There is a recent industry phenomenon that could have major impacts on ISP networks in the relatively near future. There has been an explosion of households that subscribe to gigabit data plans. At the end of 2018, only 1.8% of US homes subscribed to a gigabit plan. This grew to 2.8% by the end of 2019. With the pandemic, millions of homes upgraded to gigabit plans in an attempt to find a service that would support working from home. By the end of the third quarter of 2020, gigabit households grew to 5.6% of all households, a doubling in nine months. But by the end of last year, this mushroomed to 8.5% of all households. OpenVault reports that as of the end of the first quarter of 2021 that 9.8% of all households have subscribed to gigabit plans.
I have to think that a lot of these upgrades came from homes that wanted faster upload speeds. Cable company broadband is stingy with upload speeds for basic 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps basic plans. Surveys my company has done show a lot of dissatisfaction with urban ISPs, and my guess is that most of that unhappiness is due to sluggish upload performance.
Regardless of how we found ourselves at this place, one out of ten households in the US now buys gigabit broadband. As an aside, that fact alone should completely eradicate any further discussions about 25/3 Mbps even being part of the discussion of broadband.
My ISP clients tell me that the average gigabit household doesn’t use a lot more bandwidth than customers buying 100 Mbps broadband – they just get things faster. If you’ve never worked on a gigabit connection, you might not understand the difference – but with gigabit broadband, websites appear on your screen almost instantaneously. The word I’ve always used to describe gigabit broadband is ‘snappy’. It’s like snapping your fingers and what you want appears instantly.
I think the fact that 10% of households have gigabit speeds opens up new possibilities for content providers. In the early days after Google Fiber got the country talking about gigabit fiber, the talking heads in the industry were all asking when we’d see gigabit applications. There was a lot of speculation about what those applications might do – but we never found out because nobody ever developed them. There was no real market for gigabit applications when only a handful of households were buying gigabit speeds. Even at the end of 2019, it was hard to think about monetizing fast web products when less than 3% of all homes could use them.
My instincts tell me that hitting a 10% market share for gigabit subscribers has created the critical mass of gigabit households that might make it financially worthwhile to offer fast web applications. The most likely first applications are probably telepresence and 3D gaming in your living room space. It’s hard to think that there is no market for this.
I know that ISPs are not ready for households to actually use the speeds they have been peddling to them. There is no ISP network anywhere, including fiber networks, that wouldn’t quickly bog down and die if a bunch of subscribers started streaming at fast speeds between 100 Mbps and a gigabit. ISP networks are designed around the concept of oversubscription – meaning that customers don’t use broadband at the same time. The normal parameters for oversubscription are already changing due to the proliferation of VPN connections made for working and schooling from home – ISPs must accommodate large chunks of bandwidth that are in constant use, and that can’t be shared with other customers. Home VPN connections have paralyzed DSL networks, but it’s something that even fiber network engineers are watching carefully.
I’ve been imagining what will happen to a network if households start streaming at a dedicated symmetrical 100 Mbps instead of connecting to Zoom at 2 Mbps. It wouldn’t take many such customers in any neighborhood to completely tie up network resources.
I will be shocked if there aren’t entrepreneurs already dreaming up gaming and telepresence applications that take advantage of the 10% market share for gigabit broadband. In looking back at the past, new technology phenomenon seems to hit almost overnight. It’s not hard to imagine a craze where a million gigabit homes are playing live 3D games in the living room air. When that finally happens, ISPs are going to be taken by surprise, and not in a good way. We’ll see the instant introduction of data caps to stop customers from using broadband. But we’ll also see ISPs beefing up networks – they’ll have no choice.