Need for speed: Flanders is, and always will be, a pioneer

Need for speed: Flanders is, and always will be, a pioneer

“Superfast internet should become a basic right, like tap water.” With this statement, Flemish Innovation Minister Philippe Muyters announced his plans to give superfast internet to the whole of Flanders; if possible with the Belgian telecom operators, or without them if need be, and if necessary by setting up a new public company, says Muyters.

It is quite obvious that we will need more internet capacity and higher speeds to handle the exploding digitization and data flows. With the introduction of the Internet of Things, billions of devices - from cars to refrigerators - will become connected to the internet by 2020. As a telecom operator, we have therefore invested heavily in the bandwidth and speed of our network over the past few years.

Belgian digital infrastructure among top 3 in Europe

How does this country compare with other European countries? There is good news, and there is not so good news. To begin with the latter, Belgium sadly enough performs far less well in terms of digital public services. This country ranks thirteenth in the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) [1] of the European Commission. We must, and can, do better. To realize the ambition of a digital Flanders, it is essential that the government invests in that area.

Recent figures show, however, that our investment in network innovation pays off, as Belgium ranks among the top in Europe in that respect. According to the latest DES index, this country is among the top three in Europe when it comes to digital infrastructure (fixed and mobile broadband, speed and price). Flanders is clearly a pioneer, while neighbouring countries such as France lag behind.

In Europe, 27 percent of European households have a fast broadband internet connection of at least 30 Mbps. In Belgium, we are doing substantially better with nearly 70 percent of households, whereas Germany and France remain far below 30 percent in terms of households with a high-speed internet connection. More and more German businesses are sounding the alarm as well [2], while in Flanders nearly 100% of households have access to superfast internet (NGA [3]).

Nevertheless, even though today we are at the top in Europe and even among the top ten in the world, technology is evolving rapidly. In 2017, Telenet invested 24% - a large part of which in the network - of its revenue, which is substantially more than the competition. We intend to maintain this high level of investment over the next few years. By 2019 we want to make the internet all over Flanders at least five times faster than today, which would allow us to offer speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second. In Brussels we will do the same.

Need for speed? Coax and fibre do it together

It is not true that superfast internet is only possible if all cables are replaced by superfast fibre. Just as well, otherwise we would have to break up all the pavements. Although the present network has for the most part evolved towards fibre, there is no need to replace the coax connection between the street cabinet and the home by a fibre optic cable as well. According to recent research, the combination of that coax cable with the fibre network offers plenty of capacity to keep conveying the growing volumes of data traffic. Of course fibre may be laid in new housing developments, but even in the long run the customer at home will not notice the difference between coax or full fibre broadband internet.

Our ambition is clear: superfast internet at 1 gigabit per second for everyone. Yet that is just the beginning, because we are already constantly running tests to increase those speeds and capacity further in the future. Telenet, for its part, will continue to forge ahead. That is necessary, because we know better than anyone that standing still in the telecom industry means going backwards.

What about those internet speeds of 2.5 gigabits per second which the Flemish government is aiming for in the long run? The latest versions of data transmission over TV cable (Docsis 3.0 and 3.1) allow download speeds of 10 gigabits and upload speeds of 1 gigabit per second. That is far more than the 2.5 gigabit target set by the government, making the Docsis technology a direct challenger to fibre. It is a technology we fully believe in, but which will only be necessary in the long term. Telenet should be ready within a few years to offer speeds of 10 gigabits per second.

Fixed is all very well, but what about the mobile network?

Last week’s debate was all about the fixed network, but mobile data traffic, too, has seen a spectacular growth in this country in the last few years. According to Cisco [4], global internet traffic in 2021 will be at least 127 times greater than the volume of global internet in 2005, and by 2021 more than 63% of that traffic will go over mobile devices. Video streaming, virtual reality or augmented reality, you name it: it’s the next big thing. According to that same survey, as much as 78 percent of all mobile data traffic in 2021 will consist of video.

As providers, we must be able to keep up with that trend. In terms of 4G coverage, Belgium ranks seventh in the European league table, with the Netherlands (16), Germany (19) and France (25) lagging far behind. Telenet is investing 250 million euros. The mobile infrastructure will be given a thorough update, and by 2020 there will be up to a thousand new sites to strengthen the capacity and expand the coverage of 3G, 4G and 4.5G.

And what about 5G, I hear you think? Well, we are working on that as well. When we opened our innovation centre in Brussels, we announced our partnership with Chinese telecom giant ZTE, with whom we will test the launch of 5G in Flanders. We will keep you posted on developments in that area through this channel.

[1]  DESI:  https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/news/study-broadband-coverage-europe-2016

[2]  http://www.wiwo.de/my/technologie/digitale-welt/digitalisierung-die-illusion-vom-schnellen-internet/19819360.html?ticket=ST-2778008-xr6TJebtFAcBijnhiiZk-ap4

[3] NGA: Next Generation Access: FTTP, VDSL and Docsis 3.0

[4] Cisco: https://www.cisco.com/c/en/us/solutions/collateral/service-provider/visual-networking-index-vni/complete-white-paper-c11-481360.html

by Ann Caluwaerts Chief Corporate Affairs