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Up, Up and Away: Broadband Takes Off Globally

Numbers of global broadband users have grown rapidly in recent years and are now fast approaching the quarter of a billion mark, fuelled by a number of factors, including a host of exciting broadband-enabled applications and content as well as proactive national stances. Although huge contrasts remain between those countries whose populations are broadband 'haves,' to those who are 'have-nots', the prospects for broadband growth across the globe are very positive.

 

Rapid Take-Up so Far

  Broadband penetration by technology, top 20 economies worldwide, December 2005
Once upon a time accessing the web was a lengthy and unreliable process, involving a screeching dial-up analogue connection that often monopolized the only phoneline into the home, delivering at best speeds of 56kbps. Despite this less than high-speed technology, the power of the web was so great that over 77m users, many on dial up connections, were accessing the web in 1996, up threefold from just 25m in 1994, according to ITU.

As internet user numbers spiraled and internet-enabled applications grew more complex, the demand increased for 'always-on' connections with much higher data rates. Consequently more and more users have switched to broadband. In recent years, broadband user numbers have skyrocketed in a number of countries across the world, and by 2005 some 217m people were solely broadband users, according to ITU, over three times as many as in 2002.

Countries such as the Republic of Korea, the Netherlands, Hong Kong (China), Denmark and Iceland are the world leaders in terms of user numbers, with Iceland topping the global broadband penetration league in 2005, with a rate of 26.5% according to ITU, narrowly pipping former leader the Republic of Korea, which stood at 25.2%, to the post. ITU analysts attribute high broadband penetration to a number of factors including proactive government policies promoting the growth of high speed access, a transparent regulatory environment, and a dynamic understanding by service providers of user's needs.

In terms of access technologies, DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) is the most popular access medium in most of the developed world. Cable networks also have a strong showing - particularly in countries where this can be combined with large existing cable TV customer bases, such as the US and Canada. Wireless technologies are also beginning to make their mark with technologies such as WiFi (IEEE 802.11b or Wireless Fidelity), WiMax or WiBro (in the Republic of Korea) helping to boost the uptake of high speed internet.

 

New Applications & Content Drive Demand for Speed

From sending large email attachments, sharing digital photographs through to voice over IP, IPTV, user-generated content websites such as YouTube and interactive gaming, broadband has paved the way and also been driven by a host of different bandwidth-intensive applications, many of which have now become a firm part of our everyday lives. Without broadband none of these would be viable. As demand for these types of applications increases, so too does the need for high-speed access. Now, new models such as Multiple Play are emerging, and fast gaining ground. Multiple Play schemes offer different services such as voice, broadband and television over the same network, helping cut end-user cost and installation complexities. The potential for all of these is immense, although a number of crucial questions including regulation, cost, traffic capacity and handling- in particular through the issue of network neutrality-still need to be addressed.

 

Competition is Critical

Another essential factor in the success of broadband is a healthy competitive climate. More competition means broader choice and ultimately lower prices for end users. Markets such as the Republic of Korea, Hong Kong (China), the US, France or the UK -to name just a few-are all highly competitive, with large numbers of broadband providers, and consequently a wide choice for end users. Competition needs to be supported by an effective regulatory body to ensure that it functions well and that new market entrants, for example, are granted access to the unbundled local loop to help them offer services directly to the end-user. Regionally, in terms of the level of competition on the internet market, Europe leads the way with a 100% competitive internet services market in 2005, according to ITU, meaning that no single monopoly providers operating within this sector. Asia-Pacific and the Americas also have highly competitive Internet markets with levels of 96% and 93% respectively.

 

Governments Have A Key Role to Play

The role that governments themselves play in stimulating broadband should not be overlooked. Governments have widely acknowledged broadband as a growth engine. As well as providing public services such as e-government and e-learning, broadband has helped open up new markets, and helped economies become and remain highly competitive.

In economies with high broadband penetration, it is the government's active commitment and the initiatives undertaken to extending the reach of the technology which have been a major factor in the technology's growth.

In the Asia-Pacific region, for example, governments in a number of countries have been active in fostering the take-up of broadband. The Republic of Korea, for example, has undertaken a whole raft of measures from the construction of a fiber backbone to the creation of incentive schemes for broadband in rural areas, and from providing free internet to schools to becoming a pre-eminent user of the technology itself.

