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Video, telecom network management still challenge fixed line operators

Qwest CTO Pieter Poll sheds light on the telecom network management challenges that rapid broadband traffic growth and streaming video present for fixed line operators.

The congestion problems that wireless carriers face on mobile data networks capture so much attention that wired networks have become a footnote in the discussion. Although they are not bound by spectrum, fixed line operators face an explosion of video traffic on their networks and must develop telecom network management strategies to keep up with the rapid growth. Qwest Communications CTO Pieter Poll spoke with about how the former "Baby Bell" is managing growing Internet traffic from its backbone to access networks.

Independent of mobile backhaul, what telecom network management challenges does Qwest face on its fixed broadband network?

Pieter Poll, QwestPoll: Although congestion is associated with mobile broadband, which itself is a two-sided problem, it is exactly the same thing that we are seeing in the wired broadband space as well. The same thing is driving it. End customers are consuming more and more data. There are just more applications coming along that they want to take part in.

In mobility, we see things like the App Store from Apple or the Android Marketplace for the various Android handsets. Individuals just find things that help them in what they want to do in their lives … but it's no different for someone with their wired broadband connection in the home. Primarily, the big driver in the home is the movement toward streaming video. Close to two-thirds of the peak traffic associated with consumers is video of some sort. Although people would fret about YouTube, in terms of the volumes that we have, YouTube is actually relatively low bandwidth in terms of a per-stream connection. What is really driving the bandwidth [demand is] the much higher experience connections that you have for streaming video. So, for example, what you would have from a Netflix…. It's a lot of bandwidth and it's fairly unforgiving for any form of congestion.

On the Qwest network ... the peak per-user consumption [rate] is climbing 65% compounded annually. That is just right about at Moore's Law, and as it increases further, you certainly have problems.

Pieter Poll, CTO
Qwest Communications

What implications does this kind of growth rate have on optical networking and telecom routing and switching?

Poll: On the Qwest network -- and the Qwest network is not unique here -- the peak per-user consumption [rate] is climbing 65% compounded annually. That is just right about at Moore's Law, and as it increases further, you certainly have problems.

What we pay for a router has stayed roughly flat, but the performance… and the capabilities [of that router] have gone up…. Right now in the industry we're in a very fortunate period [because prices remain stable]. I don't think in the future we're going to be as fortunate.

The challenge is more in the optical network. The routers themselves need to communicate with others over a long distance, and we do that by tying them together with optical networks -- basically wavelengths of light connect one router to another … [and] the longer the distance you go over, the greater the cost. And obviously, the more data you carry the larger the cost is.

There's no Moore's Law in the optical world. Right now we're in a period where we are transitioning speeds from 10 Gbps to 100 Gbps. Qwest made some announcements recently about our network being prepared for 100 Gbps optical networking. Well, you go out and do the research and you say, 'How quickly am I going to go from 100 gigs to 400 gigs? And then from 400 gigs to a terabit on a single wavelength of light?' You quickly discover [that] you run into some fundamentals in the physics department about what you can and cannot do.

Granted, those things will happen in the compute space as well, as we ultimately move toward quantum computing. But in the optical space, the challenges are reasonably close in terms of what we run into. Now, you can always add more wavelengths of light, but… you don't get that inverse exponential scaling and cost in that environment. It's basically linear with how many wavelengths or units that you purchase. It's not that we can't carry data, but I think in the optical network the industry will become challenged over time. I don't want to say this is going to happen in the next year or two -- it's not. But when I'm looking out five to 10 years and see what we're facing in optical networks, there are just certain things we can't get around.

So what is Qwest doing today, in terms of telecom network management and build-out, to prevent bandwidth-hungry traffic from overwhelming its network?

Poll: There are a few things that we do. Probably the most obvious one that we look at is we make sure we do our homework with respect to what our broadband growth is looking like and [we make] sure that we push capacity in the network to meet the demands. Now, [people] will say, 'Duh, that's obvious,' right? … To that I would say a few things. First of all, recognize… that there are variable costs associated with broadband. That's not an item that most people acknowledge when they look at the unlimited models that we tend to have in the United States. And that is fairly unique to the United States -- the unlimited broadband consumption models.

Number two, oftentimes placing broadband capacity has significant lead times. We're doing very large builds in some of our rural states, in terms of fundamental wavelength networks and metro optical Ethernet deployments that basically are the backbone for the broadband capacity that [we need in order] to push into small communities, which are actually adopting video faster than some of the cities. …It's kind of hard in some small communities to go down the road to Blockbuster when "down the road" may be 70 miles away. As you would expect, the broadband delivery mechanisms arguably bring more value to those communities than they might in some of the larger cities. Some of those lead times are quite large. To build new systems, they oftentimes require things right down to fiber construction that allows us to bring in that capacity, and we've got to make sure we've thought it [through] -- right down to construction in order to make sure that we don't have disappointed customers on the Qwest network.

Clearly there are some cost implications here. What are you doing from the telecom network management operations side to make rural broadband economical for Qwest?

Poll: The policy of how you bring broadband to rural America is something I'll leave to the policy folks in Qwest.... [With] that said…we're taking the longer term view in terms of the backhaul. When I'm talking about capacity, I'm talking about places where we have deployed broadband into rural areas. And again, it's back to this point of variable versus fixed costs.

A lot of people believe that all you need to do to offer broadband services is to drop a DSLAM [digital subscriber line access multiplexer] into a community, at least if you are a wire line carrier. It's a CMTS [cable modem termination system] if you're a cable company. That gives you the termination, but now you have to carry the traffic, and ultimately you carry the traffic back to about seven exchange points in the entire country where Internet traffic is exchanged between Tier 1 backbone providers, of which Qwest happens to be one. It's that backhaul where we are challenged with the variable costs. I spend a lot of time working with our suppliers trying to ensure that our cost per bit in that variable element is going down at the same rate that the usage per customer is going in the other direction.… The business model for broadband in this country will unravel at the point that the cost to move a bit doesn't decline at the same rate.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer

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