On March 31, 2017 Joanne Hovis, President of CTC Technology & Energy presented a webinar which chronicled the history of broadband from the days of copper wired internet to the future looking at 5G connections. Hovis describes how the technologies impacted consumers and business alike through amazing storytelling and brings to life the birth and the future of broadband technology.

Here is the diagram that Hovis used during her presentation:

Hovis starts two decades ago with the advent of commercial internet. Beginning in 1995-96 Hovis showed us the humble beginnings of 50kbps dial up internet. That is substantially slower than technology today. She identified that there are 3 main markets that internet providers target:

  1. Residential Market
  2. Small/Medium Business Market
  3. Enterprise Market

The residential market is the market that most consumers belong to. Occasionally, the Small/Medium business market is grouped with the residential market due to size. The enterprise market refers to larger entities like schools, libraries, governments, hospitals, and other big dollar customers. After describing the markets, she went on to describe the advent of the dialup (dot com) era.

During the late 1990s, thousands of dialup ISPs popped up, and there was a lot of commercial excitement. For those who are not aware, dialup Internet was a form of internet that used telephone lines to give internet service. It was now that people started to recognize the emerging market. After dialup, the birth of broadband internet started with the creation of the cable modem.

The major innovation that accompanied the cable modem was Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification, or otherwise known as DOCSIS. This allowed connections to go 2 ways, which allowed cable systems to become an internet platform. This is key, because the cable system has a much more capable infrastructure than the copper networks of old.

Then, cable companies could use coaxial cables as a broadband medium. Coaxial cables are the wires that connect your modem to the other wires outside of the building. These coaxial cables gave the cable industry an advantage over the phone industry.

In response to this, the phone industries built DSL. Today, even the best DSL networks (with support) can get to decent broadband speeds. Though, only some companies decide to fully commit to DSL adoption. Many don’t.

Hovis tells us that DSL was not developed as a broadband technology. For phone companies to get fast speeds, they must abandon DSL and build more fiber. This means an entire infrastructure upgrade. Some had started to do this, but had backed off due to costs.

The cable industry has the better mediums/infrastructure. Hybrid fiber coaxial networks are vastly superior to the copper networks. The nature of how networks were built in the first place was a disadvantage to the copper networks. Video as a product was only though of as entertainment, thus businesses did not purchase the video products. When the cable networks were built they were built in residential and not in business areas. When cable became a source of broadband, some commercial districts did not have cable service and thus no access to cable broadband service. Small businesses suffer and mom & pop stores suffer from lack of broadband competition.

When cable networks were built, they were franchised by local governments and regulated. The cable industry had to build towards the entire residential community rather than just big profit areas. Networks had to go everywhere with certain densities. This was huge as it allowed many people in metropolitan areas access to cable broadband service. If not for local government, this would not have been possible. Hovis said that this was a positive benefit to the community and industry.

On the opposite side, cable modems and networks were rarely deployed in rural areas. Investments in small town networks have been poor compared to metro areas.

From an urban standpoint, Hovis says that the core challenge is the small business. It’s not something that is caught in mapping efforts. A lot of small businesses don’t have access to infrastructure, only DSL. The concern is lack of continuing investment in DSL. If DSL is the only viable competitor to the cable modem service, it must be very viable and be able to perform effectively. DSL networks are old and have not been all upgraded.

Hovis said that fiber theoretically has unlimited capabilities. It can expand to encompass as much as necessary and currently, we even have 10gb products available in some places (though demand may not be there yet).

Fiber impacts affordability, but is not cheap. Even Google Fiber has slowed recently, but even so, Google’s pricing of a GB has set prices elsewhere. Google has made it so gigabit speeds aren’t costing thousands of dollars. Google has done one of the best things for consumers – create competition.

Hovis then transfers to the wireless side of the broadband issue. On the diagram, the green oval for LTE advanced refers to many things, which are all together hyped as the new 5G service. These are all technologies that are advancing within the next 10 years and is expected to emerge around 2020. These innovations though could still require fiber to function, and may be costly as it could require fiber to be every block or every few blocks.

Competition is necessary for broadband prices to stay low. This is especially important for low income areas where broadband is not available and consumers are relying on mobile data. Providers have set data caps on their mobile devices, which could be used up very quickly if videos are watched. Families could not use mobile data on a consistent basis due to this.

Potential mergers between phone and cable companies have been discussed. Hovis said that with our current administration, the FCC and justice department is friendly to merger applications. Mergers between cable and phone companies would decimate competition, and not only that, but it could also decimate emerging competitions on the mobiles side.

Overall, Hovis gave a wonderful presentation on the past and future of broadband internet. I would recommend everyone to pay a visit and watch her full webinar here.