Telecom Italia's Gianfranco Ciccarella has a troubling message for Europe's operators: "The way we are designing networks is wrong," the Italian incumbent's vice president of global advisory services told attendees gathered at the recent Ultra-Broadband Forum in London. "We are not using the right platforms to improve quality of experience."
As everyone at the Forum was aware, operators have been eyeing technologies such as vectoring, G.fast and, ultimately, fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) to increase the bitrate in the last mile.
Yet throughput available to European broadband customers falls well short of that in the US -- when measured as a percentage of this bitrate -- despite the access network investments operators have made so far. As far as Ciccarella is concerned, the European industry needs to radically rethink its approach. (See Vectoring: Some Va-Va-Voom for VDSL, G.fast: The Dawn of Gigabit Copper? and TalkTalk's Small Fiber Beginnings.)
So what explains this apparent gulf in quality of experience between the US and Europe?
The big issue, as the Telecom Italia executive sees it, is Europe's failure to invest in technologies commonly deployed by high-profile web players such as Google. Think caching and web acceleration, for instance. A real-world example might be Netflix's Open Connect system, whereby the movie-streaming company installs its own caching servers in operator networks. (See OTT: Friend or Foe?.)
"Google is using caching and web acceleration to support terabytes of data," said Ciccarella. "If we don't use that type of platform we will never fully make use of the bandwidth available."
Operators, of course, are used to thinking about the first three layers of the famous OSI model, which breaks down the various elements of a communications system. But they may have to go further up the stack -- into the transport layer and beyond -- to reduce latency and improve performance on their broadband networks.
These aren't warnings that operators hear too often, and so it was interesting they were aired shortly after Lawrence Roberts -- who, as the founder of ARPANET, is regarded as one of the 'fathers' of the present-day Internet -- had voiced similar misgivings during his own presentation at the event. (See Go With The Flow, Says Arpanet Founder.)
Roberts didn't go as far as telling operators they were designing their networks in the wrong way. But he does reckon those networks will fail to deliver the throughput needed for bandwidth-hungry services of the future -- such as ultra-high definition TV and virtual reality gaming -- unless investments are channeled into better transport layer technologies.
This might all sound rather esoteric and unlikely to have a serious impact on operator revenues, but even small delays to the downloading of a web page can result in fewer page views and a significant fall in customer satisfaction, according to Ciccarella.
Notwithstanding wrangling over net neutrality, talk of revenue-sharing agreements between operators and OTT players is growing louder. Indeed, French incumbent Orange was reported to have struck just such a deal with Netflix as this blog was being written. But operators may struggle to negotiate favorable arrangements with OTT players unless they heed Ciccerella's advice. (See Eurobites: ARM Targets the Internet of Things.)
"Quality-of-experience platforms will improve throughput and allow operators to offer premium services to OTT players," said the Italian executive. "It's all about new business models for the operators."
— Iain Morris, Site Editor, Ultra-Broadband