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The Fixation on Speed

I was recently asked an interesting question. Is a 100/20 Mbps broadband connection really better than a 50/50 Mbps one? The question was referring to the new ReConnect grant rules that say that companies can seek grants to overbuild existing networks that are not performing at 100/20 Mbps. I have several different reactions to that question.

My first reaction is to ask an additional question. Do you think the RUS would provide a grant to overbuild a 50/50 Mbps WISP with 100/20 Mbps technology? In this example, the WISP doesn’t meet the RUS download speed threshold but is faster than the upload threshold. The answer is not clear to me. The definition of speed used for the grant has a download and upload component – what if an existing product only fails one of the two tests? I’ve never been a fan of using speeds as the definition of what is eligible for grants, and this kind of dilemma is one of many reasons what picking an arbitrary speed is likely to create controversies.

I next asked myself about how a household would feel about a 50/50 Mbps versus a 100/20 Mbps broadband product. I know some households who struggled with upload speeds during the pandemic even though they had 15 – 20 Mbps upload speed provided by a cable company. A home that struggled with a cable company upload connection likely had multiple students and adults trying to use upload at the same time. But the reason such a household struggled was more complex than just the speed. The upload path in cable company networks uses the worst spectrum inside the cable transmission path. The upload path often has a lot of noise and jitter – so even though a connection might show 20 Mbps on a speed test, the quality of the transmission can be highly compromised. If this theoretical home was fully informed it would choose a product with a faster upload link and should favor the 50/50 Mbps product. But there are plenty of homes with gamers and other heavy bandwidth users who care more about the download speed.

We also can’t forget about latency. A 50/50 Mbps connection on fiber might ‘feel’ faster to a customer than a 100/20 Mbps on a fixed wireless network with higher latency. The human eye is amazing at perceiving a slight difference in latency – fiber connections have an immediacy for the eye that is perceptible. I’ve always thought it would be interesting to set up a lab test where you could give people feeds with different speeds and latencies to measure the perceived differences from a customer perspective. I’ve always guessed that people care about latency a lot more than we think they do – but few customers understand this. I know that when customers first get fiber, they believe that it’s faster, even if they converted from a 100 Mbps download cable connection to a 100 Mbps fiber connection.

But back to the grant question – I don’t want to see federal grants used to build 100/20 Mbps broadband. If we are going to spend once-in-a-lifetime federal grant money we should be building networks that will be adequate a decade from now. If we don’t build for the future, then in ten years, we start the cycle all over again of talking about how to improve rural networks. There are plenty of arguments to be made why 100/20 Mbps is a good broadband connection today. But I defy anybody to say that it will be adequate a decade from now. A decade is a long time in the broadband world. A decade ago, the cable companies offered 30/3 Mbps speeds, and most people were happy with it. A decade from now a 100/20 Mbps connection will feel as inadequate as a 30/3 Mbps connection today.

Choosing between 100/20 Mbps and 50/50 Mbps today is an interesting thought exercise. There are some homes that should prefer each choice, so what matters most is the buyer of the broadband. I also think the answer is about more than just speed, and we must consider speed, jitter, and latency to fully compare two broadband options. But perhaps the most important thing to consider is that if a household buys a 100/20 Mbps connection today that they will likely be unhappy with that same product in a decade. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to understand this.

One reply on “The Fixation on Speed”

The key point is, these speeds are faster than DSL can ever provide. Unless you’re in a city that has been built out with 5G coverage, if your provider is delivering consistent 100/20 they pretty much have to be running fiber optic to your house. And fiber speed is limited only by the electronics at both ends. So future upgrades may require updating the hub and the home modems, but won’t require new wiring, which is the expensive part.

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