Computerworld

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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Australia joins the fray

Domestically, the best source of empirical evidence for Internet usage is the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). The NBN Implementation Study does reference ABS stats for the average downloads an Australian Internet user – or more accurately one connection to the Internet (this could include family home connections) – over any given month, which it says is between 2-5GB.

(NBN Implementation Study: The graphs and charts)

A closer look at the ABS Internet Activity Survey, which began in September 2000 and obtains its data directly from ISPs, reveals Australians have adopted faster speeds at a steady rate while also consuming more and more data; mirroring global research.

(Note – all connection speeds are advertised speeds and are not necessarily reflective of the average speeds users experience).

The December quarter, 2000, ABS Internet Activity Survey included the following findings:

  • We had 3.9 million Internet subscribers in total (3.4 million were households, the rest business and government)
  • We downloaded an average of 286MB per month overall (1050 million megabytes in total). Households averaged 171MB while business and government subscribers managed an average of 912MB per month.
  • 3.7 million Internet users, or 97 per cent of the total, had a 56Kbps dial up connection. The ABS did not have statistics for those using DSL at the time, but noted there were less than 40 ISPs (out of more than 600) providing the technology.

Going forward three years to the survey for the September quarter in 2003, the ABS found:

  • A total of 5.2 million subscribers (with household subscribers accounting for 4.5 million of those).
  • We downloaded and average of 901MB per month overall (for a total of 4665 million megabytes). Households averaged 739MB per month while business and government subscribers averaged 1963MB.
  • The number of subscribers by download speed of access connection was collected for the first time. Using its broadband definition to include any connection of equal to or greater speed than 256Kbps, the ABS found there were 657,000 subscribers fitting this description at the end of September 2003.
  • In the September quarter the number of dial up subscribers fell by two per cent to take the proportion of subscribers using this technology below 90 per cent for the first time to 4,522,000.
  • In the same quarter, DSL subscribers grew by 78 per cent to 372,000; just over four per cent of total subscribers.
  • Over three quarters of business and government subscribers (total of 696,000) received less than 256kbps. Only one per cent had a connection faster than 2Mbps.
  • “Non dial-up subscribers accounted for over 67 per cent of the total data downloaded reflecting the much faster download speeds available.”

The ABS Internet Activity Survey for the September 2006 quarter published the following results:

  • There were 6.65 million Internet subscribers (5.83 million were households).
  • We downloaded an average 5435.79MB per month (for a total of 36,148 million megabytes). Households averaged 5045.45MB per month while business and government subscribers averaged 8210.96MB.
  • Non-dial up subscribers accounted for 33,931 million megabytes of the total downloaded amount of data.
  • Dial-up subscribers totalled 2.75 million, while non-dial up rose to 3.91 million.
  • DSL was the dominant access technology with 2.99 million subscribers.
  • Wireless began showing growth with 186,000 subscribers.
  • 19 per cent of the total 820,000 business and government subscribers had a connection speed of 1.5Mbps or greater,
  • 17 per cent of household subscribers (978,000) had a connection speed of 1.5Mbps or greater.

The most recent survey results were for the December quarter in 2009. They showed:

  • We had 9.1 million Internet subscribers (households accounted for 7,459,000).
  • The average amount of data downloaded per month was roughly 14,909MB (for a rough total of 135,674 million megabytes or 135,674 terabytes). The ABS did not differentiate between households and business or government subscribers in this survey.
  • Nearly 90 per cent of connections were non-dial up.
  • DSL accounted for 51 per cent of connections; decreasing from 57 per cent in June 2009 when it was at 57 per cent, due to a sharp increase in mobile wireless via data card, dongle or USB modem (mobile phone data was not counted). This kind of connection increased to 2.8 million subscribers. Note, however, that the ABS does not collect data on whether these subscribers have both a DSL and wireless connection.
  • There were 935,000 cable or fibre subscribers.
  • For business and government subscribers the most common connection speed was 1.5Mbps to 8Mbps (913,000) with 42,000 getting 24Mbps or greater.
  • For households, the most common connection was 1.5Mbps to 8Mbps (2,281,000), followed by 8Mbps to 24Mbps (1,766,000) and 512Kbps to 1.5Mbps (1,201,000). There were 469,000 connections with an advertised speed of 24Mbps or greater.

The ABS statistics clearly show Australian households and businesses / government agencies have continued to adopt faster speeds and download more data at a consistent rate.

The following graphs illustrate this point:

NBN arguments 101: The Need for Speed

NBN arguments 101: The Need for Speed

NBN arguments 101: The Need for Speed

NBN arguments 101: The Need for Speed

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Some examples:

The following are two examples of organisations – one a government department, the other a research network provider – experiencing or planning for increasing data flows and speeds.

First the government agency: Earlier this year, the NSW Department of Education and Training (DET) said its networks were almost at capacity.

The DET signed a $70 million deal with Telstra that would double bandwidth - two one gigabit connections - to four links between the DET and the Internet. It revealed monthly download levels were over 100TB per month and expected them to exceed 200TB by year’s end.

Chief information officer, Stephen Wilson, said traffic levels surged from 30TB to 60TB per month over four months last year, following the rollout of 66,000 laptops to teachers and year nine students under the Federal Government’s $2.2 billion Digital Education Revolution initiative.

The second example is AARNet, Australia’s fastest fibre-based networks, currently providing speeds of up to 10Gbps to universities and research institutions.

