Earlier this month, NCTA – The Internet and Television Association – posted an article on its website touting the big increases in broadband speeds since the start of the pandemic. NCTA is the industry trade and lobbying association for medium-sized and large cable companies.
The article touts that the average U.S. download speed has grown from 138 Mbps in March 2020, the first month of the pandemic, to 226 Mbps in June 2022. These speeds come from the Ookla Speedtest Global Index. The cited numbers are the mean, or the average speeds measured by Ookla in the respective months across the whole U.S. Obviously, the cable companies are taking credit for much of the speed increase, and to some extent, that’s true. But there are a number of different reasons why average download speeds are increasing.
One of the primary reasons is directly related to the cable companies. Over the last year, cable companies have almost universally increased the download speed of the base broadband product to 200 Mbps to 300 Mbps. This not only applies to new customers, but many existing customers woke up one day in the last year with a download speed increase. This is something that the cable companies had done periodically since the days when speeds were 6 Mbps download. Since Comcast and Charter alone serve over half of all broadband customers in the country, anything the big cable companies do to increase speeds affects a lot of people and drives up the national average speed.
Another factor that is driving up average speeds is more homes getting access to fiber. This is starting to rachet up and many homes are now seeing a second fast choice other than the cable company. When looking at the amount of fiber being built and the sales goals of the fiber companies, this is going to be picking up in the coming years. To some extent, the big cable companies are also building fiber. Charter, in particular, is building fiber on the fringe of its traditional cable markets to new subdivisions or areas where the company has gotten grants. I’ve been hearing from Charter cable customers lately who are frustrated that the company is building fiber nearby and not in their neighborhood.
One of the major reasons for the average speed increases reflects poorly on the cable companies. Over the last two years, there has been a huge migration of homes buying faster broadband packages. These are homes that struggled with broadband performance and upgraded to get better speeds. Most people didn’t realize (and still may not realize) that their issues during the pandemic were mostly due to poor upload bandwidth from the cable companies. Folks upgraded to faster download packages hoping to get better upload performance, and even after the upgrade, many did not. You’ll notice on the NCTA website that there is no mention of upload bandwidth – a topic the cable companies absolutely do not want to discuss.
A final factor that is contributing to a faster national average download speed is the rapid expansion of fiber in rural areas. While this doesn’t represent a big slice of people, the national average speeds are boosted when households migrate from download speeds of 1 or 2 Mbps to fast download speeds on fiber. There is currently a lot of construction going on funded by the FCC’s ACAM program, federal grants and subsidies like ReConnect and RDOF, and numerous state broadband grants.
So yes, the cable companies deserve credit for increasing download speeds – and they are a big part of the reason behind the faster national average speeds. But it’s not all due to the cable companies.