The UK almost exactly matches Nielsen's
predictions. Sweden is 10 years ahead of other
Traditional ADSL traffic pattern for a mid-sized ISP show
browsing, including Flash from YouTube and HTTP downloads,
Weekday late morning off-peak traffic on a consumer fibre
All fibre-to-the-home investment debates typically feature two
basic questions about bandwidth: Who needs all that bandwidth
and what will they use it for?
On his way out of BT in July last year, chairman Christopher
Bland confronted this very question. At the time he questioned
whether "most consumers" would actually need broadband speeds
of any more than 16 or 24 megabits.
The UK's Broadband Stakeholders Group subsequently took a
different view, reporting the latter speeds - facilitated by BT
investments in ADSL2+ last mile technology - would be too slow
to meet the demands of high-demand homes and businesses by
The rest, as they say, is history: Bland has since been
overtaken by BT's £1.5 billion investment plan into
50-100 megabits a second fibre - see page 10.
The conclusion I draw from this is simple. Whatever the demand
is - or is perceived to be - investment decisions are already
being made on the basis that it will increase over time.
So what evidence are these investment decisions based upon? Is
supply stimulating demand? Do current IT applications and
consumption patterns exist to support such huge increases in
bandwidth from pedestrian two-megabit ADSL to ultra-fast fibre
Silicon versus fibre parallels
The pace of development of computer processing power was
made understandable to the majority when Gordon Moore devised
his law and propelled his surname into technical
Moore's Law tells us that - until further notice at least -
computing power (the number of transistors on a processor, to
be precise) will double every two years.
That increase doesn't just benefit computers of course, but
also mobile phones, digital cameras, games consoles, media
players ... the list is almost endless.
Why anyone would ever want to use such an increase in computing
power is rarely, if ever, questioned. Applications get more
powerful, smart phones get smarter, pictures and movies get
sharper. It is as if the integrity of Moore's Law depends upon
the demands being placed upon processing power. Without such
demands, perhaps no-one would continue the innovation
Less known, yet of at least as much importance, is
telecommunications' equivalent: Nielsen's Law of Internet
First postulated by Jakob Nielsen in 1998, it operates along
similar, straightforward principles to Moore's, but with a
wide-ranging research study undertaken in collaboration with
Ventura Team, the FTTH Council Europe has been the first to ask
the question: what is its correlation with demand?
The FTTH Council Europe's ground-breaking study into current
broadband trends has found that improvements in broadband
connectivity speeds are having a direct impact on consumer use
of bandwidth, with demand per broadband home growing at almost
20% a year over the last five years.
The research is believed to be the first of its kind to
directly test the hypothesis of Nielsen's Law of Internet
Bandwidth against patterns of fibre and ADSL broadband usage in
Our exercise involved examining data from broadband markets in
Poland, Spain, Sweden, the UK and France, and supplementing
this with further research among users, ISPs and senior
industry contacts. International comparisons were also made,
including with US and New Zealand markets.
Law breaker, or abider?
While Moore sees computing power growing 50% a year, Nielsen
states that the physical bandwidth available to a high-end user
grows at 50% per year. For the first time, the Council intended
to find out if this increase in available speed is true and is
related to an increase in consumer demand and usage.
In summary, the FTTH Council Europe report findings are as
• European broadband access speeds are rising at 50%+ a
• high-end broadband usage - that is, consumption rather
than access speed - per home is growing at 20% a year;
• FTTH broadband homes drive three times more traffic than
ADSL in Europe.