As part of the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) - Australia’s attempts to host global astronomy project, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) - AARNet will provide a fibre link between the antennae in Murchison, remote Western Australia, and the coastal town of Geraldton.

The ASKAP’s 36 antennae put out 190 times the 10Gbps bandwidth AARNet currently provides in uncompressed scientific data and, in order for the CSIRO and relevant institutions to process that data, the SKA will require far greater bandwidth than what is currently available.

“This is the ultimate test with broadband. Whatever we are building with the NBN, this will require capacities that are unbelievable,” AARNet chief executive officer, Chris Hancock has previously said. “Either way, if Australia is not successful and [SKA competitor] South Africa is, both countries are going to be building these lead up projects.”

The ASKAP will also rely on additional fibre between Geraldton and Perth, to be built by NextGen Networks as part of the Federal Government's Regional Backbone Blackspots Program announced last year.

In all, CSIRO and other institutions plan to access 8Tbps connections (that’s 8,000Gbps) to ASKAP and other SKA telescopes when it is fully operational over AARNet’s and NextGen Network’s fibre runs, with hopes to reach 80Tbps in the near future.

(In pictures: 20 years of the Internet in Australia)

AARNet has for some time been at the forefront of high-speed broadband networks in Australia. Whereas the average home connection speed is between one and 20Mbps, and anticipated to be 100 Mbps by 2017 with the NBN, current AARNet capacity is between one and 20Gbps, and is anticipated to be 200-250Gbps by 2017. Traffic growth on AARNet has been in the order of 38 per cent year-on-year, without selling services to businesses or homes.

Aside from these examples, there are plenty of other instances in very recent times of organisations spending considerable amounts of time, effort and money in generating faster speeds across many kinds of technology platforms. Google, for example, has said it would offer a small number of locations in the US fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) connections with speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second in a trial.

Earlier this year, Ericsson upgraded Telstra’s Next G to become the world’s first HSPA+ Dual Carrier network, with peak network download speeds of 42Mbps, and the telco’s chief executive officer, David Thodey, has said it will reach 168Mbps in coming years.

In November 2009, SingTel announced plans to conduct a regional trial of LTE technology in Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore in collaboration with Optus, Globe Telecom and Telkomsel. Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, Huawei, NEC, Nokia Siemens Networks and ZTE were invited to trial the technology by the end of the first half of this year. The company said it expected LTE to offer mobile broadband speeds of up to 340Mbps.

The new mobile WiMax standard, 802.16m will replace 802.16e and offer far faster download and upload speeds. The new technology will provide users 170Mbps download speed and 90Mbps upload speeds, according to Intel, and will be fully backward compatible with 802.16e.

In the satellite space, a Japanese program called Kizuna is working towards providing a maximum speed of 155Mbps downstream, 6Mbps upstream for “households with 45-centimetre aperture antennas (the same size as existing Communications Satellite antennas), and ultra-high speed 1.2 Gbps communication for offices with five-meter antennas”.

And just recently at a SubOptic tradeshow in Japan, UK-based Apollo and Alcatel-Lucent demonstrated the “transmission of approximately three terabits per second of data, based on 40Gbps channels, per fibre pair in a submarine network”.

All in all, the trend is pretty clear – organisations and individuals are using higher speeds and consuming more data at an increasing rate, while networking companies are striving to constantly boost those speeds.

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Some conclusions

One of the big questions is: Just how fast do we need the NBN to be?

Unless the trend of greater speeds and more downloads reverses or plateaus – against the vast consensus apparent across the research done on Internet speeds - it is highly likely the demand for the NBN’s 100Mbps will be surpassed in the not too distant future.

The University of Melbourne’s Laureate Professor and former Bell Labs staffer, Rod Tucker, put it nicely:

“The amount of data on the Internet has been growing at about 40 – 50 per cent per annum for more than ten years and there is no sign of any slowing. Based on this rate of growth, by the year 2020 customers won’t want 100Mbps. Instead, they will be demanding ten times more than 100Mbps – i.e. 1Gbps! The brilliance of the NBN is that in 2020, it will be easy to upgrade it to provide 1Gbps to those customers who want it.”

Google’s engineering director, Alan Noble, agreed and said no one could have predicted how a research project from DARPA would evolve and “how the shift from patchy dial-up for a few to always-on broadband for many, would give birth to amazing services such as photo sharing, online gaming, and video calling”.

“As we expand to greater accessibility and super-fast speed, we can be sure that consumers will be at the vanguard, demanding radically new services which meet many of the fundamental human needs that today's technologies do: To understand our world around us, to express ourselves, and to connect with others,” he said.

“People will absolutely use the high-speed capacity you give them. If you argue that high speeds are already available and that people won't use them, you're ignoring history. Colour TV initially had a lower adoption rate as many households had already put a considerable investment in a black and white TV not long before. However, once adoption picked up, the rate was exponential.”

So it appears NBN Co’s chief, Mike Quigley is in good company when he claimed 1Gbps would be demanded by roughly 2020.

From looking at the statistics and acknowledging the historical trends, it is hard to conclude otherwise. The question is, though: Is the fibre-to-the-home NBN as it currently stands the best way to deliver these speeds?

(See all of the OECD stats and graphs on broadband in our slideshow)

We’ll try and go some way to answering this question in our next article on satellite, wireless and fibre.