Fast connections don't mean fast computers says international expert

Brussels-based Stefaan Vanhastel is an international expert on high-speed fibre broadband. He talked to Nikki Mandow about mobile and fibre, the smart fridge of the future, and why fast connections don’t always make your computer faster.

How fast is fast enough? 

It wasn’t that long ago that 100 megabits per second (Mbps) was a good broadband speed. Now we are starting to see gigabit, even 10Gbps services on the market. At the moment those speeds are mostly only available in Asia, but the US is following quickly – and Dunedin is the first New Zealand city with gigabit speeds. It’s a cycle, as broadband speeds increase, new technology develops to take advantage of that speed, and then you need higher speeds to make the best use of that new technology - and so it goes on. For example, ordinary TV became high-definition TV, then 4K TV (also called Ultra HD TV), which packs in four times the number of pixels to give far higher picture quality. Then at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, manufacturers were showing off their new crazy high-res 8K TVs, and a new report from industry analyst IHS is predicting global sales of 8K TVs to hit 1 million in the run up to the Japan Olympics in 2020, as 8K broadcasting takes hold.

Another trend impacting broadband speeds is the move to the cloud. It might be anything from your tax files to the movie you are watching tonight. If you want to rewind or fast forward a Netflix movie, for example, you are going to need good fibre broadband speeds.

Is there a killer app for high-speed fibre? 

I like to say that the killer app for gigabit broadband speeds is human impatience. Whether it’s being able to quickly download a high definition movie on your phone before running out the door for a bus or train, or it’s having the confidence to fast forward or rewind your Netflix movie without triggering the buffering wheel of death, as humans, we just don’t want to wait.

The world is going mobile. Won't that make fibre in the ground redundant? 

Ironically, the growth in mobile (from 2G to 3G to 5G, etc) makes fixed lines more and more important. A touch of physics here. In general terms, the higher the speed of a mobile connection, the higher the frequency of the signal. And the higher the frequency of the wave, the shorter the distance it can travel. So with 2G mobile you could have cell sites a few kilometres apart, but with 5G, the transmission range is only a couple of hundred metres. Because the fibre network is relatively cheap, mobile players are talking about having a lot of small 5G cell sites connecting into the fibre network. So the idea is that the signal from your smartphone, for example, will go to the nearest cell site and then connect you to the internet via fibre. So the UFB network that the New Zealand Government has commissioned will be a very valuable resource to make sure 5G becomes a reality.

The killer app for gigabit broadband speeds is human impatience - Stefaan Vanhastel

So our movies stream better and faster and our cat videos are high definition. But is there actually an economic benefit for New Zealand from very fast fibre? 

There have been studies which have found that for every 10Mbps increase in broadband speed, there is a measurable increase in GDP. I can’t say I believe there’s such a strong correlation, but I do think broadband has an important impact on GDP. A country like New Zealand that gets fibred up will be seen as a tech and innovation leader, and that attracts investment. The poster child for this is Chattanooga, the first city in the US to get gigabit speeds. From being a dying manufacturing town of 170,000 inhabitants and no venture capital, by 2014 Chattanooga had attracted five funds with investible capital of over $50 million. There’s an incubator programme, a raft of new start-ups, and well-paid jobs bringing young people back into the city.

Separately, there’s also an important economic benefit from fast broadband in rural areas, as it gives access to tech innovation for farmers and rural businesses, and also gives students access to e-learning, which improves educational outcomes.

Okay, let's take it back to the nitty gritty of what annoys people about fast fibre. How come people can be on a high speed plan and yet their internet speeds are still terrible? 

Building high speed networks is challenging. But getting high speeds on every device is far harder. You can have gigabit speeds coming into your house or workplace, but if you’ve got an old Wi-Fi router you’re only going to get 20Mbps. Or you’ve got an old laptop that supports old Wi-Fi standards. To use a car analogy, if you’ve got an old banger of a car you aren’t going to be able to go at 100kmph, even if you are on the motorway.

Isn't that a problem for fibre companies?

Absolutely. People don’t realise that their device and their router and their Wi-Fi systems are part of the picture. They assume that when they get fast broadband connected, every device in their house, or their workplace, is going to get that speed – and they get upset with their broadband provider when that doesn’t happen. A lot of people, for example, have one room in their house where there internet access is bad. You wouldn’t believe how many calls helpdesks get where the problem isn’t the broadband, it’s the other stuff.

But it’s also an opportunity. Gigabit routers are already available, and gigabit Wi-Fi is the next thing that the industry is waiting to solve.

How does the internet of things fit into all this? 

If you think it’s complicated having all these connected devices in your house, just wait until you’ve got gigabit internet and your washing machine and your fridge and your security system are all connecting up to the internet as well, through your Wi-Fi and your router. There will be operating systems and software and apps inside all the appliances in your house, plus there will be VOIP and firewalls and other programmes running through the router. And all of them will need software upgrades and might need repairing – and it will be an operational nightmare.

And the answer is? 

Moving the complexity into the cloud. What about if you had relatively simple systems running inside the device, or the router, or the appliance or whatever, and the complexity was all in the cloud?

Sorry? You're saying I'll be running my fridge in the cloud? 

Think how often you get reminded about an upgrade on your phone or your computer – and the reality is every device needs upgrading or fixing from time to time. But what about your internet-enabled fridge or your router? How are they going to tell you they need new upgrades? Who’s going to remember to install new software for their security system every six months? If the software was in the cloud, a manufacturer would be able to automatically do the updates to all their fridges or washing machines or routers remotely, without the consumer even needing to know.

This article was originally published in The Download, a publication produced by Tangible Media for Chorus.