The first part of the research tested Nielsen's Law from a
technology perspective. It was found that a decade after it was
first conceived, Nielsen's Law is still working well as a guide
to the trend in broadband access speeds, as the growth rate of
50% a year held true as an average across the European
The chart illustrates the trend curves for broadband access
speeds in five countries, clearly showing Sweden as perhaps 10
or so years ahead of the others. The UK almost exactly matches
Nielsen's predictions - the rate is 49.87% compared to
Nielsen's 50% target - while the remaining countries are very
similar. France fares better than most, and this is largely
related to its recent acceleration in FTTH adoption over the
last 12 months affecting projections over the coming three to
Secondly, the study tested Nielson's Law from a usage
perspective, examining European broadband traffic patterns
across a sample of 100,000 broadband homes using FTTH. The
results of this research show that high speed broadband usage
is growing at an annual rate of 20%. This usage relates to the
total traffic volume over a given period of time; or from a
long-term average bitrate.
To further qualify this growth in consumer demand for increased
bandwidth, the study compared fibre broadband usage with ADSL
across four European countries and found that fibre homes
currently drive three times more traffic than ADSL homes. The
simple question of demand seems to have a simple answer; when
customers have faster connections they use them more.
This rise in usage when networks are fibre is significant at
this stage of market evolution. Already there is a large
difference between the traffic used by ADSL and fibre users,
and this despite the fact that many of the mass market
applications that will realise the potential of fibre are not
even available yet.
The Council expects this to increase significantly as fibre
adoption continues to increase across Europe and further
services are developed with fibre in mind.
High speeds equal low latencies
For many applications it is not only the sheer throughput
but - more so - the latency involved in the transfer of large
amounts of data which can only be reduced by high access
bitrates. In the same way that the gigabit ethernet interface
on most modern PCs is not there in order to generate a
sustainable traffic of one gigabit a second, but in order to
reduce the time required to transfer large files, the top speed
of FTTH connections is not necessarily its intended continual
or average speed.
If you've ever indulged in Gran Turismo or World of Warcraft
online, you'll understand the critical importance of low
latency. Gaming response times are largely governed by human
eye-hand reactions, to the tune of about 100 milliseconds. The
processing power and screen refresh capabilities of your gaming
platform, meanwhile, will contribute another 75 milliseconds of
Both of these factors constitute a level playing field for all
gamers, no matter where they are or what connection they are
using. However, using a fibre connection adds almost no
meaningful latency - merely a few milliseconds.
On a good ADSL connection however, ADSL firewall traversal and
line delays add another 100 milliseconds. Slim margins perhaps,
but when online gaming is consistently listed among the top
entertainment pursuits of a hundred million or so European
11-24 year-olds, it's an advantage most would like the
opportunity to enjoy.
Games are not the only applications where latency and quality
of service counts; far from it. High-quality - multipoint -
video-conferencing, online multimedia communications and other
real-time services might not be quite as trendy as World of
Warcraft, but they have at least the same or higher
requirements when it comes to network latency or transfer
In the Swedish market, much comparable data is available
enabling us to evaluate the differing mix of user behaviours
between traditional DSL ISPs and fibre-network operators.
The second and third charts show how browsing - including Flash
and HTTP download - dominate the traffic of a mid-sized Swedish
ADSL ISP, while traffic on a Swedish consumer fibre network is
largely composed of file-sharing or peer-to-peer
The comparison indicates that all consumer broadband users
demand entertainment services, while in the fibre model the
larger available bandwidth and speed of connectivity is
enabling the access and exchange of large files, presumably
because uploading and downloading are so much more rapid.
The far side of the chasm
In the past, discussions related to fibre-technology
deployment could be divisive. Some staunchly defend and
advocate fibre as the ultimate aim for 21st century broadband
development; others reject it out of hand. Our research makes
the case in favour, but not by itself.
Crucially, it sheds light upon the unseen business cases that
European incumbents themselves have closely evaluated and
agreed. Markets succeed when they meet a need. Today the voices
within our industry supporting the need for fibre are in the
majority, and they've committed significant investment to back
it up. GTB
Joeri Van Bogaert is president of the FTTH Council
The FTTH Council Europe will continue its research into
significant trends in broadband consumer behaviour. Findings
will be announced at the FTTH Council Europe's next annual
conference to be held in Copenhagen on February 11-12
For more information, go to www.conference.ftthcouncil.eu