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When our wired and cellular data speeds hit – and even exceed – one gigabit per second, how will the world change? It’s a question Vodafone and industry thinkers around the world are spending a lot of time on, because understanding this, future will help us reach it quicker.

Professor Gerhard Fettweis understands the topic of tomorrow’s connectivity more than most. As the Chair Professor for Vodafone at TU Dresden, Gerhard’s research into the future of transmission and chip design currently has over 20 sponsoring companies worldwide. Having recently spoken on the subject at the ‘Digitising Europe’ summit, we caught up with Gerhard to find out more about the road to the Gigabit Society – and what lies beyond…

"For me a Gigabit Society is just a stepping stone on the way to 10 Gigabit, 100 Gigabit, and Terabit Societies. Since it’s only every 15 years that we reach the next major denominative level, i.e. the Terabit, now is a good time to take a breath and look at where we’re at and what we can now do next, but ‘Gigabit’ is really just one of many speed jumps to come." Gerhard Fettweis,

Technische Universität Dresden

Overhauling infrastructure

“In 2003, I recognised what I termed the ‘Wireless Roadmap,’” Gerhard explains. This model, he says, was in essence a continuation of Moore’s Law, but applied to data speeds rather than semi-conductors. “Wireless speeds increase ten times over every five years, so based on that I projected that we were going to have 100Mbps in 2015. People thought this was far-fetched at the time, but it happened. And here we are today, talking about becoming a Gigabit Society in 2020.”

And for Gerhard, each new jump in connectivity only ever spells innovation. “With every 10x increase, new big players pop up,” he says, “be it a new Snapchat, Facebook, Google, or whatever. Because people can’t fully anticipate what’s going to be possible with these new speeds until they arrive, we always see new industries, new services and new applications changing our world in seemingly unexpected ways. We’ll see the same thing with the Gigabit Society.”

So, crystal ball time: what can we say for sure will happen when those high throughput speeds are universally reached?

“For one, it will mean that the broadband services of today will become known as ‘narrowband’ services in the future. If we think of high-definition videos online today, they are considered as a broadband application, but if you look at the capacities of networks in the Gigabit world, we’ll have bandwidth available such that high-definition video is a smaller piece of the capacity pie. It will be such that sending a full length HD movie as an email attachment will be no big deal.

If we look at email attachments right now,” Gerhard adds, “we’re often limited to 20MB. They were limited to that five or more years ago, which means we’re due for a major overhaul in our IT infrastructure. Seemingly, services like Microsoft Exchange are completely outdated in their capabilities – especially if you see what’s possible to store in databases elsewhere now. So it appears as though we’re right at the verge of something bigger happening there, in terms of how we exchange and move data from an IT point of view.”

As such, Gerhard argues that higher connection speeds are the perfect way to force the hand of industries that may currently be growing staid:

“Once we have this Gigabit throughput really up and running, the pressure will be high on these companies, and innovation will pop up everywhere very sudden. Currently we’re in a standstill in this space, and have been for more than five years. In the Gigabit world, however, innovation will push its way through every industry and every vertical.”

Removing the red flags

As with any new technological development, it’s easy to get excited about the potential positives without considering any risks that may arise as a result. So what does Gerhard think we need to be cautious of as we approach the Gigabit Society model?

“I’m generally a positive thinker,” he says, “but there are always negative sides to these innovations as well. Thankfully, though, I think that our IT communications industry as a whole is maturing faster than many people realise. Yes, we have some problems with security, privacy and integrity these days, but this is nothing new. In 1865 the (steam) motorcar was introduced in England. To minimise accidents with pedestrians, the government came up with the Red Flag Act, which meant you had to hire a person to run in front of your car with a red flag to warn people that the car was coming. That was the first reaction to the car because it was deemed to be unsafe, and it took quite some time to build safety belts, airbags and all the safety infrastructure that’s now in place.

“If we take this model and apply it to our communications industries,” Gerhard explains, “we can say that we know there are issues. But addressing these will be happening on an ongoing basis, and I don’t think it’s specific to Gigabit speeds – it’s more about maturity in the internet technology. And I think that maturity is increasing faster than new opportunities for unsafe procedures are arising.”

Security issues and the like are one side of the coin, but what about engineering and business challenges? What’s standing in the way? Gerhard posits that “there are a tonne of challenges,” revealing that one of the biggest is making sure Telcos make the right moves to help facilitate change.

“If we take the late 90s as an example, at that time Wi-Fi was considered by some to be a competitor to 3G. It seemed possible at the time that it might somehow kill the opportunities that 3G presented. That’s wrong as we now know, but at the time a lot of operators spent energy to try fighting the spread of Wi-Fi on those grounds.

“So when we move to the Gigabit world, we have to make sure that operators can reposition their product offerings, understand where to have these systems, and re-architect their networks to be able to keep everything working. That’s obviously a big challenge – addressing the right needs and not fighting new technologies that you should be embracing.”

Luckily, that’s exactly why Vodafone is spending so much time considering the impact that the Gigabit infrastructure will make, as well as our vital role in its inception. But it doesn’t stop there…

A stepping stone to the future

At the beginning of our talk, Gerhard asserted that connection speeds increase tenfold every five years. It’s that progressive nature, made possible by increasingly efficient processes and technology, that will help the first true Gigabit Societies emerge by 2020. But, interestingly, it also means that Gigabit is not the final destination on the connectivity journey.

“For me,” Gerhard says, “a Gigabit Society is just a stepping stone on the way to 10 Gigabit, 100 Gigabit, and Terabit Societies. Since it’s only every 15 years that we reach the next major denominative level, i.e. the Terabit, now is a good time to take a breath and look at where we’re at and what we can now do next, but ‘Gigabit’ is really just one of many speed jumps to come.”

So does that mean that data speeds will increase indefinitely?

“In 2030 we’ll have Terabit wired connections,” Gerhard says, “and we’ll have Terabit cellular connections in 2035. So the increase of data will certainly go on for the next 15 or 20 years. If you look at innovation in semi-conductors and in data packaging as a sign, you’ll see that we’re easily good until 2030.

“Will this go on forever?” he asks in closing. “Probably not. But we’re on this road for the next 20 years at least.” And it’s an exciting road for all concerned.

You can find out much more about the future of Gigabit connectivity in our report, ‘Creating a Gigabit Society’, available to download below.

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