The need for speed: Why broadband network upgrades are critical to economic growth

Traditional fiber optic cables. Photo courtesy of Flickr / pasukaru76.

Much like the debate over whether raising the US federal debt ceiling is the right choice for the country, the networking industry all too regularly engages in a debate about whether the need for faster data connections is real. The significant role of broadband as an economic driver deserves to be elevated to a similar level of attention as progress and innovation are stifled when network capacity is constrained, which doesn’t bode well for consumers, businesses, research communities and the economy on the whole.

High-speed, high-capacity networks are critical to our future because they power the world’s Internet and digital economy. For the most part, networks based on 100G technology have become mainstream to address current demands – and this represents a giant leap forward from traditional network architectures and scale. However, it won’t be long before we need to go beyond 100G and even 400G and start to build 1 Terabit networks.

Connected consumers

There is no doubt that demand on our networks will continue to grow. We’ve quickly become a “connected” world and it is only just the beginning. During the past decade, the number of Internet users worldwide increased almost 700 percent, from 360 million users in 2000 to 2.4 billion users in 2012, according to Internet World Stats. To ensure those 2.4 billion users have a quality experience, one might expect that the underlying communication infrastructure must also expand by 700 percent, assuming people today use the Internet in the same way we did 12 years ago.

But, we all know that isn’t the case.

How we use the Internet has radically changed. Facebook made its debut in 2004; YouTube came online in 2005; Netflix started streaming video in 2007; and Hulu.com joined the video streaming world in 2008. These services offer only a glimpse into how consumer consumption patterns of the Internet have changed from simple text emails to rich media and video streaming. Add to that the dramatic growth in wireless access on top of existing wired connections, and we’re now placing a 300x (30,000 percent) capacity increase on the underlying communications infrastructure per Internet user.

Clearly, the strain this places on these legacy networks for simple connectivity is enormous.

For example, according to our estimates, if only 10 percent of New York City’s 8 million people wanted to stream a movie at the same time, it would require an infrastructure capacity of 1.6 Terabits per second. This type of demand would overload many of today’s networks and meeting this demand with existing technology can be quite costly. However, failure to provide that capacity would mean lower quality playbacks with pixelation, stuttering, and pauses as the network tries to keep up with demand – and that is something that today’s consumers find unacceptable.

The same demands, if not greater, are felt on the wireless side of things. The use of mobile devices (phones, tablets, eReaders, laptops, etc.) has been nothing short of explosive in the past decade. In fact, the annual worldwide total of mobile devices shipped is estimated to reach more than 2 billion this year, according to multiple industry sources. At that pace, mobile devices will outnumber humans by 2017, according to CCS Insight. Compound that number of devices with a growing variety of rich media content and we clearly have a dilemma.

Case in point: Recently, the VP of Information Technology for the Denver Broncos, noted that for the first time at games this year upload traffic often eclipsed download traffic. The likely culprits: “selfies” and short videos of great plays. Recognizing this evolution of the fan experience, the San Francisco 49ers are installing dual 10 Gbps Internet connections to their new stadium next year to keep pace with demand.

Simply put: higher speeds and greater network capacity are required to ensure the high quality end user experience that consumers have grown to expect.

Demands on the enterprise

Enterprises are no different. It’s well established that demand for enterprise network capacity is growing thanks to IT virtualization efforts and corporate use of cloud computing, mobile, video and bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies. More bandwidth is required within data centers, between company data centers, and data centers to the cloud, to facilitate daily operations as well as data back-up and disaster recovery efforts.

For example, healthcare institutions are faced with the challenge of managing the explosive growth of medical data created by the digital transformation of paper records to digital data files. Electronic Medical Records (EMRs) are increasingly moving online, and the images produced by Picture Archiving Communications Systems (PACS) are extremely high resolution, creating large files that slow down a typical network. This shift is creating an exponential problem in data and storage growth and disaster preparedness, unprecedented in healthcare IT.

In fact, results of a Ponemon Institute 2012 survey found 30 percent of the world’s data storage resides in healthcare, with 45 percent of respondents saying their facilities were planning a storage upgrade of one terabyte or more in the next 12 months. And where storage demands increase, so too do bandwidth requirements.

Research and education connectivity

Research and Education (R&E) communities around the world work on projects that also require massive amounts of bandwidth. Consider the task of modeling the human brain, which has roughly 100 billion neurons and between 1,000 and 10,000 connections. Add it all up and this can equate to 100 trillion connections in total. To perform a simulation, high-performance computational infrastructure and database technologies are required, and those place a tremendous capacity burden on the network.

To illustrate, in 2010, the Canadian Brain Imaging Network (CBRAIN ) demonstrated how a 100 Gigabit per second network link can be used to support research efforts. Using the link, researchers were able to transfer 3D and 4D video images between the CANARIE research network in Canada and the StarLight network in Chicago. This demonstration also showed how remote doctors and students can use the network to learn new methods, observe and interact with live surgeries through a lifelike HD virtual experience.

The network matters

Now more than ever, the underlying communication networks matter, and the need for speed is immediate. Digital demands from consumers, businesses and the R&E communities on the underlying communication infrastructure are accelerating at unprecedented rates. Investing in advanced networks to support these increasing demands is vital to maintaining consumer appetites for new and better services, which drive corporate revenues and prompt innovation through research.

Steve Alexander is senior vice president and CTO at Ciena.
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