Topic of the month July 2011

There are but few Internet highways in Germany. Up until now, the copper-based telephone networks in particular have been exploited to the limits of technological feasibility, while the expansion of fibre-optic networks has progressed only haltingly. However, there are at present only few contents and services which require these ultra-fast connections. Yet owing to video applications in particular, broadband demand is set to multiply over the next few years.

Content such as TV programmes in HDTV quality (High Definition Television), or even in 3D; video on demand; Internet telephone services, and Internet video services will rapidly ramp up broadband requirements, according to the "Broadband Reloaded" study carried out by Deloitte. In addition there is also cloud computing, or the provision of software and data from the Internet, requiring great network capacities. Data traffic is currently growing at an explosive rate. The operators of the central Internet hub in Frankfurt estimate that by 2015, the amount of data will even have grown by a factor of 20. Transmission must often also occur in real time, for example during video conferences or for IPTV (Internet Protocol Television).

Just a few years ago, telephone modems with up to 56 kilobytes/s and ISDN connections with two bundled channels up to 64 kilobytes/s were common. Then came the DSL standard (Digital Subscriber Line), with which data could be sent and received at up to 500 megabytes/s, also via the simple copper cables of the telephone network. The first high-speed access for private customers was ADSL (Asymmetric DSL: high data rate towards the user, low data rate towards the Internet). VDSL (Very High-Speed DSL), which at 50 to 200 megabytes/s provides adequate bandwidth for most requirements, is currently available in many of Germany's larger cities.

Fibre-optic cable (Photo: Stadtwerke Pinneberg)

Yet some rural regions, such as Thuringia and Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, are still cut off from the Internet. According to the Ministry of Commerce, these last white spots will receive at least 1 megabyte/s within the year. The aim is to provide around 75 percent of households with high-speed Internet by 2014. Till now, only around 36 percent of households benefit from the high-speed services of at least 50 megabytes/s. "The provision of high-performance broadband connections throughout Germany, and the establishing of next-generation networks, are important prerequisites for economic growth and increasing standards of living", opines Philipp Rösler (FDP), Federal Minister of Economics.

Yet for the Internet of the future, even the VDSL networks will likely prove to be inadequate. For owing to the copper found in the last section of the line to the client (prevents,) connection speeds cannot always be increased. Thus it is above all fibre-optic cables, which reach up to one gigabyte a second that show promise for the future. Although the establishment of these networks has been discussed in Germany for years now, only around 150,000 people were using an FTTH or FTTB connection (Fibre to the Building/Fibre to the Home) at the start of 2011.

Connection to the fibre-optic network is expensive, as the cables must be newly laid and installed in houses as close to the customer as possible. Whereas a household can be provided with VDSL for an average of 700 Euros, the costs for FTTB are around 1500 Euros, and for FTTH even up to 3300 Euros. Here, the costs depend strongly on the location of the customer; in built-up regions they are much lower than in rural areas. And the majority of customers who received DSL at ever increasing speeds at continually sinking prices do not want to pay any more money for the faster connection.

Away from the big cities, there has thus far been a relatively uncoordinated fibre-optic expansion to many smaller, fragmented networks. Thus Nexans Deutschland INDUSTRIES for instance laid a fibre-optic cable through Lake Constance with the aid of a catamaran. This cable in the lake runs for 26 kilometres from Friedrichshafen to Constance, and provides authorities and businesses a rapid data flow between the two cities. Beneath its robust casing, the cable contains four stainless-steel cable tubes, each containing 48 monomode fibre-optic cables, each of which is suitable for the ultra-fast transmission of large data streams, digital television signals, or virtually countless telephone conversations.

LTE transmission mast in Kyritz/Brandenburg (Photo: Deutsche Telekom)

In rural areas, DSL expansion in particular is being pushed for. Although network expansion in many regions is not profitable owing to low customer numbers and high costs, local authorities often get involved by for instance providing cable conduit systems, taking on responsibility for civil engineering work, or making up financial shortfalls. Communities often regain the majority of their investment through funding programmes provided by the federal states. In places where Internet expansion is too expensive even via the telephone network, mobile telecommunications and wireless solutions are installed in order to bring the Internet to rural communities.

Alongside classic telecommunications companies, cable providers are also pushing for the expansion of high-speed networks, says Dorothea von Wichert-Nick of Solon Management Consulting. Cable network are already being used in many regions to achieve greater bandwidths. The current fastest cable service provides 200 megabytes/s, though tests revealed possible speeds of 1.2 to 1.4 gigabytes/s. With these speeds, cable network providers can take the technological lead in less populated areas in particular for the medium term.

The nation-wide expansion of the mobile telecommunications network is also an important factor in the federal government's broadband strategy. LTE (Long Term Evolution) is currently being implemented – it is the fourth generation of mobile telecommunications and thus the successor to UMTS. Transfer rates of more than 100megabytes/s are thus supposed to be achievable, with the previous standard only managing 384 kilobytes/s. The first LTE high-speed network has just gone into operation in Cologne. "Speedy data connections are just as important today as motorway connections or an airport", says Cologne's mayor, Jürgen Roters, during the opening at the beginning of June.

The data volume in German telecommunications is also increasing at tremendous speed. While in 2005 the volume was 0.2 million gigabytes, in 2011 it has already increased to around 70 million gigabytes, according to estimates by Bitkom, the industry association. This represents the data volume of around 45 million movies. "In Cologne it is possible to obtain the same surfing speed on mobile Internet familiar from fixed Internet connections, says Niek Jan van Damme, board-member of Deutsche Telekom and responsible for German operations. In the coming weeks, the expansion in around 100 cities throughout Germany is already set to begin. And rural areas, which are hard to connect to via cable, are also soon to receive the LTE standard in order to be able to partake in the digital revolution.

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