Electronic Design

Broadband Broadens To Satiate Consumer Demand

Wireless gets all the attention these days. Its continued development and widespread adoption across all areas make it the darling of the semiconductor and cell-phone industries.

While that relationship will continue to flourish, some serious work is being done on the wired side. Most of the latest highspeed data efforts involve wired technologies like optical and new Ethernet variations. In fact, broadband and Ethernet are at the forefront of activities in 2009.

UBIQUITOUS BROADBAND • Broadband refers primarily to high-speed Internet connections available to the public and business. With e-mail and the Web at the center of most business and personal communications, everyone now needs a connection that can handle growing higher-speed applications like video.

About 57% of U.S. households have a broadband connection via cable or a DSL line. Also, about 92% of regular Internet users in the U.S. use broadband. But as good as those figures sound, the U.S. truly lags other developed countries in broadband penetration. Europe dominates, with most of its citizens online with fast connections.

Why does the U.S. lag in broadband? The key reasons are government regulations and the rural nature of the country. Compared to Japan, Korea, and the European Union, the U.S. has lots of wide open spaces with a sparse population. Most Internet service providers, cable TV providers, telephone carriers, and other purveyors can’t find a profitable way to provide broadband services to such rural areas.

Capital investment is far greater than any projected profits. But that problem is coming to an end as new broadband wireless services will soon be available. Overall broadband growth is expected to continue at a 12% rate, which is down from the past years’ growth of 18%.

The Broadband Data Improvement Act, signed by President Bush this past October, is one step toward more clearly defining who has broadband, and at what locations. Previously, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said any data service delivering a data rate greater than 200 kbits/s was broadband. The new law defines more specific categories that include rate ranges of 200 to 768 kbits/s, 768 kHz to 1.5 Mbits/s, 1.5 to 3 Mbits/s, 3 to 6 Mbits/s, and above 6 Mbits/s.

The act requires broadband service providers to keep track of how many subscribers they have in each category. Correlating this new data with available census data, the government can better determine the state of broadband in the country needs—leading to future solutions.

MULTIPLE SOLUTIONS IN PROGRESS • On the other hand, several new options are arriving to increase broadband penetration. These include a mix of wired and wireless technologies and services.

One of the most promising involves WiMAX broadband wireless technology. It was developed as a metro wireless network to compete with cable and DSL for broadband business. Sprint Nextel enabled its first WiMAX service in Baltimore last year, with Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta coming online this year. Other key areas are targeted as funds for the buildout become available.

The FCC recently approved the merger of Sprint’s WiMAX spinoff XOHM and broadband supplier Clearwire. The new wireless broadband company endeavors to blanket the U.S. with high-speed wireless data connections through a service known as Clear. With lower capital expenditures that don’t require stringing wires or burying cables, Clear will be a primary service for rural areas lacking broadband. Look for combined cdma2000 and WiMAX modems for laptops from Sprint soon.

Another wireless option would be the high-speed data services offered by many cellular service providers. A 3G data card in a laptop will provide broadband coverage in areas that currently have 3G service but no other broadband. Strengthening this practice, some laptop vendors will begin embedding 3G cellular modules in future models.

The GSM Association is promoting “Mobile Broadband” to make consumers aware of this option. And with the rollout of femtocells, which are home basestations, 3G service will provide another high-speed connection option.

Satellite broadband data services are also available in some areas. Downlink speeds are limited to about 500 kbits/s max, and uplink is via dialup. It’s a poor offering, but it’s the only high-speed option in some rural areas. Such service isn’t expected to survive if WiMAX becomes available. Further, most satellite transponders weren’t designed for voice, video, and heavy data traffic. Too much data will overload even the best satellite transponders.

On another front, fiber to the home (FTTH) continues to grow thanks to Verizon’s FiOS system efforts. This huge investment is paying off for Verizon, as this program has the highest satisfaction rating of any broadband service nationwide. Expect that rollout to continue as Verizon can invest in that infrastructure.

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Another potential broadband solution, broadband over power line (BPL), is rearing its ugly head again. This technique of modulating broadband data on ac power lines isn’t new. Implementing a system that works fast enough and doesn’t interfere with radio services in the spectrum used by the modulation (orthogonal frequency- division multiplexing, or OFDM, in the 2- to 80-MHz range typically) has taken several years.

So, the BPL industry learned a great deal during the last few years and wants to give it another try. Its representatives claim to have solved the interference problem with new and better mitigation methods. They also say data rates are higher. A new company called International Broadband Electric Communications Inc., along with IBM’s considerable help, is trying to get back into the business, especially to serve rural areas.

The power lines are already there, so all that’s needed is the broadband technology and the related service. New repeater technology with frequency agility control to reduce interference may just be what makes this work.

ETHERNET DOMINATES • In 2008, Ethernet celebrated its 35th year of continuous service. It’s survived many challenges and competitors and has grown and improved to become the one go-to network. But more is on the way. In addition to seeing Ethernet on backplanes, watch out for more localarea- network (LAN) as well as newer metro-area-network (MAN) and widearea- network (WAN) apps.

The adoption of 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10GE) continues at a rapid pace. Lower- cost optical transceivers are helping, and many data centers are adopting the shorter-range 10GE copper options that put those data rates on CAT6a cables up to 100 m long.

Work on higher-speed versions of Ethernet also continues, showing promise for both 40- and 100-Gbit/s versions in the near future. The Road to 100G Alliance recently merged with the Ethernet Alliance to form a stronger organization dedicated to achieving those high-rate versions.

According to Bill Weisinger, the 100G Alliance chairman, the organization’s goal is “to establish a comprehensive ecosystem of suppliers and users to accelerate the adoption and ongoing development of high-performance networking solutions.” The combined Alliances are expected to speed the development of new 802.3 standards for 40/100-Gbit/s technology.

Two major developments helped pave the way to 40/100 Gbits/s. First, techniques for chromatic and polarization mode dispersion have been developed, proven, and adopted, overcoming the primary roadblock to longdistance fiber connections at 40/100 Gbits/s. Second, the Optical Internetworking Foundation (OIF) adopted dual polarization-quadrature phaseshift keying (DP-QPSK) as the modulation method of choice for 100-Gbit/s systems. Some 40-Gbit/s systems plan to use that technique, too.

Ovum, an advisory and consulting services firm, indicated that 40-Gbit/s products and services are moving into the generalized deployment phase as the demand grows for consumer video. The biggest application is router-torouter connections. Adoptions will definitely increase as the industry works to reduce the cost of 40-Gbit/s equipment. Sprint just announced its successful Internet Protocol (IP) 40-Gbit/s link from New York to Sweden, a 9000-km distance, using dense wavelength-division multiplexing (DWDM) over a submarine fiber cable.

Another major ongoing development program is carrier Ethernet, a version of Ethernet that better fits the needs of carriers and service providers who must move huge amounts of data reliably with minimal latency and exceptional quality of service (QoS). Carrier Ethernet isn’t a version of the IEEE 802.3 standard, but was developed and supported by the Metro Ethernet Forum and the ITU.

These organizations are working on a standard that will make Ethernet a key transport network technology instead of its designation as a LAN-only technology. Carrier Ethernet will allow network providers to offer expanded services of pure IP data at reasonable rates. One promising target is cellular backhaul for 3G and 4G networks.

Other Ethernet developments include the growth of iSCSI for storage-area networks (SANs), Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) for SANs, and backplane Ethernet. However, Ethernet still competes with InfiniBand in connections to servers, mainframes, and supercomputers.

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