Super-fast broadband running at speeds of 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) is coming soon. Nielsen’s Law predicted this and New Zealanders are on track to enjoy it soon, reports Johanna Egar. For the first time, we are ahead of Nielsen’s predictions, with the promise of extraordinary consumer and business applications to come

Fibre broadband delivers light speed connectivity. This gets people excited, but it will be the boring applications that will take it to the next level, says Craig Young, CEO of the Telecommunications Users Association of New Zealand.

 “This is where the killer app will come from. It will be logistics and driverless trucks and trains, and driver assist, rather than driverless cars,” says Young.

He sees truck drivers benefiting from the kind of software assistance pilots already enjoy. An on-board computer might tell you that you’re not driving to the wet weather conditions, or that there is oil on the road ahead, he says. Pilots already get this kind of help – being told cross-winds at Wellington airport make it is too dangerous to land, for example.

Young also foresees immersive video-conferencing that will allow for proper teleworking, and also reduce our carbon footprint as people commute less.

Our fibre broadband network already delivers 1Gbps to many people, and now 10Gbps is being trialled. Which is where Nielsen’s Law comes in. It’s like Moore’s Law but for telecommunications.

Gordon Moore updated his law in 1975 and it accurately predicted that computers’ overall processing power will double every two years. Jakob Nielsen developed his telecommunications law in 1998 and similarly it has accurately predicted big increases in internet speed over the past 20 years (see diagram).

Over most of this time, New Zealand has struggled to keep up with Nielsen’s predictions, but fibre has changed this. We are now, for the first time, getting ahead of his predictions and of demand too. The big question now is: what will we do with all this increased speed and capacity?

But, first, a little background – Nielsen predicted an internet speed of 100Mbps in 2011. This is when Chorus’ Ultra-Fast Broadband programme started. He predicted 1Gbps by 2016. This is when we got ahead for the first time with the launch of Dunedin’s Gigatown – in 2014.

Nielsen’s Law predicts 10Gbps by 2022. Chorus is already trialling technology which delivers this and looking to make it available in the coming months. Lastly, his Law predicts speeds of 1Tbps by 2031 – which shows just how much potential fibre networks have. We are well on track to reach this. Ten years ago, the UFB goal was 100Mbps and today we are looking at a 10Gbps service – 100 times that.

HOLOCHESS AND REMOTE ROBOT HEART SURGERY

We are on track to have 87 percent of our population on fibre by 2022, so the time is ripe to consider what we might do with super-fast speeds.

The greatly increased speed of our fibre network will make a host of new applications possible, including some we haven’t imagined. Some will be exciting, others more down-to-earth but just as important.

Among the latter, says TUANZ’s Young, could be remote operations carried out by robots. He gives the example of an Auckland heart surgeon operating on a West Coast patient with robotic help.

“There is going to be a shift in healthcare we haven’t predicted yet. For example, how do you make the most of your expert surgeons? In a country like New Zealand, where we can’t afford as many specialist heart surgeons as we need, if you could use robot surgery, you could utilise your experts at a distance.

“For this you’re going to need the fast rates of data transfer that fibre can provide. And as robot surgery becomes more specialised, which is happening, there will be more and more data being transferred.”

Young suggests the remote West Coast as one place in New Zealand where such robot surgery would be a boon, but the North Island’s remote East Cape would benefit equally.

However, what grabs people’s imagination most is consumer use of high-speed fibre. Science fiction provides some ideas. Chorus’ network strategy manager, Kurt Rodgers, a sci-fi fan, likes the idea of playing holochess. Like many fans, he enjoyed watching Chewbacca, the wookiee, playing holochess using hologram monster playing pieces with C-3PO and R2-D2 in Star Wars IV.

Closer to home and today, he says his seven-year-old daughter designs her own computer games on her iPad using downloaded software, an activity unheard of not long ago. And he points to where we might be going, via the examples of Uber, Airbnb and Netflix.

We are only at the beginning of the road with gigabit, says Rodgers. Energy technology and computer processing capability are improving rapidly, along with broadband connectivity. “Software is bringing this all together to accelerate capability.”

“Now if someone has a good idea, like Uber or Airbnb or Netflix, they can go from nothing to ruling the universe in a particular sector very quickly. If you’ve got the computing and energy sources, and the connectivity, you can do transformational things very quickly.”

GAMES PATH SHOWS THE WAY

InternetNZ’s director for community outreach and engagement, Andrew Cushen, has an even more specific take on how to use all this speed. And he thinks the new consumer applications that will use fibre will be as interesting and important as the business ones.

“People are already using fibre’s capability to create their own videos and artwork and games, and then upload their creativity to the world,” he says.

“Use follows technology development. Which is why when people say you shouldn’t overbuild the network they’re talking poppycock.”

“The fibre companies are now trialling 10Gbps – that’s 10 times the speed of what’s available today. We’re building a world-class network and the connectivity possible is incredible. Applications we haven’t imagined will appear for our entertainment and enjoyment.”

Cushen thinks 8K TV will be the first killer app, but he looks beyond this to online education and to the world of games. He sees prestigious universities like Harvard and Oxford delivering their courses around the world, using the much greater internet capacity to create truly desirable educational experiences.

When it comes to games, he points to the strong games-creation community in West Auckland and Grinding Gears Games.

The games developer began life in a garage and recently sold for $100 million. It created the hugely popular online game Path of Exile, but its skilful team is an exception, says Cushen. We have a dire technical skill shortage we must address if we are to realise fibre’s potential, he says. We can also create jobs if we foster technical eco-systems like that in West Auckland. Grinding Gears now employs over 100 programmers, artists and support staff.

“The wealth of bandwidth is not the issue. It’s realising the potential that is the challenge. We need to think more holistically about how we might use it. I reckon we could use it all and then some.”

BUSINESS APPLICATIONS AND REMOTE 3D PRINTING

Exciting consumer applications may win the cool points, says TUANZ’s Young, but there are a host of business applications that could make good use of fast bandwidth too, including one from science fiction – hologrammatic video conferences. Skype and today’s corporate video-conferencing offerings are disappointing, he says. 

“The wealth of bandwidth is not the issue. It's realising the potential that is the challenge. We need to think more holistically about how we might use it”

Andrew Cushen, InternetNZ's Director for Community Outreach and Engagement

Young also sees crypto-currency taking off. He thinks this disappoints now because present bandwidth doesn’t allow for instantaneous transaction updating. He is keen on 3D printing too, especially in the medical area. Files could be sent over the internet instructing a 3D printer at the other end to create complex medical components, he says. These could then be used by surgeons operating on patients in remote areas.

But he also thinks there will be uses we can’t foresee. “Ten years ago, when we had 2G phones, we didn’t imagine we’d be calling up an Uber or a Zoomy ride and paying for it automatically.”

Now 5G is on the horizon and the first driverless truck has taken to the road. The Star Wars look-alike T-Pod, developed by Sweden’s Enride and its transport logistics’ customer DB Schenker, drove legally on a public road in May. T-Pod is powered by a small local 5G network. But, although 5G promises fibre-like speeds, many users will have to share its bandwidth.

While most New Zealanders will have access to fibre by 2022, those outside its coverage areas may be able to benefit from high speed copper broadband, VDSL. A dedicated connection for your home, VDSL offers a great experience for streaming video.