Feature Story

Fiber Networks: A Catalyst for Next-Generation Apps and Services?

by Laurence Cruz

Networks of the future may usher in bandwidth-intensive apps that can boost innovation, entrepreneurship and quality of life.

As the UK and the Balkans emerge from their wettest winter in over a century, debate is raging over how to respond to such patterns of extreme weather. But what if there was a way to predict floods and send detailed warnings directly to the people in harm’s way?

A team of experts in the United States is building a mobile platform that would do just that. Dubbed FloodCube, it would send accurate flood warnings to tablets and mobile phones. There’s just one snag: current broadband networks can’t handle the amount of data FloodCube will need. The U.S.-wide platform will tap real-time information from over 14,000 stream sensors and super-resolution rainfall data feeds from the National Weather Service’s next-generation network of radars, which produces more than 3 gigabytes of data every hour.

Squeezing that much data through most existing U.S. broadband networks would be like trying to suck dumplings through a straw. And FloodCube is not alone. There’s a slew of useful applications and services that are just waiting for ultra-high-speed fiber-based networks to become available before they can take off. Think virtual manufacturing, 3D video conferencing, at-a-distance therapy, at-a-distance fitness training, e-health, interactive gaming, movie sharing and more.

“The applications and services are here now,” says Ellen Satterwhite, a spokesperson for FTTH (Fiber-to-the-Home) Council Americas, a non-profit association focused on accelerating availability of fiber networks in the region. “We’re seeing a trend where developers have anticipated that people want these applications and services, and have built them, assuming and hoping that our networks will catch up.”

The Future is Symmetrical

For Satterwhite, fiber networks are key not only because they offer higher capacity than other broadband types such as cable, but also because they are symmetrical. That is, they offer upload speeds as great as download speeds—essential for the highly interactive nature of many next-generation apps and services.

But fiber networks are also expensive, and critics say we simply don’t need them yet. With first-generation broadband, online services didn’t blossom until “a critical mass of subscribers” was reached, according to a 2012 study from the UK. “For superfast we are likely not there yet,” the study says.

Proponents say that is changing. They argue that fiber connections trigger surges of entrepreneurship and innovation and boost quality of life. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has predicted that a gigabit to the home will be commonplace within 10 years. And Satterwhite’s counterpart in Europe, Karin Ahl, argues that running fiber networks to businesses and homes now can “future proof” economies later. Within the next 30 years, 70 percent of the European economy will likely be driven by firms and products that are unknown today, she says, citing connected homes and the smart grid as examples.

“Fiber gives you endless possibilities and a new business climate you could never have predicted,” says Ahl, who is president of the FTTH Council Europe. “We need to keep that in mind because that’s what we’re blocking if we’re not investing in fiber networks.”

Fiberhood Watch

In the global fiber sweepstakes, some countries are investing more heavily than others. Only nine countries have reached “fiber maturity,” defined by analyst firm Heavy Reading as one-fifth of households subscribing to fiber to the home or building (FTTH/B). Those countries are, first, United Arab Emirates, followed by South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Lithuania, Sweden and Latvia.

Satterwhite says most of the high-capacity apps and services that will run on these fiber networks will have to do with video, and in particular high-fidelity video. With 4K resolution already here and 8K resolution expected by 2020, things like ultra high-fidelity videoconferencing and cloud-based video storage will far exceed most current capacity.

At peak hours today, traffic from video streaming services like Netflix and Hulu occupies a disproportionate chunk of broadband capacity. Netflix alone accounts for nearly one-third of all peak “last mile” downstream U.S. Internet traffic, according to a 2013 report by Sandvine.

Chicken or Egg?

So which comes first—fiber networks or next-generation apps? Apparently, the jury is still out on that question. Satterwhite asserts that better apps drive bandwidth, which in turn drives user adoption, which in turn drives better apps.

“They all exist in a virtuous cycle,” she says. “I think we need both.”

“Does the gig create new business models? I don’t know,” says Wayne Johnson, chief administrative officer for the City of Provo. “But it puts existing business models on steroids.” And, he says, it allows the City of Provo to explore new frontiers.

“Does telemedicine start working now all of a sudden?” he asks. “Can you put an elderly relative on some kind of biometric modeling that instantaneously alerts doctors and relatives if something goes wrong? Do you really need a synchronous gig everywhere in the city? I don’t know. But I do know that we’re going to figure that out in Provo.”


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