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Issue of October 2005 

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Broadband: the promise and the potential

With more Indian organisations getting access to broadband connectivity, there are a number of ways that service providers can benefit by offering new services aimed at corporates and other potential consumers. by Chandra Kopparapu.

Broadband Internet access now has become a significant barometer of the level of infrastructure in an area or even in a country much like roads, telephones, and healthcare. As the Internet transforms the way we do business, and the way we communicate or even live, the need for high-speed and reliable Internet access is vital. Infrastructure development that includes low-cost and reliable broadband Internet access has the powerful ability to transform the regional economy by helping job growth in IT and related sectors.

While there is no common universal definition, Internet access speeds of 256 Kbps or more are considered as broadband. The true potential of the Internet can only be realised when we have a significant mass of population connected over broadband that offers high-speed, always-on, reliable Internet access at affordable prices. This wired population in turn triggers businesses and government to offer e-services over the Internet. More services over the Internet in turn attract more people to get broadband for ease of use and convenience.

Broadband services

There are many ways to offer broadband services, and two of the most popular technologies for broadband internationally are Cable and DSL. Cable broadband carries Internet data using the co-axial cable link currently used for cable TV signals in homes or businesses. DSL or Digital Subscriber Line technology uses telephone lines to carry the Internet data.

In addition to these two, there are many other technologies such as Fibre to the Home (FTTH) used in dense metropolitan areas. Because laying fibre all the way to the home or business can be expensive. This technology is often used in conjunction with other last mile technologies such as DSL or Cable.

Then we have the various wireless technologies to connect those parts of the world where it’s difficult or expensive to lay cables. Emergence of new concepts like Metro Ethernet Networks have made it cost-effective to use 1-Gigabit and 10-Gigabit Ethernet over dark fibre in metropolitan areas while using the fibre or DSL-based connectivity in the last mile.

By dividing the approximately 1 MHz bandwidth afforded by the copper twisted pair already connected to most premises for telephones into a large number of sub-channels, Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL), a modem technology, converts existing twisted-pair telephone lines into access paths for multimedia and high-speed data communications. ADSL can provide downstream data transmission rates up to 6.144 Mbps and upstream transmission rates of around 600 kbps, depending on how the connection is configured. Unfortunately, data transmission performance reduces with increases in the distance over which the information is transmitted.

Broadband users

The number of broadband users worldwide is estimated to be more than 300 million, with an estimated 115 million DSL subscribers worldwide by early June 2005. While cable leads DSL overall in the world, DSL’s growth rates are higher, and it’s estimated that DSL might catch up or even overtake cable in the near future. But there are many newer technologies that may also change the landscape and alter this race.

There are many applications emerging as the killer-apps for the broadband Internet. E-mail, of course, is the most popular, followed by applications such as chat, and more recently voice and video over Internet. As the quality of broadband Internet services improves in both latency and bandwidth, voice over IP becomes an excellent reason to justify the cost of broadband.

In the United States, there are quite a few service providers offering unlimited calling all over the USA and Canada for a flat fee of $25 to $40. Even traditional phone companies in the USA now are offering such services to protect their customer base. In India, long-distance calling over Internet is used, but suffers from poor voice quality due to the lack of widespread broadband Internet service.

Rapid growth in mobile phones and declining tariffs for long-distance phone calls have somewhat alleviated the pain. Nevertheless, voice over IP, and video conferencing over IP with the help of broadband can help connect not only families across the continents, but also foster better communication in business environments.

An emerging application

IP TV is an emerging application that offers DVD-quality television over the Internet to homes allowing service providers to bundle Internet service along with Cable TV channels which can become a killer-app in India, given the rapid deployment of cable TV infrastructure in India over the last 15 years.

Remote learning by using Video over IP can immensely benefit how schools operate and extend their reach to remote villages. Even in the developed countries such as the United States, school districts find it valuable to network their campuses together. Clark County School District, the fifth largest school district in United States, built a metropolitan area network using Gigabit Ethernet over dark fibre to link all of their school campuses together.

This high speed network enables teachers from different schools to collaborate, and also to offer special services to schools, inexpensively. For example, a Spanish teacher in one school can now teach Spanish to students at multiple schools using Video over IP. A school can offer a variety of language classes or other subjects by leveraging teachers at other schools.

The service provider

As the usage of broadband grows, Internet service providers must face the challenge of scaling their backbone networks to increase the overall bandwidth, yet keeping the costs down. New technologies such as 10-Gigabit Ethernet make it possible for service providers to scale the Internet backbone as well as regional metropolitan area networks at less than one-tenth the cost of legacy technologies like SONET/SDH or ATM.

New avenues

As broadband services become available all over the country, enterprises and government need to rethink their network strategy to take advantage of the cost-effective bandwidth and Internet connectivity in order to improve organisational efficiency.

Instead of legacy technologies like Frame Relay and T1/E1, enterprises can use broadband Internet or metro Ethernet connectivity to get higher bandwidth at much cheaper prices cutting connectivity charges considerably.

By using Virtual Private Networks, enterprises can connect all the branch offices to the head office in a cost-effective way by using secure tunnelling technologies over public networks. Service providers using Metro Ethernet networks or Multi Protocol Label Switching (MPLS) based networks can provide secure virtual circuit connection services over Ethernet networks to offer the benefits of traditional frame relay connections, but much higher bandwidth at a lower cost.

While the advent of the Internet has forever changed our world, the true potential of Internet and its impact on the common man’s life will only be realised if inexpensive, reliable, and high-speed broadband service is available to most of the population.

With most service providers including the all-pervasive BSNL rolling out DSL in India, broadband is set to become more accessible and affordable, and promises to unleash a profound impact on the Indian economy as well as the average Indian’s life.

The author is the Vice-president for Strategic Marketing & Business Development, Foundry Networks.

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