Fiber broadband: Is it a waste with 5G and Elon Musk's satellites on the horizon?

With all the hype surrounding Google Fiber and its competitors, will we look back on the whole experiment as a colossal waste of resources or a long overdue harbinger of better internet?
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief of ZDNet on
Image: Google

If you're a telecommuter, an entrepreneur, or a technology lover, and fiber broadband is coming to your area, then you're likely chomping at the bit to get it installed as soon as it's available.

I know I am. Since Google Fiber named my city as fertile ground for gigabit broadband, other internet providers like AT&T have raced to match Google with ridiculously fast internet plans of their own.

Google Fiber has succeeded in reigniting competition for faster internet across the US. However, now that Google Fiber has reached a similar conclusion as Verizon FiOS did a decade ago -- that digging expensive ditches and laying cables might be a 20th century way of solving the problem -- what's going to happen to the fiber broadband movement?

For example, AT&T had been on a gigabit tear in 2016, as it increased its fiber-to-the-premises roll-outs to a total of 29 different metro areas across the US, with plans for dozens more. That compared to nine metro areas for Google Fiber in 2016, with another dozen or so on the potential list. AT&T even thumbed its nose at Google in the process.

Meanwhile, cable providers like Time Warner Cable upgraded internet speeds by 6x for free to keep customers in the fold. Even smaller ISPs looked for ways to join the fiber revolution, such as CenturyLink, which reported in 2016 that it had found ways to get FTTP deployments down to $500-$800 from the tradition $1,000 or more it cost to lay fiber to each home or business.

Now that Google is retreating from FTTP rollouts in favor of fixed wireless (powered by its Webpass acquisition), it's unclear yet whether its fiber competitors will lose their enthusiasm for FTTP. Since Google chased out the Google Fiber CEO and laid off 9 percent of its staff last fall, AT&T has gone very quiet about its Fiber plans. Instead, it's been touting its 5G trials and its new "AirGig" technology to deliver gigabit internet over power lines.

Telecom companies are naturally questioning whether they should continue these laborious, expensive deployments of fiber when wireless gigabit is only a few years away. So-called "fixed wireless" replaces a cable or fiber modem with a box that has a wireless chip like the one in your smartphone plus a strong antenna. Once 5G arrives, these boxes will be able to operate at gigabit speeds -- with no new ditches to dig and no cables to lay.

At the same time, Elon Musk's SpaceX is planning a global network of 4,000 low-orbit satellites that would blanket the entire planet with gigabit internet. If approved, SpaceX said these satellites would offer low latency in the neighborhood of 30ms, which is comparable to today's cable and DSL connections and much faster than the 600ms that has plagued traditional satellite internet providers. SpaceX wants to start launching these satellites in 2019. Qualcomm, Boeing, Virgin, and others are considering similar plans for satellite internet.

Another factor to watch is DOCSIS 3.1, the cable internet standard that allows cable companies to offer gigabit speeds over existing cable lines. Since cable already reaches over 60 percent of US households, this could also mean a massive upgrade to gigabit speeds in the years ahead. Comcast, America's largest cable internet provider, has already started rolling out gigabit cable upgrades.

With all this in mind, what's the advantage of gigabit fiber? Top notch fiber connections have much lower latency than any other type of connection -- as low as 2ms. That opens up new possibilities for telepresence, team collaboration, and virtual reality and augmented reality over the internet.

The other big advantage to fiber over wireless, satellites, power lines, or upgraded cable lines is that it's much more future-proof. While we're racing toward 1 gigabit speeds by 2020, by 2025-2030 we're going to be demanding 10 gigabits. Fiber will find it much easier to scale up to meet that demand than these other types of connections will.

SEE: Harnessing IoT in the Enterprise (ZDNet/TechRepublic special report)

In short, when these other technologies catch up to fiber broadband's gigabit speeds in the next few years it will lull us into thinking that the telecom companies that spent a fortune on FTTP only ended up with a short-term advantage of 2-3 years. But make no mistake, the companies that are investing in FTTP today are likely to be the leaders in 2025 when the next wave of technologies -- especially artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and mixed reality -- will demand much more robust connections from both the home and the office. It's also going to be critical to the future of the smart home and the smart city, since many of today's most connected cities across the world have determined that laying fiber is the foundation that many of tomorrow's most connected services will be built upon.

The big question is whether Google Fiber, AT&T Fiber, Verizon FiOS, or any of their competitors will have the stomach to stay the course on FTTP.

ZDNet Monday Morning Opener

The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Previously on Monday Morning Opener:


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