Why I am Thankful for 2020

Every year I write a blog at Thanksgiving talking about the things in our industry for which I am thankful. Most years it’s not hard to do this because there are always a lot of great things happening in the broadband industry. But 2020 has been hard on the broadband industry just like it’s been hard on all of us. I had to reach a little deeper this year to make a list. Please feel free to comment on this blog with things you are thankful for this year.

Response to the Pandemic. To me, the big story of the year is the way that local officials and local ISPs quickly responded to the pandemic. It was a shock sending kids home to do schoolwork who didn’t have computers or home broadband connections. I’ve talked to dozens of school districts that scrambled and found hot spots and computers so that within a short time kids had some options.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t always easy. For instance, there are a lot of rural places with poor cellular coverage where sending home a wireless hotspot wasn’t a viable solution. Communities and ISPs found ways to install public hot spots at schools, parked school buses, restaurants, fire stations – any place where people could park cars and where ISPs could get a broadband signal. I’m thankful for the thousands of people who mobilized quickly to make this happen.

Rural Broadband Problems Got Noticed. Politicians at every level heard from angry constituents who will no longer tolerate the sad state of rural broadband. All of a sudden, almost every politician is talking about solving the rural broadband problem. We’ll have to see how this translates into action when the pandemic is over, but there is no mistake that rural residents were finally heard loud and clear.

Rural Spectrum. Probably the brightest broadband news this year is that the FCC released a ton of new spectrum that can be used for rural broadband. Broadband purists want everybody in America to have fiber, but until we figure out how to pay for that, today’s wireless technology can deliver 50 Mbps to 100 Mbps broadband in rural areas and is a badly-needed solution. The new spectrum gives WISPs a chance to step up their game.

Better WiFi on the Way. The industry released the WiFi 6 standard and the FCC approved 6 GHz spectrum for WiFi use. These two innovations are going to revolutionize WiFi. A lot of the problems that homes cite with broadband performance can be blamed on our currently overloaded WiFi spectrum bands. Within a few years, most of these problems should melt away with new WiFi gear.

A New FCC Coming. While this FCC did some positive things, they have gone too far in the direction of catering to the big ISPs at the expense of the public good. The ideal FCC balances the needs of the industry and the needs of the public. I expect a new FCC is going to swing the regulatory pendulum away from a carrier emphasis back closer to where the FCC ought to be.

Cybersecurity Getting Better. Early news reports say there was no apparent tampering of voting machines in the recent elections. That’s great news and is a reminder that cybersecurity has quietly gotten a lot better at protecting computer networks. There hasn’t been a big hack of corporate or government networks announced for a while. The biggest threats to computer networks continue to come from disgruntled employees or employees that inadvertently let bad actors into networks.

Growth of Video Conferencing. I don’t know how others feel, but I like video conferencing. I find it refreshing to see who I’m talking to. As a lifetime road warrior, I really like not getting on an airplane to make a presentation. We’ve learned this year that people can communicate well from a distance. I don’t know about the rest of the world, but I won’t be flying across the country without a very good reason when the pandemic is finally over – and for that I’m thankful.

It’s Almost 2021. Perhaps the best thing about 2020 is that it’s almost over and we’ll soon get a new year, and hopefully a reset. May 2021 be better for you all.

Quantum Encryption

Verizon recently conducted a trial of quantum key distribution technology, which is the first generation of quantum encryption. Quantum cryptography is being developed as the next-generation encryption technique that should protect against hacking from quantum computers. Carriers like Verizon care about encryption because almost every transmission inside of our communications paths are encrypted.

The majority of encryption today uses asymmetric encryption. That means encryption techniques rely on the use of secure keys. To use an example, if you want to send encrypted instructions to your bank (such as to pay your broadband bill), your computer uses the publicly available key issued by the bank to encode the message. The bank then uses a different private key that only it has to decipher the message.

Key-based encryption is safe because it takes immense amounts of computing power to guess the details of the private key. Encryption methods today mostly fight off hacking by using long encryption keys – the latest standard is a key consisting of at least 2048 bits.

