The DSL king is dead long live the VDSL king

April 16, 2013   |   Oliver Johnson

Copper drops and fibre grows as another broadband milestone passes

The last quarter of 2012 saw the global manifestation of a series of local effects as net additions for DSL were negative for the first time.

“The grand old man of broadband, DSL, has reached a global tipping point.  For the first time in the broadband world we’ve seen an overall drop in subscriptions to what has been the dominant technology of the last 15 years,” says Oliver Johnson, CEO of Point Topic.

The total number of DSL (that includes ADSL and SDSL) subscribers worldwide fell from 366.95 million in September 2012 to 366.66 million by the end of the year.  However DSL is still by far the commonest delivery technology for broadband.  Over 57% of the world’s fixed broadband subscribers had a DSL connection at the end of 2012.

As the collator and publisher of the most established, widely quoted and regularly cited set of quarterly statistics our detailed historical databases mean Point Topic is in a unique position to report on global broadband numbers.

“We’ve watched and reported as broadband has spread around the world.  From the low tens of thousands subscribing to cable and copper in the US through to over six hundred million subscribers to all forms of fixed broadband today,” says Johnson

DSL subscriptions are still growing in many countries and regions although more slowly every quarter.  Overall however the data shows that once added together growth in DSL is now flat at best and likely to be in gentle decline from now on.

Figure 1: DSL subscribers 1998 to 2012 

DSL lines 98 to 12


End to end copper may be on its way out but it will still be an integral part of most networks for years to come.  Not just because there are hundreds of millions of users out there but also recent advances have breathed new life into the infrastructure.

That new technology, actually a suite of varying upgrades, has meant the emergence of hybrid networks around the world.

Very high speed digital subscriber lines, VDSL, have been on the books for a number of years.  However with additional upgrades like vectoring it is now possible for a connection that has copper in the local loop to challenge at least at the low end of fibre speeds.

Deployments like these as well as other superfast related roll-outs has meant that fibre and hybrid fibre connections now account for over 20% of the world’s fixed broadband lines growing by more than 26% in 2012.

The marriage of fibre and copper has significant advantages.  It has meant the infrastructure owners don’t have to dig up all their connections to upgrade the services for their customers.  Connecting users to their local node by copper and then connecting that node to the exchange by fibre has cut deployment costs drastically and offers at least double the downstream bandwidth as DSL.

The major cost of fixed broadband deployment is in the ducts.  If you upgrade the connection to your nodes but don’t go through to the customer premises with fibre that cuts your costs in that part of the deployment by up to ninety nine percent.  With VDSL you can simply re-use what is already there and more often than not it’s copper.

VDSL is not the only answer to distributing fibre type broadband in the last mile.  Another very popular option is to connect a block of flats or multi-use unit to fibre and then use the internal power network or some version of local area network cabling to distribute the bandwidth between the residents.

End to end copper struggles to provide enough bandwidth for an increasing number of households today but still there is not enough demand for the ultra-fast bandwidths that fibre specialises in.  Fibre to the ‘x’ is an interim solution but it’s one with significant longevity, it won’t last as long as the original copper but it has extended the life of what is in the ground by another decade at least.

“Copper isn’t dead yet.  Perhaps in fifty years we will live in a world without any copper in the telecommunications infrastructure but I wouldn’t bet my broadband on it,” says Johnson.