Engineering the shift to service-centric broadband

Broadband Insights

You wouldn’t know it from all the hype over 5G and cord-cutting, but fixed broadband is alive and well. But like the mobile sector, it’s undergoing a metamorphosis driven by the basic dilemma of plunging access revenues and exponentially higher bandwidth consumption, much of it increasingly driven by OTT apps and services. And, like cellcos, fixed-broadband players must adapt to a future where everything will be connected, networks and services will be software-based, and access will be heterogeneous and seamless. And they must adapt in a way that doesn’t require them to scrap their legacy plant. 

The Broadband Forum, the industry group that defines best practices and specs for broadband operators, is keenly aware of all this. With the telecoms world increasingly focused on network virtualization, the Internet of Things, digital cloud-based services and the coming of 5G, broadband operators needed a common vision to help them play a vital role in that transformation without being relegated to the proverbial dumb pipe.     

To that end, in Q4 last year the Broadband Forum launched “Broadband 20/20”, a visionary framework that aims to leverage the above technology trends and channel it into new revenue-generating services for residential, small business and multi-user customers. 

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“You go to all these conferences and you keep seeing the same presentations talking about how revenues are going down and data usage is going up and how painful it was to go through this,” explains Broadband Forum CEO Robin Mersh. “Then you’d get the technology discussions happening where people are saying that IoT is going to save us, NFV is going to save us, SDN is going to save us, we’ll solve the bandwidth issue and that will save us. So it occurred to us that yes, there’s a lot of change happening and a lot of pressure, but what really does the industry need? We know the ARPU bandwidth paradigm has got to change, otherwise it’s a race to the bottom. So what does that other path look like? That got us to focus on services.”    

What it comes down to, says the industry forum’s strategic marketing director Mark Fishburn, is to find a way to deliver to people what they actually want: a seamless connection to whatever network application and service they want without being tied to the device they’re using.     

“They want to make sure that it actually works so that when you’re on a Skype call it doesn’t keep going down every five minutes, or if you’re working from home on WebEx, it actually functions correctly, or if you bought your shiny 4K/8K TV to do your gaming that it works the same way as your standard definition out-of-box TV,” Fishburn says. “Operators want to deliver that, but they have to figure out how to make money from that so that they can deliver it. So what we did was look at the different technologies that are becoming available, and look to see how they can enable this and see how it can be applied.”     

Key enablers    

At the core of Broadband 20/20 are two key technology enablers: NFV/SDN, and gigabit broadband access via FTTx and copper fortified by G.fast.     

The latter is self-explanatory - access networks need more capacity to satisfy data demand, and we’re already seeing more gigabit-level broadband services being launched (see sidebar, “100m gigabit broadband subs by 2020”).     

Meanwhile, NFV and SDN give broadband networks the flexibility, agility and dynamic management they need to be able to offer new services on top of those gigabit pipes - and provision them quickly. 

“Thanks to NFV we see lots of opportunities to use and deploy it for services that weren’t really viable before because there was no agility there,” says Fishburn. “Internet service takes awhile to get up and running and deployed or changed, but this is a world where services really do need to be on demand. Maybe it takes you a minute to do it the first time, but the second time you want to use the services it’s got to be there instantly even though it’s being dynamically provisioned.”    

As it happens, the Broadband Forum has been ahead of the game in terms of dynamic management - its flagship TR-069 CPE WAN management protocol was designed to enable intelligent CPE gateways that could be automatically provisioned from the network edge. However, Fishburn explains, TR-069 is device-centric rather than service-centric, and that’s not going to work in, say, an IoT environment.     

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