Unfortunately, the current decryption methods won’t stay safe for much longer. It seems likely that quantum computers will soon have the capability of cracking today’s encryption keys. This is possible since quantum computers can perform thousands of simultaneous calculations and could cut down the time needed to crack an encryption key from months or years down to hours. Once a quantum computer can do that, then no current encryption scheme is safe. The first targets for hackers with quantum computers will probably be big corporations and government agencies, but it probably won’t take long to turn the technology to hack into bank accounts.

Today’s quantum computers are not yet capable of cracking today’s encryption keys, but computing experts say that it’s just a matter of time. This is what is prompting Verizon and other large ISPs to look for a form of encryption that can withstand hacks from quantum computers.

Quantum key distribution (QKD) uses a method of encryption that might be unhackable. Photons are sent one at a time through a fiber optic transmission to accompany an encrypted message. If anybody attempts to intercept or listen to the encrypted stream the polarization of the photons is impacted and the recipient of the encrypted message instantly knows the transmission is no longer safe. The theory is that this will stop hackers before they know enough to crack into and analyze a data stream.

The Verizon trial added a second layer of security using a quantum random number generator. This technique generates random numbers and constantly updates the decryption keys in a way that can’t be predicted.

Verizon and others have shown that these encryption techniques can be performed over existing fiber optics lines without modifying the fiber technology. There was a worry in early trials of the technology that new types of fiber transmission gear would be needed for the process.

For now, the technology required for quantum encryption is expensive, but as the price of quantum computer chips drops, this encryption technique ought to become affordable and be available to anybody that wants to encrypt a transmission.

The Working-from-home Migration

Upwork, a platform that supports freelancers conducted a major survey of more than 20,000 adults to look at the new phenomenon of people moving due to the pandemic, with questions also aimed at understanding the motivation for moving. Since Upwork supports people who largely work out of their homes, the survey concentrated on that issue.

What the survey verified what is already being covered widely by the press – people are moving due to the pandemic in large numbers. The survey found that the rate of migration is currently three to four times higher than the normal rate from recent years.

The key findings from the survey are as follows:

  • Between 6.9% and 11.5% of all households are considering moving due to the ability to work remotely. That equates to between 14 and 23 million people. It’s a pretty wide range of results, but likely a lot of people that want to move will end up not moving.
  • 53% of people are moving to find housing that is significantly less expensive than their current home.
  • 54% of people are moving beyond commuting distance and are moving more than a two-hour drive away from their current job.
  • People are moving from large and medium cities to places with lower housing density.

These findings are corroborated by a lot of other evidence. For example, data from Apartments.com show that rental occupancy and rates in cities are falling in the most expensive markets compared to the rest of the country. Realtors in smaller markets across the country are reporting a boom of new residents moving into communities.

Economic disruption often causes big changes in population migration and we saw spikes in people moving during the last two economic downturns. In those cases, there was a big shift in people moving from rural areas to cities and in people moving from the north to the south to follow job opportunities.

Interestingly, this new migration might reverse some of those past trends. Many rural communities have been losing population over the last few decades and the new migration patterns might reverse some of that long-term trend. People have been leaving rural parts of states to get jobs in urban centers and working from home is going to let many of these same people move back to be closer to families.

Of course, one of the issues that a lot of folks moving away from cities are going to face is that the broadband is often not as good where they want to move. The big cable companies have better networks in big cities than in smaller markets. You don’t have to move far outside of suburbs or rural county seats to find homes with little or no broadband. Even cellular coverage is a lot spottier outside of cities. I’ve seen local newspaper stories from all over the country of people who have bought rural homes only to find out that there was no broadband available.

But this isn’t true everywhere. There are some smaller towns with fiber to every home. There are rural areas with fiber to the farms. Rural communities that have fiber ought to be advertising it far and wide right now.

As a thought experiment, I looked at the states around me to see if I could identify areas that have fiber. The search was a lot harder than I thought it should be. States ought to have an easy-to-find map showing the availability of fiber because those communities are going to move to the top of the list for people who want a rural setting and who will be working from home.

