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Broadband Usage Explodes in Fourth Quarter of 2020

OpenVault just released its Broadband Insights Report for the 4th quarter of 2020. The report shows continued staggeringly fast growth of broadband usage in the country. The growth has been so fast that OpenVault applies the word ‘exploded’ to describe the giant increase in customer usage.

The monthly average household usage leaped to 482.6 gigabytes – which is a combination of both the upload and download usage in the average home across the whole country. It’s impossible to put that number into perspective without comparing it to the average household usage in recent quarters, as follows:

1st quarter 2018           215 Gigabytes

1st quarter 2019           274 Gigabytes

4th quarter 2019           344 Gigabytes

1st quarter 2020           403 Gigabytes

2nd quarter 2020          380 Gigabytes

3rd quarter 2020           384 Gigabytes

4th quarter 2020           483 Gigabytes

The fourth-quarter number is up 26% from the third quarter this year and up 40% from the fourth quarter of last year – the last time that usage wasn’t impacted by the pandemic. These are growth rates that network engineers can’t really grasp – how does one design a network to be ready for a 40% growth in traffic volume in a single year?

OpenVault also saw that there wasn’t a big difference between homes with data caps at 472.3 gigabytes per month and homes with unlimited usage at 496.6 gigabytes per month. You might expect homes with data caps to try to curtail usage, and the numbers show they only do so moderately.

Median usage has also grown significantly over the last year – this is the level at which 50% of homes use less broadband and 50% use more. Median broadband usage per home was 190.7 gigabytes at the end of 2019 and grew to 289 gigabytes by the end of 2020. The median usage in the US is going to remain a lot lower than the average usage due to homes with exceedingly slow rural broadband that are incapable of using a lot of data.

The number of households that are heavy users of broadband continues to explode upward. At the end of the fourth quarter, 14.1% of homes consumed more than 1 terabyte of data per month (1,000 gigabytes), up from 7.3% of homes just a year earlier. OpenVault has started also counting what they call extreme users or homes using more than 2 terabytes per month – 2.2% of all homes were extreme users at the end of 2020, up from 1% only a year earlier. There is no mystery about why Charter wants to start billing for data caps – there is a lot of money to be made from homes that use a lot of data. Looking back four and five years, and the cable companies claimed that homes that used a terabyte of data were anomalies and should pay extra. That argument loses steam when 1 out of 7 homes is routinely using more than a terabyte of data.

Of all of the statistics gathered by OpenVault, the fastest-growing category is the number of homes subscribed to a gigabit-speed service. At the end of the fourth quarter that has grown to 8.5% of all households, triple the 2.8% of homes that were buying gigabit products at the end of 2019.

Finally, the statistic that best defines broadband during the pandemic is the growth of average household upload usage each month. At the end of 2019, the average US homes uploaded 19 gigabytes of data per month. By the end of 2020 that had grown to 31 gigabytes. It’s likely that the demand for upload has grown even more than this, but huge numbers of homes report being restricted on the upload path. There are stories everywhere of homes still unable to connect to school or work servers, or home broadband connections that won’t support multiple people using the upload path at the same time.

Broadband is seasonal it’s likely that usage will drop some by the end of the second quarter in 2020 when school is out for most students. It’s going to be really interesting to see how usage changes by the end of 2021 as we hopefully leave the pandemic behind us.

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