyst and research firms agree. IDC recently produced a report claiming all the data created by consumers and businesses on earth - including video, audio, documents - will grow by 1.2 zettabytes, or 1.2 billion terabytes this year. By 2020, the analyst firm predicts the amount of this data will be 44 times as large as it was in 2009.

There are any number of reports available from both reputed international organisations like the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to ICT-specific analyst firms like Gartner and network operators like Akamai, that show similar results. In short, there is little question the amount of data we consume and create is increasing at dramatic levels, and the consensus is this will continue for the foreseeable future.

One really simple example of the growth in video traffic is the five-year old YouTube, which now claims 2 billion views per day. That is vastly more than the top three US TV networks combined. Additionally, the company claims 24 hours of video content is uploaded to the site every minute. While most of this is still low definition content, YouTube does increasingly have more and more, higher-bandwidth content in high definition.

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