Full-speed ahead

As demand for bandwidth-intensive applications soars, there is an ever-growing need for network capacity. Ian Pearson, the renowned ex-BT futurologist, spoke to CommsMEA about how networks will evolve.

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By  Administrator Published  May 23, 2008

As demand for bandwidth-intensive applications soars, there is an ever-growing need for network capacity. Ian Pearson, the renowned ex-BT futurologist, spoke to CommsMEA about how networks will evolve.

How much capacity will networks need in the future and what will this enable people to do?

If we're looking into the very far future, we need to assume people have a demand for tens of Gbps, so the network capacity will grow until it gets there. That's eventually what the market will have to provide consumers in one way or another.

They're talking about downloading films in five seconds using the latest technology from CERN (the world's largest particle physics laboratory). This uses grid technology, where you have some high speed links between certain nodes.

The new Large Hadron Collider gets switched on in CERN in a few months' time and when it all goes live the amount of capacity available for certain things will go through the roof. They're talking about downloading HD movies in five seconds, which is a reasonable amount of time.

What technologies are best suited to give consumers this capacity?

It would probably cost about £20 billion (US$40 billion) to fibre-up everywhere in the UK - that's a huge investment. I don't think you'll see massive increases in capacity unless it's done by a range of companies. You need to have consortiums of large companies to do a high-speed network in which they will share with each other.

But the customer needs a high-speed network. You can't do it very easily with just radio. People are talking about WiMAX: while it's a good technology and you can do an awful lot with it, what you can't do is provide everybody with a very high-speed channel to their home.

Radio solutions only really work within very short ranges from the transmitter and there are always problems with interference and other issues.

I'm not convinced that WiMAX will solve all the problems; there aren't any magic bullets here. You're still going to have to provide an awfully large amount of capacity somewhere.

Ultimately, wireless stations are linked together by optical fibre, the only technology known to man that is capable of transmitting the capacity that we need.

Are there other technologies on the horizon?

We could do point-to-point technology: 10-12 years ago, people were playing with optical wireless, where you have a laser beam linking you to some sort of transmitter. With a receiver on the roof of your house, you could easily send Gbps with that sort of technology.

The early experiments found that you would need very expensive equipment, and it turned out that it wasn't economic. But that was quite a long time ago. Things move on and it might be that they end up with different ways of doing wireless.

Radio is the conventional way, but it's not the only way - there is optics as well. You could have optical inter-connectors instead of radio ones.

However, this isn't coming anytime soon. For now, there are all sorts of tricks you can do with radio technology, but I don't think the capacity you can get out of the radio space is going to be enough to be able to do all the stuff we want to do.

We're going to need fiber all the way to your home, or at least to the curb and then use high-speed radio from there.

If movie downloads are driving download speeds, how fast do they need to be?

I think there is a lot of demand for very high speeds. If you talk about wanting to take a movie with you on the train to watch on your PDA, you don't really want to sit and wait a couple of hours, or even 15-20 minutes.

I would really like to be able to download something in just a few seconds. If I'm swapping content between friends, I want to be able to push a button and upload the file to them there and then. I don't really want to do things in a very highly compressed, low resolution way like it is now.

If you think about it, it needs to be HD television downloads, but not just one download - it needs to be several. You might be watching one, but recording a couple of others and archiving content in the other direction on the net.

And of course, you might be doing this along with a couple of other people sharing the same house. You could have several simultaneous HD streams coming into your house at the peak times.

You can expect HD, large-screen definitions of YouTube in the future as well. But why not download the entire series; download several hours of HD video, which in not very many years might be in 3D.

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