Where is the Future of Broadband? DSL, Cable, Fiber Optics & Wireless

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In the modern age, the pace at which technology advances is absolutely relentless—especially with regard to such critical functions as broadband. Here’s an overview of some trends in broadband development, and some promising technologies for the future.

DSL Broadband

DSL broadband is the current standard for Internet connections, presenting fast, reliable internet connections in any area with a reasonable density of people that will enable DSL companies to make a proper profit. While this keeps rural people out of the loop, DSL has served large population centers well for almost as long as broadband technologies have existed. DSL currently exists in the ADSL2 and ADSL2+ forms. However, a new variety known as VDSL might be able to speed it up a bit more, reaching up to 50Mbps.

However, DSL is well due for replacement. There are a myriad of other technologies vying to take its place as the new standard:

Cable Broadband

Cable is the other popular broadband technology currently out there, and with good reason. Another fast, reliable source of broadband connectivity, except this one offers even greater speeds than traditional DSL networks, and is often conveniently bundled with cable TV and phone lines, making it a hit in the consumer market.

Cable and DSL networks are beginning to be. hybridized—that is, using both traditional metal wires as well as fiber optics. More on this below:

Fiber Optics & FTTH

Fiber optic technology is already beginning to replace DSL in many places. In using fiber optics over DSL’s archaic copper wires, it makes transmission of data over long distances much more cost effective. This is typically known as FTTH, or Fiber To The Home. All data services can be managed by a single, super-efficient optical cable. Then separate cords dedicated to different services, such as television, phone, and Internet, will be a thing of the past.

Wireless Broadband

In places where DSL and other broadband connections are unavailable, such as in extremely rural places, people end up turning to alternative technologies such as wireless. Wi-fi is transmitted over radio, and there’s no reason, in theory, why it can’t be done over long distances with narrow beams.

While commercial enterprises haven’t really been taking advantage of this possibility yet, out in rural areas there are innumerable wireless hobbyists who rig up their own wifi networks on top of everything from trees to silos. Here’s a map of current WISPS in the US. Such wifi exists at two frequencies: the traditional 802.11, the same found in most wireless routers, and 802.16, better known as WiMax. While for the moment older frequencies dominate, WiMax promises to increase both the range and speed of such far-flung wireless networks. The principal problem with wireless? The requirement that each end of the wireless connection be within reasonable line of sight of each other. While this is all well and good for rural Kansas, rural areas that are inaccessible due to excessive hills and mountains might just remain so for the time being. Check out the next page for more broadband technologies to expect in the near future, from satellites to stratellites to even broadband over powerlines.

Satellite Broadband

As far-out as this might sound, satellite is beginning to compete with other broadband technologies, both costwise and in effectiveness. High speeds are still hard to come by, usually topping off around 2,048 kbit/s download and 128 kbit/s upload. However, there is an incredibly high latency, due to the satellite being, well, in orbit, and absolutely no way around this problem. Thus, while using satellite isn’t all that great for anything that requires real time communication, it allows access to areas that simply can’t be touched by other types of broadband.

Stratellite Broadband

No, this isn’t misspelled. To combat the high latency of satellite broadband without losing its incredible flexibility, stratellite was dreamed up—placing mobile satellites not in orbit, but in the Earth’s stratosphere, a mere 13 miles above the ground. While the coverage won’t be quite as much as with the satellite approach, remarkably few such stratellites would still be required to provide vast areas of land with coverage—an estimate of 12 for the entirety of the United States. However, the actual technology behind this is still in the works, so don’t be expecting it anytime soon.

Cellular Broadband

Think of everywhere your cell phone has access. Now think if you had broadband access everywhere you had network coverage. That’s a lot of Internet connectivity. With mobile phone towers moving into 3G third generation networks and cell networks taking advantage of fast data transfer, this is already a clear possibility for many. Expect the availability of cellular broadband to only increase as time progresses.

Power Line Broadband

Power lines are everywhere, connecting every house—and every computer. Why not project broadband over them? This is known as BPL, Broadband over Power Lines. Think: broadband access everywhere that there’s power. Just plugging in your computer to a power outlet would also give it internet access!

Power line broadband has a few problems. The biggest one is that power lines are an inherently noisy environment, partly because they weren’t designed to transmit anything other than power in the first place, and partly because every device that is connected to the power line creates its own frequencies and harmonics that can interfere with any data transmission. There are techniques to work around this, however.

Another problem is with the frequencies that BPL utilizes. Because powerlines are unshielded, meaning that anything that gets transmitted through the lines also is dissipated into thin air. The frequencies that are favored for BPL, precisely because they are less sensitive to the usual power line noise, are the same ones that are used for radio, including some international military frequencies. Shielded power lines are the obvious solution, though it would require an expensive overhaul of the current power grid.

Yet another problem with the currently available power line technology is the existence of transformers. BPL can’t transmit information directly through transformers, requiring a repeater to be built in to complete the connection. US power grids tend to have a single transformer for every house, making it very cost inefficient, though European power grids tend to share transformers with tens or hundreds of houses, making it a distinct possibility.