The Growth Rate of Broadband Speeds

Cisco has changed the name of its periodic predictions of broadband usage from the Visual Networking Index to the Annual Broadband Report, and recently issued a report that covers the period from 2018 to predictions made through 2023.

Cisco is one of the few industry players that projects future broadband usage. Their past reports have been spot on in terms of predicting future broadband usage.

One of the items forecast in the Cisco report this year is average landline Internet speeds by world region. Following is their prediction of the average broadband speeds (in Mbps) for North America. This represents a 20% compounded growth, just a hair slower than the 21% predicted in their 2019 report.

2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023
56.6 70.1 92.7 106.8 126.0 141.8

It’s worth noting that Cisco includes Canada along with the US in defining North America. I haven’t found equivalent numbers for Canada alone to know if they pull the composite number upward or downward. The big takeaway from the Cisco numbers is that broadband speeds are continuing to climb as ISPs either arbitrarily increase speeds or customers upgrade to faster networks.

Cisco also predicts the future of cellular broadband speeds, as follows:

2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023
23.6 31.2 40.1 48.2 54.4 62.4

Interestingly, the cellular speeds are faster than what has been reported by Opensignal. They reported average cellular speeds in early 2019 for the US carriers as AT&T – 17.8 Mbps, Verizon – 20.9 Mbps, T-Mobile – 21.1 Mbps, and Sprint – 13.9 Mbps. That’s slower than Cisco’s 2018  speeds – but it’s worth noting that Canada has one of the fastest cellular networks in the world, which probably raises the Cisco numbers. The bottom-line takeaway from the Cisco numbers is that cellular broadband speeds are growing at an average rate of 21% per year.

The Cisco numbers show that Cisco doesn’t buy into the story that 5G is going to massively increase cellular broadband speeds in the next few years. The most recent increases in broadband speeds come from a few factors. The big carriers are upgrading a lot of cell sites to full 4G and finally utilizing the full power of the 4G specifications. The recent proliferation of small cell sites is relieving congestion from tall cell sites, which should result in faster speeds. Some of the future speed increases are likely due to the phase-out of 3G. While 5G is obviously a component of future cellular speed increases we’re not likely to see a one-time spike in faster speeds.

Perhaps the biggest takeaways from the Cisco numbers is that the FCC is out of step with reality as they cling to the 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband. Cisco says the average landline broadband speed for all of North America in 2019 was 70 Mbps, climbing to almost 93 Mbps this year. Cisco estimates the average speed in three years at almost 143 Mbps. It’s hard to think of any possible justification for not increasing the definition of broadband to match the market.

Unfortunately there is one regulatory reason why the FCC won’t act. If they increase the definition of broadband, they will be declaring that millions of additional homes don’t have acceptable broadband. This particular FCC is not brave enough to take a black eye over the resulting headlines. They already fear that fixing their faulty broadband maps is going to uncover millions of additional rural households without adequate broadband.

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