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New tech promises faster Internet no matter where you live

Four new technologies—low-band 5G, Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite Internet, DOCSIS 3.1, and G.fast—will soon provide faster speeds than ever before.

It's always been important to have fast Internet at home. If you can get fiber optic, the gold standard of fast Internet, you're good to go. But thanks to deployment costs, many areas still don't have fiber-optic connections—and they may not any time soon.

Fortunately, four new technologies—low-band 5G; Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite Internet; DOCSIS 3.1, and G.fast—will soon provide faster speeds than ever before.

That's good news, because we need all the speed we can get. Working from home may be the norm for a while. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom claims an "incredible 42 percent of the U.S. labor force is now working from home full time." And, he adds, "we're not going back to traditional offices."

Remote work here to stay

He's not wrong. According to Bloomberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai told Google employees to be ready to work remotely through October and possibly to the end of the year. Since then, a company spokeswoman said most Google workers are expected to work from home until 2021. And Google's far from alone in this stance.

The recent Survey of Business Uncertainty from Stanford, the Atlanta Federal Reserve, and the University of Chicago found employers expect that 20 percent of workers will keep working from home for the foreseeable future.

Of course, to do that successfully, remote workers need all the Internet broadband they can get. Generally speaking, Internet service providers (ISPs) are meeting the demand. ThousandEyes, a global enterprise Internet analysis company, has found that despite some local outages on Comcast and AT&T, the Internet backbone and other high-level connections are delivering the broadband goods.

But that last mile—the distance between you and your local ISP—is another matter.

Getting performance from the Internet to the end user

The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as delivering 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. By its own count, a third of residential fixed connections are slower than that. Other studies have found that the FCC is much too optimistic. BroadbandNow Research took the FCC's data and found "42 million Americans do not have access to wired or fixed wireless broadband." Microsoft, after examining how its customers use the Internet, found "162.8 million people are not using the Internet at broadband speeds."

Part of the problem is that, once you're outside most major cities, suburbs, or places that are situated between major metropolitan areas, quality Internet broadband simply isn't available. Fiber optic is great, but its deployment costs make reaching many areas prohibitive. Indeed, in some places, DSL, modems, and old-style satellite—yes, even in 2020—are the only Internet connections available.

Until recently, existing technologies have been stuck with the same performance we saw in the 2010s. Now, new network approaches are arriving that will provide much faster speeds regardless of location.

 

The 5G family

While millimeter wave (mmWave) 5G, with its promise of gigabit-per-second speed, gets all the attention, low-band 5G, which runs in the 600-MHz spectrum, will prove more important for office and home connections. MmWave 5G, with a range in tens of meters and its inability to even go through window glass, will duel it out with Wi-Fi 6 for office and home connections, not the last mile.

Low-band 5G has far greater range than 4G LTE or any other kind of wireless networking—a single tower can cover hundreds of square miles. Its performance will vary, but it's usually at least as fast as 4G LTE's 20-plus Mbps and can reach speeds of up to 250 Mbps.

So far, T-Mobile is the only national company supporting it. The telecom company promises that it will deploy 5G service to cover 97 percent of American consumers within the next three years. Within the next six years, it plans to cover 99 percent of all Americans with at least 50 Mbps speeds and 90 percent of the U.S. with at least 100 Mbps.

T-Mobile 5G costs between $60 and $85 per month. AT&T offers a 5G plan as part of its Extra plan for $75 per month.

LEO Internet

Satellite Internet is decades old, and while it has improved since its first consumer release, it still has issues. Thanks to its geostationary orbits—with a top speed of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up and an average latency of 550 milliseconds—satellite Internet from HughesNet and Viasat just doesn't cut it for video conferencing and real-time applications.

LEO Internet from SpaceX's Starlink promises to deliver much faster low-latency Internet across much of Canada and the U.S. There are other LEO satellite Internet companies, but with 422 Starlink satellites in orbit by July, Starlink is well ahead of the others. Starlink has also opened the door to beta testers later this year.

So, how fast will it be? According to SpaceX, Starlink will offer speeds of up to a gigabit per second at latencies from 25 to 35 milliseconds. The company hasn't said yet how fast its upload speeds will be.

Once it moves from beta to production, SpaceX plans on deploying at least a million user terminals. These come with flat disks, which measure 0.48 meters in diameter. Starlink and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk describes these as looking like a "little UFO on a stick." These terminals' antennas will self-direct for the best satellite signals.

It may not, however, be available in areas that already have high-speed cable or fiber-optic broadband. SpaceX has publicly stated, "Starlink will deliver high-speed broadband Internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable." Of course, that may change if Musk decides to compete with the traditional ISPs.

