As we move into the Gigabit era, in both fixed and mobile, it is time to stop thinking about network quality only in terms of how fast it is, and instead focus on whether it is truly able to meet the needs and expectations of users.
For the last 15 years, the most common metric for measuring how ‘good’ a broadband service is has been speed. Speed (or ‘bandwidth’) has been used as a proxy for how well a user’s broadband performs, whether that is streaming Netflix, home videoconferencing, remotely monitoring home security cameras or talking to a smart speaker. As we’ve evolved from dial-up modems, through the early days of 2 Mbit/s DSL, through to the tens of Megabits per second that many homes enjoy today, bandwidth has been a convenient measure for all internet service providers. However, as speeds and technology have improved, we are now starting to suffer from diminishing returns.
People are increasingly looking to use more demanding applications on their broadband networks. They want video streaming without glitches and buffering, web pages to load without delay, Alexa to answer their requests instantly and video conferences to work as if you were in the same room. And these demands are only increasing – whether it’s the latest massive multiplayer gaming phenomenon or the predicted uptake in augmented reality. Increasingly, our networks are also being used not just by people but by machines, such as the introduction of sensors to manage smart cities, or the real-time control of industrial robots.
Photo credit: Louis Amal
This means we are no longer in the business of telecoms; we are now in the business of distributed computing. Our job used to be to make networks faster. That is no longer enough: we now need to make them invisible. There can be no barrier between consumers and their content; the network should just work seamlessly. In this world, speed is still important, but it is not enough. We need Quality Broadband.
So what does Quality Broadband mean? It includes attributes such as reliability, low latency (delay), and consistency (predictability). It is very easy to engineer a broadband network with amazing peak speeds (and therefore potentially a great result on a consumer speed test) but actually delivers a terrible Quality of Experience (QoE) when users try to do anything with it.
One of the problems with our current speed-obsessed model is that it means a ‘perfect’ broadband connection will need infinite bandwidth – which would, presumably, cost companies an infinite amount of money to provide. That would certainly be a shock to customers increasingly used to getting faster speeds for less money. If we instead focus on quality, then a perfect connection becomes one with zero defects (i.e. zero delay and zero packet loss). It is a lot easier to measure how close you are to zero than it is to measure how close you are to infinity! Therefore, the quality approach is inherently a more manageable approach when it comes to modelling, designing and measuring networks for optimum performance.
Happily, the Quality approach is not a hypothetical discussion. Companies across Europe have been pioneering new techniques for evaluating broadband QoE that look beyond the simplistic speed approach, and are engaging with regulators on the issue. The tools and techniques already exist to take broadband to the next level, but they are not yet widely understood, even within the broadband community.
There will also be significant challenge when it comes to communicating this shift to consumers. In the bandwidth model it was simply a case of bigger means better, but even online speed tests struggle to measure 1Gbit speeds. Instead, marketers – and regulators – will need to find ways to make sure customers consumers can understand the relative Quality of different broadband products simply and easily.
As networks evolve, and companies and consumers demand ever more from their broadband, it is clear that a new approach is required. It is time to move the conversation (and engineering) from quantity to Quality.
Gavin Young is Head of Fixed Access Centre of Excellence within Vodafone Group. He is responsible within Vodafone Group for the fixed broadband access strategy, architecture and deployment practises across the 18 countries where Vodafone currently has fixed access assets.
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