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Network Operators Beef ­p Last Mile For Cord-Cutters

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Preparing to cut the cord.

As the new market dynamic of "cord-cutting" accelerates, a growing amount of data traffic will course through the network.


Networking equipment vendor Cisco recently released its forecast for the amount of traffic expected to cross the Internet in the next five years—and it will more than double. Published under the aegis of the company's Visual Networking Index, the forecast offers annual compound growth projections of more than 20% over the next five years.

For example, the annual amount of traffic traversing the Internet will surpass the zettabyte level—1 sextillion bytes, or 88 exabytes per month—this year. By 2020, that is expected to more than double, to 2.3 zettabytes (194 exabytes monthly).

According to Cisco, most of that traffic will be generated by consumer demand, by a ratio better than 4 to 1 over business demand, and 82% of that consumer traffic will be Internet video, up from 70% in 2015. Other recent empirical data from researchers Aviv Nevo, Jonathan Williams, and colleagues have shown the actual video demand percentage is slightly lower than Cisco's forecast, at 55%, but Williams, an economics professor at the University of North Carolina (UNC), said the projected growth rate illustrates a looming dichotomy for network operators: much more content is going to be consumed by many more devices over an architecture that will have to offer greater customization than consumers have had access to before.

This new market dynamic, "cord-cutting," is accelerating, virtually no matter which methodology analysts use to gauge it. As one Cisco executive said, no matter what it's called, it means there will be many more packets coursing through the network.

"To an Internet Service Provider, cord-cutting traffic just looks like more data," said Conrad Clemson, senior vice president and general manager of service provider software at Cisco. "We know our SPs have seen a 50% increase in traffic on networks."

Such an increase, then, naturally brings this question: can the last-mile networks handle the anticipated boom?

Keeping Up With Demand

Essentially, cord-cutters are bypassing the traditional packaging of video programming channels offered by cable operators, telephone companies, and satellite providers to instead download content on a more a la carte—and an ostensibly more economical—basis, "over the top" via their broadband connection. In their ongoing research, Williams said he and Nevo have had access to data from end-users subscribing to Sling TV, the "skinny bundle" broadband-delivered product from satellite operator Dish Network.

"In particular, we were looking at cord-cutting events, where somebody dropped pay TV service," Williams said. "Say they were watching a lot of sports or HDTV; Sling actually offers those things. Essentially, people just transferred viewing from pay TV to Sling and there you get a few hundred percent increase in Sling TV traffic—massive, massive, massive amounts. If this becomes widespread, most networks just can't handle it. So the question becomes, what are they going to do?"

Scott Mispagel, senior vice president for network planning and engineering at U.S.-based telecom provider Frontier Communications, said he is more than confident his company is building out sufficiently to meet market demand for customized content. Alon Bernstein, principal engineer at Cisco, said there is plenty of capacity in the network to handle the demands of residential cord-cutting.

"It’s a question of quality, not minimum," Bernstein said. "A 4K image will not appear as a super-high-definition image if compressed too much. Cisco has a solution called VQAN (Video Quality of Experience Analytics and Network optimization) that allocates bandwidth to meet a certain quality criteria, rather than just meet a certain bandwidth envelope. For example, a talking head in a newscast requires less bandwidth then an action scene. There is plenty of bandwidth in the HFC (hybrid fiber-coaxial) plant, and technologies such as full-duplex DOCSIS can carry tens of gigabits per second, so there is no need to switch to fiber to accommodate higher bandwidth demands."

Ian Olgeirson, research director for analyst firm SNL Kagan, said the new cable technology, DOCSIS 3.1, currently in test mode in several markets, which features 10 Gbps downstream and 1 Gbps upstream capabilities, not only introduces new capacity for cable operators, but also provides stimulus for competing ISPs to keep step.

Mispagel said he is confident Frontier is up to the challenge. While some of its footprint includes fiber-to-the-home infrastructure, other portions include legacy copper in the last mile. Mispagel said the company is extending fiber closer to the edge of its network, where legacy copper prevails.

"We are focused on getting fiber to the best points in the network," he said, "and there are DSL advancements, such as VDSL2 profile 17a, 35b, and—all sorts of things that are enabling dozens or hundreds of megabits per second, maybe even a gigabit on the fast side—over copper."

Mispagel said Frontier analysts do not examine individual household patterns after a service area has been upgraded—an upgrade of DSL plant at the far end of a line can raise downstream rates from 1.5 or 2 megabits per second to 7.5 to 8 Mbps without requiring the customer to pay more—adding, "we do watch the behavior of the network in aggregate when we make changes like that, and that's ideally what we want. We want customers to see the value of the broadband connections we provide."

Mispagel said the company's engineers consider bringing fiber to within 5,000 to 10,000 feet of end-users the "sweet spot" of maximizing the network's capabilities. "Bringing fiber to the home may not be necessary given the speed demands of a given market, and it may come at the cost of neighborhoods that won't get any upgrades if we invest that way," he said.

UNC's Williams also mentioned the emergence of technologies such as local caching, as exemplified by Redwood City, CA-based Qwilt. The company says caching popular titles closer to the network edge can reduce OTT load across a network by 80%, which "translates into substantial savings on bandwidth, peering, and other transit-related costs."

Policy, Market Forces Loom Large

If network capacity is sufficient—Frontier recommends at least 6 Mbps for its new Freedom TV cord-cutting product (currently being offered in Elk Grove, CA) and Sling TV recommends 5 Mbps for streaming to a single PC or TV —the large-scale trends that emerge from the cord-cutting phenomenon may be the result of factors other than engineering.

"The regulatory environment and content rights environment have a lot to do with how customizable content bundles can be," Cisco's Clemson said. "A few years ago, skinny bundles were all the rage. As the over-the-top app environment emerged last year, it sure looks like what we are actually seeing is consumers will have the ability to get the content when and where they want to get it."

Gregory Goth is an Oakville, CT-based writer who specializes in science and technology.


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