Starlink is expected to cost about $80 per month.

 

Old-faithful technologies are also getting a speed boost: Cable and DSL

For cable, the new throughput accelerator is Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) 3.1. DOCSIS is cable Internet's fundamental standard. Over the years, it's gotten faster and faster.

Today, DOCIS 3.1, which is widely deployed, promises speeds of 10 Gbps for downloads and 1 Gbps for uploads. In reality, cable ISPs using DOCSIS 3.1 top out at 940 Mbps down and 35 Mbps up. You can also reach similar speeds from some providers using older DOCSIS 3.0 modems. DOCSIS 3.1 modems are backward compatible with DOCSIS 3.0, so even if your ISP doesn't support 3.1 yet, you can use these newer modems with your plan.

If you're still stuck on DOCSIS 3.0, you should look closely at your ISP's available speeds and your cable modem's specifications. Originally, DOCSIS implementations supported only one channel for downloading data and another single channel for uploads. The standard, however, supports binding multiple channels together, which increases your overall broadband speed.

So, for instance, the Netgear DOCSIS 3.0 N600 Wi-Fi Cable Modem Router, an 8x4 modem, supports up to eight downstream channels and four upstream channels. In practice, that means it can hit a high speed of 343 Mbps. But, and this is true of all cable modems and Internet connections, you'll see these speeds only if your ISP supports them.

The current generation of DOCSIS 3.1 cable modems—Motorola MB8600, Arris Surfboard SB8200, and Netgear CM1000—can, in theory, hit speeds of up to 10 Gbps. In practice, you won't see above 1 Gbps. All three also support 32x8 channel bonding, so even if your ISP doesn't offer DOCSIS 3.1 yet, you may still get gigabit download speeds.

While DOCSIS 3.1 was approved as a standard all the way back in 2013, the cable Internet companies have been very slow to roll it out. That's because upgrading their back-end equipment (a.k.a. cable headends) and providing the high-speed fiber needed to connect local Internet with the national Internet backbones took years of work and hundreds of millions of dollars.

DOCSIS 4, a newer and much faster version of DOCSIS, is also on its way. This newly approved version promises to deliver downstream speeds of up to 10 Gbps with an upload speed of up to 6 Gbps, which is four times DOCSIS 3.1's upstream speed. But, given how long it took DOCSIS 3.1 to appear and the technical problems with delivering DOCSIS 4.0 over existing cable infrastructure, don't expect to see it widely deployed until the late 2020s.

DOCSIS 3.1 prices vary; at the high end, you can expect to pay more than $100 a month.

Fast? No it's G.fast!

For many users, digital subscriber line (DSL), with 3 Mbps downloads and 256 Kbps uploads, was their introduction to "high-speed" Internet. Over the years, though, cable technology advances left DSL in the dust, with maximum download speeds of 5 to 35 Mbps and uploads of 1 to 10 Mbps. Still, in rural areas, DSL is still the only broadband option.

Today, DSL is provided by phone companies like AT&T Internet, CenturyLink, and Frontier. It runs over existing copper phone lines. Unfortunately, it's a good deal slower than the alternatives. But, thanks to G.fast, DSL may get a new lease on life.

G.fast uses a new approach to get more out of old copper lines. Unlike old-school DSL technologies with frequency division duplexing (FDD), G.fast uses time division duplexing (TDD). Beyond the jargon, G.fast is expected to deliver the broadband goods at between 150 Mbps and 1 Gbps—not too shabby for a networking technology with a history that dates back to the 1980s.

But all that speed comes with a cost: While older DSL technologies can deliver network connectivity over two miles, or just over three kilometers, G.fast can deliver at a range of only about 1,200 feet, or just over 350 meters.

To even do that, G.fast relies on fiber optic for its main connection to the Internet. This means if you're a rural user relying on DSL, you're almost certainly not going to see G.fast. The main companies deploying G.fast, such as AT&T and Frontier, have deployed it only as a way of connecting condos, offices, and apartment buildings with high-speed Internet.

In the UK, G.fast is seeing mass adoption. British ISP Openreach and its partners are deploying G.fast widely. Still, it's possible that American ISPs may yet embrace it as an inexpensive way to bridge the gap between fiber on the street and the home.

Prices for G.fast are in the $70 range, when and where you can get it.

The last connection

It's hard to say which, if any, of these technologies will win out in the long run. For decades, we've used a wide variety of last-mile Internet connections. None of these will change that. Instead, each of them will give us new and often faster options. All things considered, though, they couldn't have come along at a better time.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.