Förderjahr 2022 / Stipendien Call #17 / ProjektID: 6403 / Projekt: Fibre alongside the Power Lines
In our exploration of the digital divide and how the energy and fibre optics network come to be related through the broadband strategy of Burgenland, we already learned a bit about telecommunications networks. For instance, telecommunications networks are not the same anywhere, and they are commonly differentiated according to core, backhaul and access networks. We have also briefly come across the ducts necessary for fibre optics networks. But until now, we have not really looked into what fibre optics networks actually do. In other words, why are they interesting types of networks – and what do fibre optics networks mean for rural communities? These are the questions I (1) would like to focus on for today.
One of the first things we encountered in this blog series were the huge differences between the available download speeds in different places. To recall, at the Neues Institutsgebäude in Vienna, the ‘worst’ available fixed broadband offer gives you 1000 Mbit/s download and 102 Mbit/s upload speeds, while in Großmürbisch, the best offer you can get is 30 Mbit/s download and 10 Mbit/s upload speeds. The reason for these differences is that the Neues Institutsgebäude has access to a fibre optics network, whereas in Großmürbisch, you can have broadband either based on DSL (2 Mbit/s download) or on WiFi (30 Mbit/s download).
So one of the things where we see a difference between these networks is speed. Fibre optics networks are capable of higher speeds than other types of networks. In some cases, the difference is significant – like between the networks available in Großmürbisch and those available at my university in Vienna. At other times, the difference is smaller: other technologies can be capable of achieving 1000 Mbit/s download speeds as well, at least under the right circumstances. Fibre optics networks offer such high download and upload speeds because they are made from glass or plastic, and on such a medium, information can be transmitted as light signals. Light waves are faster than signals which are transmitted electrically (e.g. via DSL cables) and they are not susceptible to electromagnetic interference.(2) But why are these transmission speeds important?
Bandwidths in use
On the one hand, we have the networks, which we are discussing – but these networks are inseparable from the way we use them. When you look at fixed networks, subscriptions are usually at premise level. In other words, there is one subscription for a household or a business which may be used by more than one person. This means that whichever speed you subscribe to, you are sharing these speeds with everyone in your household. For instance, if you have a subscription that provides you with 1000 Mbit/s download speeds, that should be more than enough for yourself, no matter what you like to use the Internet for. But if you live with four other intensive users, that means that each user has about 200 Mbit/s available for downloads. Imagine you temporarily have nine other users: in that case, you each only get 100 Mbit/s at a time. Whichever network you have, it should be capable of handling peaks in usage which depend on the number of users – but also on requirements of whatever you are using the network for.
As we already know, certain applications (3) require certain bandwidths to work. If you would like to stream a movie in 4K, then you will need between 15-50 Mbit/s. The bandwidth required by different applications has changed a lot in the course of time. If you take a look at an article from 2012 discussing bandwidth requirements of different applications, you will see that the requirements for videoconferencing are cited as 300-500 kbps upload and download speeds. Look at Zoom’s requirements today, for instance, and you will see that 2 Mbit/s upload and download are required for a single screen for a single user. Adding on to that the proliferation of applications which we use simultaneously, and all of our connected devices, our bandwidth requirements have grown considerably over the past decades. And all of this happened within ten years, which is just a fraction of a telecommunications cable’s lifetime.
Fibre for the ages
Telecommunications cables do have a long lifespan. Whichever kind of network you build, the choice will last you at least as long as the cable itself. This means that the choices made about how premises are connected, which kind of cable is used (e.g. DSL or fibre), the operational expense (e.g. energy) and the bandwidth capacity of the network are to a large extent shaped by the decisions around which cable you use to build this network and where you place it. Changing these choices at a later point in time is not so easy because it means rearranging material objects, perhaps developing new processes, and in any case, it is usually expensive. All of this is to say that once they are built, networks are not very flexible in terms of their material properties, but these material properties need to be suitable for whatever we imagine will happen during the lifespan of this network.
This is where we get back to the question of bandwidths. A lot has changed within the past ten years in terms of the bandwidth required by applications, but the networks in rural areas have not changed so much. Considering the related expenses, it is likely that rural areas will not see the same flurry of activity around updating networks that urban areas experience. What you can do, however, is build networks that satisfy the future usage habits of subscribers – that is, whatever we imagine the usage requirements to be like at that distant moment in time when the networks in this particular rural area will be replaced or upgraded again.
Fibre optics networks matter to (some) rural communities because they promise to close the digital divide in terms of access for the next fifty years or longer. They put rural households onto the same level as urban businesses – whether a premise is used for leisure or business ceases to matter for the vast majority of cases. In this way, fibre optics networks make people even across space and time.
Looking first into the question of the digital divide and then into how the broadband strategy of Burgenland aims to address it, we have finally dedicated ourselves to the fibre optics networks themselves. Fibre optics networks offer bandwidth which, from today’s perspective, seems unlimited – yet once you divide it up amongst users and applications, the Gigabit does not seem quite as endless anymore. This is especially the case once you stop looking at current usage and begin to think about what usage may be like by the time the network is changed. This invites us to reflect on which kinds of demand the network will face once it is built - and, in turn, which kinds of demand the network is built for. For my next blog post, I will elaborate a little bit on how I have come to see 'demand' and the role it plays when networks are built. Interestingly, this ties up with where networks are built, which is part of the results I want to discuss after giving you a primer on demand. Stay tuned!
1 My master’s thesis is in the field of Science-Technology-Society Studies at the University of Vienna. I also work for the Austrian telecommunications regulator (RTR). Although the topic of my thesis falls into the field of telecommunications, this study is my own academic work and is not connected to the regulatory activities of RTR or TKK; in particular, the views expressed here are my own and do not prejudge the decisions taken by these regulatory bodies.
2 For this reason, the latency (or ping) and packet loss achieved in fibre optics networks are also considerably lower than in other networks. But we cannot see that on our map, and we will therefore stick to the speeds.
3 My use of the term ‘applications’ here does not aim to suggest that I am talking about mobile apps. Instead, I mean any broadband-based activity – sharing files, chatting with people, exchanging e-mails, meeting others in online worlds or comparing prices for utility subscriptions.