As fixed broadband sector attracts increasing levels of investment, even Gfast gets a boost

Ray Le Maistre
By Ray Le Maistre

Dec 22, 2021

Image by Daniel Dino-Slofer from Pixabay.

Image by Daniel Dino-Slofer from Pixabay.

  • Fixed broadband networks have attracted greater levels of users and investments in 2021
  • Analysts put broadband equipment spending at almost $15 billion per year
  • Fibre access networks have been attracting the most attention, with good reason, and are set for further growth
  • But FTTP isn’t the only game in town – fixed wireless access and even Gfast are also set for growth

There aren’t many positives to be gleaned from the global pandemic of the past 20 or so months, but one of the silver linings has been the increased focus on, appreciation of, and investment in fixed line broadband access network infrastructure, an absolutely critical piece of the overall digital infrastructure that underpins and supports so many services and enables so much potential. And while, with good reason, fibre access networks have been attracting the lion’s share of the attention and investments, other connectivity options are also benefiting and continuing to evolve and improve.

First, let’s take a look at the overall fixed broadband connectivity market: According to Point Topic, which has been collecting and analyzing broadband subscriber data for years, there were just over 1.2 billion fixed broadband subscribers worldwide in Q1 2021, up by about 85 million from a year earlier. The majority are in Asia (about 58%), with China accounting for almost 500 million (about 42% of the global number) on its own. And because of the massive investments in fibre access networks in recent years in China, its installed base pushed the FTTH share of all fixed broadband lines globally to an incredible 56.4% in Q1, and that share is growing as the number of copper lines used for broadband services decreases. There are a lot more stats to check out – you can see them here

Broadband technology market share by region. Source – Point Topic.

Broadband technology market share by region. Source – Point Topic.

The main takeaway is that demand for increasing high-speed and reliable fixed broadband connectivity is growing, and that’s unlikely to change, with working from home trends unlikely to shift too much and the number of bandwidth-hungry devices within homes and workspaces only increasing.

Such trends have led to positive forecasts for further rollouts: For example, Analysys Mason expects fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) coverage worldwide to increase from 43% at the end of 2020 to 57% by the end of 2026. 

And in markets such as the UK where regulatory changes and competitive pressures have attracted investment funds and private equity players to the broadband networks sector, as well as acting as a catalyst for existing operators, billions of pounds/euros/dollars are being allocated to new rollouts – see: 

Those trends are also reflected in fixed broadband technology investments. According to a recent press release from the Dell’Oro Group, total global revenue for broadband access equipment increased by 7% year-on-year to $3.9 billion during the third quarter of 2021, with the research house in particular noting increased investments in FTTH (PON) technology and fixed wireless access (FWA) customer premises equipment (CPE). 

And while it didn’t share the number in that release, Dell’Oro reportedly values the market for cable broadband, FTTH/P, xDSL (inc. Gfast) and SoHo WLAN equipment at $14.6 billion this year, and has assigned a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3% for the 2020-2025 period. 

In addition, Dell’Oro analyst Jeff Heynen recently shared FTTH subscriber and PON technology investment growth projections in this contributed article published in Fibre Systems.  

The reported financials of fixed broadband equipment vendors also point towards ongoing increasing investments. ADTRAN reported “unprecedented demand” and “record-setting” bookings in the third quarter of this year, while Nokia reported a 29% year-on-year increase in Fixed Networks (broadband) product sales in the same quarter to €588 million. (See Fibre broadband props up Nokia’s Q3 growth, but supply chain issues worsen.)

But fibre can’t be deployed everywhere, so alternative ways of delivering higher-speed fixed broadband connectivity (or, indeed, any connectivity at all) are also benefitting from the global broadband boom.

FWA is experiencing a resurgence not only due to the potential of using 5G base stations to connect to fixed CPE (which is driving the sales noted by Dell’Oro), but also because specialist companies are improving service delivery potential and improving the reach and quality of FWA connectivity.  

One such company is Tarana Wireless, which attracted praise from BT Group’s Chief Architect Neil McRae during a recent media briefing in London. McRae said BT had tested the company’s FWA gear and was impressed, and that the Tarana team, now headed up by highly-regarded former Nokia/Alcatel executive Basil Alwan, had successfully overcome one of the major challenges of FWA service delivery – interference caused by multiple customer premises equipment (CPE).

Tarana also just announced a deployment with Smart Way Communications in Ohio, US, for 12,000 households in 12 square miles, with the operator noting that Tarana’s gear would enable broadband service speeds of up to 200 Mbit/s in busy urban areas with interference challenges.  

FWA looks like a fast-growing market, with Dell’Oro forecasting a CAGR of 13% in the 2020-2025 period, with the market to be worth almost $3 billion in sales by 2025. 

And while the use of copper lines is falling out of fashion in many parts of the world, there’s still some life left in Gfast, the technology designed to enable downstream broadband speeds of up to (or even above) 1 Gbit/s over short distances – for example, from a street cabinet or distribution point under a manhole or up a pole, or within multi-dwelling units/apartment buildings. 

The Broadband Forum has just announced new certification and performance test plans that help network operators to more efficiently deploy Gfast technology over copper and coax cable connections using elements from multiple suppliers and without the need to retest for conformance or interoperability.

And Nokia has just announced Gigabit Connect, which is designed for easier Gfast deployments in multi-dwelling units by “hiding its complexity” and enabling Gfast deployments to be managed as if they are an extension of the fibre plant. (See Nokia launches Gigabit Connect to simplify gigabit broadband installation in apartment blocks.)

And the outlook is favourable for Gfast during the next few years, if somewhat niche: According to Dell’Oro forecast numbers shared by Nokia, the number of Gfast ports deployed worldwide is set to rise from 7.3 million this year to 16.2 million by the end of 2025.  

But in some places, of course, there are no fixed lines at all and even FWA is not possible due to a lack of supporting infrastructure and/or line of sight issues. This is where satellite connectivity can play a role, and of course that’s certainly what the likes of Elon Musk’s Starlink, Amazon’s Kuiper and OneWeb are hoping to build a business opportunity and play a role in connecting the unconnected (and offering back-up connectivity options). Whether satellite will ever be able to offer an affordable service with a reasonable and reliable quality of service is still yet to be seen. (See Space: The Crowded Frontier - where accidents are waiting to happen.)

- Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV

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