I’ve worked from home for twenty years and I’m happy to see this opportunity open for millions of others. It gives you the freedom to live where you want and to choose where to live for reasons other than a job. It’s going to be an interesting decade ahead if people can move to where they want to live. I just have to warn local elected officials that new people moving to your community are going to be vocal about having great broadband.

The Race to Bury Net Neutrality

The Internet is currently full of news articles describing how the FCC will soon be putting to bed the last vestiges of its order a few years ago to eliminate net neutrality rules. The order that is widely being called the net neutrality ruling was a far-reaching change at the FCC that essentially wrote the FCC out of any role in regulating broadband.

Eliminating net neutrality rules was only a small part of that order. Net neutrality is a set of principles that describe how ISPs and network owners are to not discriminate between bits carried over the Internet. Most of the largest ISPs said that they could live with the net neutrality principles, and eliminating net neutrality was not a high priority for companies like AT&T and Comcast. The real priority for the big ISPs was to take advantage of a friendly FCC that was open and willing to deregulated broadband – particularly willing to eliminate any threat of broadband rate regulation.

So when you read the flood or articles this month talking about net neutrality, you need to substitute the term ‘net neutrality’ with ‘regulating broadband’ as you read articles on the topic. The FCC chose to disguise their attempt to kill regulation under the moniker of net neutrality and was successful since the average American probably has no idea that the FCC no longer regulates ISPs and broadband.

The FCC is holding a vote on October 27, just before the presidential election to cement the last open pieces from the FCC’s order to eliminate broadband regulation. The FCC’s order to write the agency out of broadband regulation was challenged in federal court. The court basically said that the FCC had the regulatory authority to either change the rules (or not change the rules) to walk away from broadband regulation.

However, the court said that the FCC needs to demonstrate that eliminating regulatory authority over broadband didn’t impact three areas negatively. The FCC was asked to clarify:

  • How eliminating broadband regulation impacts public safety;
  • How the FCC can still regulate pole attachments if it doesn’t regulate broadband;
  • If walking away from regulation negatively impacts the FCC’s ability to offer the FCC Lifeline programs that benefit low-income Americans.

On October 27 the FCC is going to take a vote to say that it’s earlier order doesn’t negatively impact any of these issues. It’s clear that that the FCC wants to finish the elimination of broadband regulation before the election on the chance that a new Democratic president will mean a new head of the FCC. The FCC has openly said that it changed the rules on broadband regulation in such a way that will make it hard for a future FCC to overturn its order.

A new FCC can obviously undo anything that was done by a previous FCC. However, the net neutrality order was done in such a way that a new FCC would have to go through the full cycle of the FCC’s processes that including various cycles of notices of proposed rulemaking, a final rulemaking, and then the inevitable court challenges to any attempt to reregulate broadband – all done with vigorous opposition from the big ISPs. The process of reversing the deregulation of broadband would likely stretch over many years.

However, there is a much shorter and quicker path for reversing the FCC’s order. Congress is free to reset the FCC rules in any way it seems fit, and Congress could finally pass a new telecom act. There hasn’t been any major telecom legislation out of Congress since 1996 – during the heyday of dial-up Internet. In today’s political environment it would take a Democratic sweep of the White House and both houses of Congress to get new telecom legislation passed.

Even should that happen with the election, the new Democratic majority would have to agree on what is contained in a new telecom act. I can’t foresee that being an easy or quick process. There is an accumulation of topics in addition to broadband regulation that would benefit from Congressional clarification including privacy, regulation of web companies, solving the digital divide, elimination of outdated cable TV and telephone regulations, a national policy on spectrum, regulation of low orbit satellites, and a host of smaller issues.

If the Democrats don’t make a clean sweep of Congress and the White House, then the current FCC will largely have succeeded and it might be many years until a determined FCC could reestablish any regulatory authority over broadband. What is clear to somebody who closely watches industry regulation – it’s going to be interesting few years ahead of us in this industry regardless of what happens at the polls in November.

