Phenomenal growth in internet connected devices could see UK web use increase by a factor of 300 over the next five years, as Ofcom looks to fibre and the refarming of television spectrum for a solution.
Research by the telecom regulator Ofcom suggests that internet use in the UK will increase by between 80 and 300 times by 2018, and to cope with such huge amounts of data, the country's broadcast spectrums and internet infrastructure need vast improvement.
Speaking at the Institute of Engineering and Technology in central London, Ofcom's chief technical officer Steve Unger said there is no reason to believe that consumer demand for faster and wider-ranging internet coverage will slow, so planning now for the future is critical.
"Over the last year, the data downloaded over a typical fixed broadband connection increased by 35 percent, and the data downloaded over a typical mobile connection more than doubled.
"It's difficult if not impossible to predict future levels of growth, but there's no reason to believe that the virtuous circle of service innovation and capacity growth, which over the last decade has transformed our sector, is about to stop.
"We therefore need to consider how fixed and mobile access networks might evolve to meet this challenge, and to what extent all access networks will be dependent on 'fibre to the lamp post'."
Copper has served us well
Criticised for being late to move on from aging copper wire in favour of faster but more expensive fibre, Unger spoke of a compromise, and that copper has served well as a stepping stone, allowing a fibre network to be planned more carefully before major investment is made.
"We will get to the point where there is fibre to every home, I am sure of it," Unger said. "Copper has served us well and prevented us from having to take a step in the dark. Building a fibre network would have been difficult ten years ago."
Now though, the UK's broadband infrastructure is at a tipping point, where consumer demand has outgrown the network's ability to deliver.
Driving this demand is the widespread adoption of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets; 79 percent of the UK population has at least one internet-connected device, and 16 percent of households have three or more.
These devices are being used for high-bandwidth tasks like video streaming, which was used in 35 percent of households last year, up from just 16 percent in 2007. Catch-up TV has increased from almost zero in 2007 to now being used in 28 percent of households.
In the last year alone, Unger explained, fixed broadband use per UK household has increased from 17GB to 23GB per month
This growth is impressive, but as Unger said, the change in mobile use "has been even more dramatic."
Web access on mobile phones has shot up from 10 percent in 2007 to 42 percent by the end of 2012, and email use on smartphones has increased from seven to 33 percent over the same five years.
Despite most networks offering between 500MB and 2GB of mobile internet use per month, the average user rose from just 0.11GB in March 2011 to 0.24GB in June 2012 - relatively low figures, but still a significant increase of 119 percent.
The future is not a killer app
Looking ahead, Unger said: "The killer app for the next generation of broadband could be HD or 4K Ultra HD television. There would be a fat pipe going onto the home feeding your TV and 4K would need about 30Mbps, but we don't think this is the right view of the future.
"Instead, another view is that there isn't a killer app. What drives demand in the future is not a killer app or single device that needs hundreds of megs, but a home that has a wide range of devices that need bandwidth - TV, laptop, tablet, phone, machine to machine communication."
Fueling these devices with the bandwidth they need is going to be a problem with the UK's current infrastructure, resulting in what Ofcom calls a capacity crunch.
Unger said: "Managing spectrum [to avoid a capacity crunch] is a long term task, we need to take a long term view if we are going to provide more spectrum for mobile data services."
Unger predicts that by 2018 UK internet use across mobile and fixed line will have grown by up to 300 times, with a conservative estimate of 80, and that a convergence of fixed and wireless networks is necessary, they should no longer be treated separately.
By using both networks to provide broadband, Unger sees a future where fibre will provide the vast majority of homes with superfast broadband, and wireless 4G services will be used to provide the remaining few percent of rural addresses, where installing fibre becomes too expensive.
Wireless networks could also be used in the future to provide 4.5 or 5G mobile internet, and Unger explained that this would be broadcast over the 700MHz spectrum, currently used for terrestrial television.
Unger said: "We do think that sometime, probably after 2018, that the 700MHz band should be re-farmed for mobile use. We don't think we'll be in a position to switch off terrestrial TV then, but instead move TV to the 600MHz band and take advantage of TV compression techniques to deliver the same quality across a smaller spectrum.
"So the plan would be to increase mobile [coverage and bandwidth] but not switch off everyone's TV, we think we can do that but it will take careful planning."