Google Fiber, cable companies and other wired providers are offering Gigabit per second and faster services. 4G LTE is largely deployed and planners are starting to ramp up plans for 5G.
This is the time to ask a question that at once seems logical and a bit heretical: Are we sure that all that bandwidth is needed?
To date, the rationale for building super-fast networks has been convincing and a bit vague. Vendors and carriers consistently bang the drum about the astronomical increases in demand. This has created a common wisdom that the networks of today will be crushed. And then there is Kevin Costner. “Build it and they will come” – the tag line to “Field of Dreams” -- is so deeply engrained in our culture that it has transitioned to being a business case rationale.
All those data-intensive apps and services may indeed come strolling out of the corn fields. But it also is worth noting that the folks who are telling us that there will be so much demand that we better build ever higher capacity networks are the same people who benefit from selling those networks. In other words, Cisco – whose Visual Networking Indexes are responsible for introducing many people to the exotic classes of numbers beyond trillions – doesn’t benefit from telling us that demand will slow down, or that growth is not guaranteed.
Mari Silbey poses the question at the beginning of her profile of Chattanooga, Tennessee:
What do you do with a gigabit? At a time when the average American connects to the Internet at speeds under 15 Mbits/s, what could anyone possibly need a gigabit for?
Silbey proceeds to provide answers: The city, which is on the cutting edge of the municipal broadband movement, is providing advanced business, government and educational services via its network. Thus, Silbey’s question was posed as a rhetorical device. But, if the context is changed slightly, the question may be more real than she intended.
I recently posted a feature about early 5G developments. The dynamic is that the evolution of 5G will be driven by use cases, not pure technology. That’s a sensible, pragmatic approach. One of those use cases, according to experts, figures to be sensor networks. However, sensor networks need very little bandwidth. A series of sensors designed to control traffic lights, for instance, may only need to do anything when the bulb goes out or if something unusual – say, changing the usual pattern to give an ambulance a series of green lights all the way to the ER – occurs.
That hardly seems like a 5G driver. Indeed, Verizon doesn’t think so, according to RCR Wireless:
Speaking at an investor conference this week, Verizon Communications CFO Fran Shammo said the carrier’s CDMA network was still a “very long-term network” for the operator as it looks to support “small bursts” of data triggered by connected devices and IoT services.
This could get interesting. The “build it and they will come” tag line is about faith. In this case, it is faith with a stiff price tag. Not only does the 5G technology itself need to be developed, but the underlying infrastructure must be changed out, lest it become the weak link that limits the sparkling new wireless network.
The Register reports that the International Telecommunication Union is looking at what must be done to the wired network to make it capable of supporting 5G. This is a contributing quote on a story about the formation of a focus group on 5G backhaul:
Head of 5G Research and Development at Huawei, Wen Tong added: “5G will power a wide range of new user experiences, but the bottleneck remains the speed of the network. Everyone in the ICT ecosystem needs to work together. This is the most important condition for us to realize 5G, and this is the reason Huawei is contributing to ITU’s efforts to consider what the road to 5G demands of all parts of the ecosystem.”
The likelihood is that traffic will continue to explode across wired and wireless networks. It is fair to ask, however, whether there is a significant chance that it will level off and endanger the rationale of some of the big investments that vendors and carriers are being asked to make today.
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.