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The road to ultra broadband internet: What makes 10Gbps possible?

By Paul Mah - 10 Apr 2024

The road to ultra-broadband Internet

(This story is part two of three in the Singapore broadband story.)

What makes 10Gbps possible, and where can we go from here?

Slowly but surely, reliable internet access has evolved into the foundation of modern societies. From online shopping and streaming services to remote work and virtual classrooms, seamless connectivity has become an essential part of our daily lives that most of us take for granted. 

As a result, faster and more reliable internet connections are now more important than ever. Government leaders in Singapore predicted this demand and worked ahead of time to develop the requisite infrastructure. Today, 1Gbps fibre broadband plans are available to every home, priced reasonably at around S$40 or less per month, giving residents ready access to affordable, high-speed internet.

In our previous article, we shared how this came about through a series of government initiatives that got us to this stage. Today, we take a closer look at the technical considerations and investments that make it possible to pipe broadband as fast as 10Gbps to households in Singapore.

Laying the groundwork

The Lion City’s broadband internet doesn't materialise overnight. Significant infrastructure investments must first be made and appropriate network systems installed. This is especially so when it comes to supporting very high network speeds of up to 10Gbps.

Key components can be broadly classified into the following:

  • Global internet connectivity: The internet is, at its core, a network of networks. Providing Internet service involves connecting to multiple local and global networks. Submarine cables, which weave along the ocean floor between continents, play a crucial role for the latter. These underwater fibre-optic lines form the backbone of international communication, ensuring worldwide connectivity and information exchange.
  • Internet service providers: Internet service providers (ISPs) manage networks, market service plans, and acquire connectivity from network providers for their customers. Larger ISPs such as Singtel may have an advantage here due to their investments in the consortiums that operate submarine cables. ISPs typically also "peer" (connect) with other local ISPs or popular websites to give their users a better experience.
  • Last-mile infrastructure: This is the infrastructure that bridges ISPs with home users or business customers. In many parts of the world, it does not make business sense for ISPs to lay the physical cabling needed to deliver high-speed internet to individual homes – this is also the main reason why broadband remains elusive to large swathes of the global population.

Of course, the typical end-user doesn't have to concern themselves with intricacies of internet access. We simply check out the offers by the various ISPs, find one that catches our fancy, is available where we stay, and sign up.

Bringing broadband to your home

In the initial days, plain old telephone service (POTS), also known as "land lines", served as the last-mile infrastructure during the era of analogue dial-up modems. These modems worked by converting digital bits into bursts of sound transmitted as part of a phone call, offering data transfers of up to 56Kbps (0.05Mbps) at its peak.

Technology advancements soon brought us DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) technology, which was created to exploit unused frequencies on POTS lines for high-speed transmissions. At a time where mobile phones were still not commonplace, DSL was advantageous in that POTS-based voice calls could be made simultaneously without disrupting internet connectivity.

In Singapore, a variant of DSL known as ADSL or Asymmetric DSL was used by Singtel and marketed under the "Magix" brand. Older users from the days of dial-up internet would probably remember their first experience with ADSL fondly, which at an initial speed of 512Kbps was a completely different experience from a 33Kbps or 56Kbps dial-up modem.

At around the same time, the first version of the DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification) standard was released. This enables the use of the coaxial network used to deliver cable television for broadband internet. Singapore Cable Vision (SCV), which ran a pay TV service through its island-wide coaxial network at that time, launched a cable internet service shortly after. The standards kept improving over time to provision speeds up to 100Mbps.

Both ADSL and cable internet services were part of the Singapore One national broadband network. While technology improvements continued to push the envelope and delivered periodic improvements in broadband speeds, accelerating digitalisation meant that something significantly better was sought.

The Next Generation Nationwide Broadband Network (Next Gen NBN) was developed as a grand plan to bring last-mile fibre optic infrastructure to every home. Today, NetLink Trust and Nucleus Connect build, operate, and maintain different components of the Next Gen NBN infrastructure – and look to continue doing that into the foreseeable future.

Fast, cheap, and good

A fibre optic cable rack. (Image source: Unsplash)

When fibre to the home (FTTH) was first debated under the Next Gen NBN, the characteristic of optical fibre technology was already well-established: With a flexible glass core about the thickness of a strand of human hair, fibre optics has a theoretical transmission limit in excess of a petabit per second.

Indeed, IDA Next Gen NGN documentation (PDF) from 2011 already specifies standards that offer up to 10,000 Mbps (10Gbps) speeds. Obviously, technically capability is very different from commercial feasibility or market demand.

The idea behind the Next Gen NBN is simple. To build a FTTH network that gives multiple telecommunication operators non-discriminatory and equal access. Work to install fibre optic to every household achieved 95% coverage in 2012. Like plumbing, water, and electricity, all new homes now come with the ubiquitous fibre termination points from NetLink Trust (OpenNet). When a home users sign up for a fibre broadband plan today, their ISP will contact NetLink Trust to provision the service, just like this  installation experience we've penned.

PON (Passive Optical Network) is generally used to deliver the actual broadband service. Designed to utilise passive components, PON technology generally offers lower costs for installation and operation. 

As of the time of writing, the PON standards for 10Gbps internet service in Singapore are:

  • XG-PON for 10Gbps download speed, 2.5Gbps upload speed.
  • XGS-PON for both 10Gbps download and upload speeds (Symmetric Internet)

Unlike typical broadband connections, a symmetrical internet connection offers equally fast download and upload speeds. This offers the best possible experiences for gaming, uploading large files, content creation, and more.

Onward and upward

Despite being lauded as having one of the fastest fixed internet connectivity in the world, Singapore is not resting on its laurels. Even with 10Gbps internet readily available to consumers who want it, the government this year announced plans to further upgrade Singapore's digital infrastructure to power Singapore's next bound of growth.

This involves building a "seamless end-to-end 10Gbps domestic connectivity" within the next five years, and a doubling of the country's capacity for submarine cable landings – or the number of submarine cables that come to Singapore – over the next 10 years.

Where will the future bring? 10Gbps internet to all homes? Will virtual reality and the metaverse finally catch on? One thing is certain: the relentless march of technology will continue to push the boundaries of what's possible. As we adapt and evolve alongside these advancements, we'll surely find new ways to leverage ultra-high-speed internet to enhance our lives, fuel innovation, and drive economic growth.

Going fast and faster: A taste of symmetric 10Gbps broadband

Testing out a Symmetric 10G plan.

So how fast is 10Gbps broadband? From my experience using Singtel's 10Gbps Symmetric plan:-

  • Downloading of large files completes very quickly, especially if downloading from larger, more reputable sites.
  • Web pages load lightning fast, though not noticeably faster than my previous dual-1Gbps setup.
  • Uploading videos or large data files? Files sized around 100MB complete their uploads in less than 10 second. This might change your workflow (for the better) if you transfer large files regularly.
  • Would 10Gbps give you an edge with gaming? This isn’t as clear. But load times of some online games might conceivably be faster.

Of course, properly enjoying your new 10Gbps plan calls for the right home setup. We will cover that in the next article in this series.

(This story is part two of three; in partnership with Singtel)

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