A number of EU (European Union) ICT initiatives such as "Broadband for all" are now in place. This sets down key action points to facilitate the rollout of broadband including the strengthening of national broadband strategies and the channeling of EU and national funding to help extend broadband into less developed and rural areas.

 

Positive Prospects for Developing World, Too

While broadband has been enjoying a healthy growth in the developed world, the story in the developing world has been a somewhat different tale, so far. According to ITU, Internet penetration in the African region stood at a mere 2.6% at the end of 2004, a stark contrast to a highly broadband-penetrated nation such as the Republic of Korea, where broadband users alone number over 12 million.

All this could slowly be changing; although broadband rates in least developed countries remain low, there are some positive indicators of growth. Not only has teledensity more than doubled in most least developed countries (LDCs) since 2000, some have boosted connectivity by 20 times or more, thanks to rapid growth in the deployment of mobile technologies. Internet user penetration has also increased, with a number of LDCs now reaching the 5% mark; Cape Verde and Togo both stood at 4.9% and Senegal at 4.6%.

Of course, Broadband has not yet been launched in every country around the world, but there are signs that popular demand for services is encouraging more countries to upgrade from dial-up to broadband. In 2005, for example, over 89% of all Internet subscribers in Senegal were DSL subscribers, compared with 70% in the Maldives and 17% in Cape Verde.

Of course, DSL is only one method of providing broadband access, and for many developing and least-developed countries, the lack of fixed line infrastructure, amongst other factors, hampers the prospects for large-scale DSL deployment. However, wireless technologies, such as the long-range WiMAX, might be a viable option to to "leapfrog" the need for traditional fixed line infrastructure and provide access to voice, data and Internet services in regions which previously did not have ICT access. Similarly, IMT-2000 or 3G technologies are a viable option to provide portable internet access. Used in this way, these technologies could provide a very broad reaching solution for extending broadband access in developing and least developed markets.

Indeed, extending the reach of wireless access is one of the many areas in which ITU is active, carrying out vital work on spectrum, examining innovative applications of broadband, producing a number of key publications, as well as helping advise countries on the most suitable wireless technologies for accessing ICTs.

 

Broadband's Future: Better, Bigger, Faster and More Mobile

From Senegal to Singapore, from Cape Verde, to Iceland and the Republic of Korea, broadband is taking off all over the world.

The rise of broadband in much of the world has left narrowband, or dial up, looking a much less desirable option, both in terms of quality of service and cost. Ultimately, these two factors are likely to see the majority of remaining dial-up customers opt for broadband connections in the near future.

But high-speed growth is not likely to just stop once everyone has a broadband connection. Access to broadband is not only getting faster, but it is also getting more mobile. Highly data intensive applications, such as IPTV, video on demand or online gaming are driving early domestic adopters as well as companies to upgrade the speed of broadband connections, with download speeds of up to 30Mbit/s-once the preserve of large companies-now available at a premium cost.

With so many new applications, the need for improved underlying infrastructure, faster speeds and the ability to handle large data transactions is ongoing, and across much of the developed world, operators in the Republic of Korea and Japan have been rolling out even higher speed VDSL (Very high bit rate digital subscriber line) technology. Operators in a number of European countries including Germany, France, Belgium and Spain have also been deploying the technology.

Meanwhile, FTTH (Fiber to the home), a broadband technology offering even faster speeds than DSL- and one which is also well suited to providing entire buildings with broadband access, is being deployed, in a number of countries worldwide including in Asia Pacific, Europe and North America. In countries such as Japan it is used particularly for providing connectivity for whole buildings while in the US there have been a number of fiber rollouts to communities and different municipalities.

A number of advanced wireless technologies are also being used to expand the reach of fixed broadband access, with last mile broadband technologies such as Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11) already being used to provide broadband access in airports, restaurants and many other public places. A number of cities and even countries - in the case of Mauritius, for example- have announced plans to implement wireless broadband networks. In addition, many operators around the world are already conducting trials using WiMax technology.

Be it wired or wireless, broadband has firmly made its mark. High-speed Internet technologies are showing signs of taking off across the whole world, and carry much potential for both developed and developing markets.

 

 

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Updated : 2007-07-12