Broadband forum reflects 'sea-change'

The event has for several years been called The DSL Forum, but when it comes to broadband connectivity things have now changed, so much that nobody would be surprised to see next year's event simply called the Broadband Forum.

Exhibitors and delegates at this year's Berlin event, held at the end of October, met not only to discuss the various forms of DSL over copper, but also fibre to the home and office, cable, shared broadband Ethernet, broadband satellite, wireless LANs, the development of mobile data via GPRS, and the much-hyped introduction of 3G.

In the case of wireless LANs, Forum delegates were able to gain free access to a 10Mbit/s wireless LAN that was Ethernet-based. One good thing about DSL is that you can easily share the bandwidth using land-based Ethernet connections, but you can't easily do the same thing using wireless connections because of spectrum licensing restrictions, hence the non-appearance of wireless DSL in Europe.

The wireless LAN in Berlin was set up by Cisco, a company that does not see DSL as the future of broadband. There are, of course, alternatives not only to ADSL, but to DSL itself. Cisco used the Forum extensively to promote its vision of broadband Ethernet (also known as metro Ethernet), whereby fibre in the metro area is connected to businesses or buildings of multiple occupation, and the resulting bandwidth is shared via Ethernet hubs.

There was much emphasis at the conference on what has become known as Triple Play, the three main services that telcos can offer consumers: a basic phone service; broadcast quality TV and video; and high-speed data services. Such a solution is designed to challenge the perceived threat posed by cable and satellite operators to telcos who are relying on copper-based connections to customers.

This was timely considering that, soon after the conference finished, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) published its Triple Play technical specifications. These support the commercial use of a form of DSL called Very High Speed Digital Subscriber Line (VDSL) over copper lines, which is much faster than ADSL, and therefore more able to cope with applications like video on demand (VOD).

Telcos already conducting VDSL trials include Bell Canada, Qwest, Telecom Italia and Telenor, with Bell already planning a commercial VDSL service to apartment buildings. The ITU says VDSL roll-outs can now be achieved at less than USD1,000 per customer using its specifications, which can quickly be recouped as a result of much larger ARPU (average revenue per user) generated by the greater choice of services that are possible using the high-speed solution.

In between ADSL and VDSL, however, the telcos see SDSL or SHDSL (symmetrical digital subscriber line or symmetrical higher speed digital subscriber line) as technologies to boost their revenues, particularly in the business market.

William Engler, VP and general manager of broadband access products at Lucent Technologies, told delegates, "The Yankee analyst group predicts business DSL will represent half the market by revenue in 2006, and that SDSL is essential for business." With SDSL, users can send data at the same speeds as receiving it, which ADSL cannot, so business users currently relying on more expensive symmetrical leased lines will have a cheaper alternative in the form of SDSL. Engler pointed out that, where SDSL had already been rolled out, operators had received up to four times more revenue from SDSL lines compared to ADSL.

To deliver SDSL, cash-strapped operators must make further modifications to their exchanges, with new DSLAM (Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexer) equipment.

Phil Tilley, VP.European marketing for broadband networking at Alcatel, confirmed that some operators had delayed their SDSL roll-out plans until they had established their ADSL revenues. "There was a delay by some European operators in seriously considering SDSL, and many currently don't have the DSLAM kit in place to offer it, but this situation is changing."

For instance, Deutsche Telekom is already offering SDSL and BT in the UK has completed its first trials.

But, with much talk about delivering Triple Play services, how do operators improve the contention rates which currently prevail for ADSL lines, with users often expected to share fixed bandwidth up to 50 others in an exchange.

Many of the newer services like premium video streamed content can be supported by ADSL, but if there is to be a step up to Internet TV and VOD, something has to be done in the metro area to support such services, otherwise user experience is going to be frustrating to say the least.

Forum panellists suggested a variety of solutions including the wider adoption of Gigabit Ethernet by telcos and/or extensive new ATM/IP builds to increase bandwidth into the networks used. There will also have to be improved monitoring of the applications running at any given time by users, so that bandwidth available can matched to the need.

Given the alternatives to ADSL that are on offer to the telcos, the broadband market is very much an evolving market, and it will be interesting to see how quickly the telcos can adapt to the opportunities.

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