Update, 11/1/16, 7:33am PT: AT&T reached out to clarify that although businesses will be the initial beneficiaries of the new network capabilities, businesses will not be part of the early 2017 trial. Instead, the technology itself will be getting a trial. There is currently no timetable for when businesses themselves will get a shot at 400GbE. We have amended the headline and some copy accordingly.
AT&T business customers rejoice: The company announced plans to test 400Gbps Ethernet data connections on a trial basis in 2017.
For reference, AT&T claimed that these speeds will allow people to "download approximately 10 two-hour movies in less than a second" or "watch 100,000 streaming movies at the same time." The company said it would become the first ISP in the United States to use 400GbE connections on its network if its plans to trial the tech next year remain on track. Now, the question is how long it might take for the average person to benefit from these updates.
This change is meant to help AT&T keep pace with the growing demand for reliable high-speed internet access. The company said that data traffic on its network rose 150,000% between 2007 and 2015, which means AT&T will have to regularly improve its network to keep its business customers happy. Even ISPs have to buckle to demand, despite their control over much of the United States' internet access, and that's exactly what AT&T is doing here.
Here's how the company outlined its plan to offer these ultra-fast connections some time next year:
Phase 1: Will use optical gear from Coriant to carry a true 400GbE service across a long-distance span of AT&T global backbone from New York to Washington, demonstrating that AT&T's nationwide software-centric network is 400G-ready. Phase 2: Will trial a 400GbE on a single 400G wavelength across AT&T's OpenROADM metro network. We'll use optical gear from Ciena, a developer of next-generation coherent optical solutions, to show the network is ready to transport 400GbE to serve our customers in a metro area. Phase 3: Will test the first instance of a 400GbE open router platform. The "disaggregated router" platform uses merchant silicon and open source software – another industry first.
These upgrades are meant to help AT&T's business customers. The company's plan for consumers is less clear: It said that enabling these 400GbE connections "moves toward delivering next-generation network speeds and agility customers need" and "aligns with the shift toward a software-centric network" but doesn't offer a timeline for when these improvements might result in faster internet connections for its many individual customers.
Instead, the plan most likely to affect individuals is AT&T's proposed $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner. That deal threatens to undermine the quality of Time Warner's media companies--HBO, The CW Network, and others--while also giving AT&T motivation to monitor its customers' internet traffic so it can offer more information to advertisers. Business customers get super fast downloads; individuals get to worry about their ISP spying on them.
Still, improvements to the network are likely to eventually trickle down to consumers. We just have to see how long that process will take, and given AT&T's infamous resistance to offering individuals better service without restrictions, what compromises will have to be made once it's finished. AT&T business customers ought to be excited about this news, but the rest of us should keep a wary eye on what these changes will mean for everyone else.