In a market now inundated with data-hungry social media platforms, whether you are an Internet service provider, network wholesaler, or mobile service operator, the industry continues to grapple with the challenge of growing revenue and margins across its broadband consumer base. Finding the right balance between network investments and the average revenue generated per end-user has been difficult for most organisations due to the forever-moving target of data growth and consumption.

We are observing an unprecedented need for speed from end-users globally, with the year 2021 setting data usage records spurred on partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic but predominantly driven by society's insatiable appetite for streaming services. Setting the benchmark for the rest of the world, we saw the average weighted broadband consumption in the North American market surpass 512 GB for the first time, with many network operators now scrambling to keep pace with the growing demand. To complicate matters further, network operators must plan to deliver strategies that will combat the expected tsunami in data utilisation from the next evolution of the internet - the Metaverse!

So, what is the Metaverse, and when will it arrive?

This may surprise some, but the transition to this new world known as the Metaverse has already begun. To back this up, we are already seeing massive investment dollars being piled into initiatives spawning from the "Metaverse," with the likes of Facebook changing its name to Meta as part of its investment into the next digital frontier - The Metaverse! The Metaverse is the next generation of internet and centres around how the user will experience the internet of the future – Web 3.0. It is a concept of delivering a persistent, online, 3D universe that combines multiple different virtual spaces. So advanced are some metaverse industries that people are already calling this transition "the future iteration of the internet." For most of us old enough to remember the early Sci-Fi Cartoon, "The Jetsons," many of these once fictional sketches are now becoming a reality. For example, we are seeing the shift where the world can be turned into a giant billboard, where robots can have spatial reasoning, and everyone around the globe has their own virtual assistants. At some stage, the Metaverse purports to allow users to work, meet, game, and socialize together in these virtual 3D spaces.

So, what impact will the Metaverse have on internet bandwidth consumption?

Central to the transition to the Metaverse is the anticipated wide adoption of augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies. A recent report published by Credit Suisse predicts that the revolution of the Metaverse will increase the average data usage to 20 times what we are seeing today by 2032. To add support to this claim, we can refer to the VR Goggle technologies that are said to match the definition of the human eye. The human eye can process images equivalent to a 500 Megapixel camera. When we translate this into bandwidth, for technology to be able to deliver the truly immersive 3D, real-time experience that VR and AR technologies promise, end-users will need to access broadband services capable of delivering speeds of up to 1 Gbps. Bandwidth combined with growing broadband penetration across the globe will most certainly require s providers to carefully consider and plan which technologies should be used in their upcoming network refresh cycles.

Technology and its rate of change are increasing exponentially!

Moore's law has long withstood the test of time. In 1965, Gordon Moore developed a model that predicted that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit double about every two years. Moore also suggested that his model was time constrained and predicted that his observation would likely extend until around 2020 and then taper off.  So here we are!

Opening the door to this new frontier has indeed required a transformational rethink of the industry in general. What we are observing today would have been incomprehensible a decade ago. Recently, Apple released a 5-nanometre chip in its smartphones. We are reading about silicon chip makers across the world planning to release a 3-nanometre transistor in their silicon by the end of 2022. To put things into perspective, a 3-nanometre transistor is the size of about six large atoms. Mind-blowing, I know!

One of the greatest challenges for hardware vendors is keeping pace with the rate of change due to a combination of technological advancements and society's environmental demands. With this rate of change, we observe technologies that were once only available in a data centre environment now being pushed down closer to the network edge. For example, today, there are optical line terminal (OLT) solutions – your internet service providers’ equipment – built with the ability to support coherent small form factor (SFP) pluggable optical technologies such as the QSFP-DD 400. Advancements like this enable disaggregated OLT solutions to support high-density port counts while maintaining a non-blocking design on these platforms. Further advancements are driving down device footprint and improving power efficiency despite delivering exponential gains in processing power. This is enabling service providers to decentralise network deployments closer to the edge and enabling OLTs to be deployed in fixtures such as street-side cabinets, building basements, and even strand mounted externally using outdoor sealed enclosures. To this end, we are now seeing momentum shift away from all-encompassing, chassis-based system designs to small, pizza-box sized equipment based on open and disaggregated architectures. This shift is being expedited because of industry concerns surrounding chassis-based OLT systems and their future capability to smoothly adapt to future evolutions of passive optical network (PON) technologies, such as the ITU-T 50G PON (G.hsp) standard. These concerns relate to the ability to easily maintain non-blocking architectures within chassis-based systems without requiring forklift upgrades when trying to satisfy the need for future connectivity such as small cell backhaul, the demands of 10 Gbps+ enterprise services, and at the same time, consumer data growth expected to be driven by the Metaverse.

Service Providers – What is the chosen upgrade path toward supporting next-generation demand?

The good news on this front is that many service providers around the globe already have their upgrade planning cycles well underway. The vast majority of service providers that we have seen procuring next-generation equipment have chosen to deploy open and disaggregated, PON-based fibre networks as their access technology of choice. These networks are being equipped with Combo PON technology, where both legacy GPON and current-generation XGS-PON networks co-exist within the same OLT port. This enables an easy migration and upgrade path for existing brownfield deployments while enabling new XGS-PON optical distribution networks (ODNs) to be introduced from the same OLTs.

While these Combo PON solutions are proving favourably on the economic front, another key buying decision that has been front of mind with service providers has been the platforms' ability to deliver cloud-based software-defined network (SDN) controllers. SDN-based solutions are delivering operational gains helping to drive down OPEX costs by freeing operational teams from having to reactively manage operational workflows to maintain an end-to-end service level adherence manually. In a world where applications demand more out of Quality of Service (QoS), timing, and low latency connections, networks can no longer run efficiently if they are not supported through software-defined access operations.

Key takeaways when selecting your network of the future.

While the Metaverse will generate a 20-fold increase in broadband traffic in the next decade, service providers choosing next-generation networks based on full-fibre PON architectures are well placed to withstand the onslaught in traffic growth. The leading solutions dominating the market today are based on Combo PON technologies built using open and disaggregated architectures, which are supported by a state-of-the-art cloud-native network management platform based on SDN control principles to help unlock and automate the control and management functions from underlying network elements. In an environment where high bandwidth and low latency applications dominate, service providers are building networks that can tap into the performance needs of over-the-top applications to ensure that customer experience success is achieved and maintained. These future networks will be able to automatically adapt and support dynamic traffic and load management functions to deliver these seamless user experiences while at the same time ensuring the best return on network investment.