FCC Kills CableCards

The FCC Commissioners recently unanimously voted to eliminate the rules that require cable companies to support devices that use CableCard technology for connecting to video services. The largest user of the technology is TiVo, but consumers have also been able to buy settop boxes using the technology rather than paying monthly to lease a box from the cable company.

The requirement for CableCards came from the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The congressional authors of that act thought that consumers ought to have an alternative to leasing a mandatory settop box from a cable company. After some industry wrangling, the FCC ordered that cable companies be ready to allow devices with CableCards by July 2000.

The big cable companies hated the CableCard rule and refused to share network security keys with CableCard manufacturers, making it a major challenge for a customer to install a CableCard device. In 2005 the FCC clarified the original order and told cable companies that software had to be separate than settop box devices so that CableCards could connect to cable company networks.

Over time, the software on cable networks has grown increasingly complex, and CableCard technology never became plug and play. Anybody who has ever installed a TiVo box knows the challenge of getting the CableCard software to talk to a specific local cable system. Because of this, and because of ongoing resistance to cable companies to make it easy for CableCards to work, no major market for consumer-owned settop boxes ever emerged. However, even in recent years, there have been sales of roughly half a million CableCard devices per quarter.

The biggest user of CableCard technology is TiVo which has a CableCard in every DVR recorder it sells. The FCC order doesn’t force cable companies to continue to support CableCard technology, but they likely will. Any cable company settop box built before 2015 uses CableCard technology – that was the easiest way for the cable companies to make CableCards work.

However, the FCC eliminated the last vestige of regulation on CableCards, so there is nothing to stop a cable company from cutting off CableCard devices, other than perhaps a desire to not push more households to cut the cord. Cable companies are also free to charge extra to consumers for connecting with a CableCard device.

It’s more likely that CableCard devices will just become technically obsolete over time. Without the FCC’s rules in place, the cable companies might not worry about the impact on CableCards as they update settop box software. This likely spells the end of the traditional TiVo box that could record many hours of video to watch later. Most cable companies offer an alternate to TiVo and allow customers to record and store programming in the cloud rather than on a device in the home. However, TiVo and other companies already started that transition, and TiVo introduced a cloud DVR service in 2018 for a cord-cutter that allows recording of video content that comes from any source such as over-the-air, or from an online service.

Consumers who have used CableCard devices face having to eventually pay the monthly fee for a settop box if they want to keep traditional cable TV service. Ironically, there might be a bigger need for a settop box alternative today than there was in 2000. Largely freed from regulation, the cable companies have raised fees on settop boxes, and I’ve seen monthly rental rates as high as $15 per month.

In the end, the CableCard regulation was largely a bust. It provided an alternative to renting settop boxes, but the cable companies never stopped fighting the idea and never made it easy for consumers to connect and use a CableCard device.

They’re Back

Facebook recently announced it will be introducing smart glasses in collaboration with Ray-Ban. This will be the second major attempt at introducing the technology since the failed attempt by Google in 2011 when it introduced Google Glass. For those who might not remember, Google Glass was shunned by the general public and people who wore the glasses in public were quickly deemed to be glassholes. People were generally uncomfortable talking to somebody who could be recording the conversation.

It will be interesting to see if the public is any more forgiving now. Pictured with this blog is Glass 2.0 that is being used in factories, but the first-generation public version was equally obvious as a piece of technology.

In terms of technology, 2011 is far behind us, and since then it’s common for anything done in public to end up being recorded by somebody’s smartphone. But that still doesn’t mean that people like the idea of being secretly recorded, particularly if the new glasses aren’t so obvious as Google Glass.

We still don’t know what the technology will look like, but Facebook will try to brand the new glasses as cool. Consider this video ad that accompanied the announcement of the new glasses – who doesn’t want to wear smart glasses like glasses worn in the past by James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and Muhammed Ali? Facebook says the new glasses will function by being paired with a smartphone, so perhaps they’ll be a lot less obvious than were the Google Glass.

The glasses are the first step towards virtual presence. Facebook Mark Zuckerberg says his vision is being able to virtually invite friends into your home to play cards virtually. However, this first set of glasses isn’t going to include an integrated display that would be capable of generating or viewing holograms. That means the new glasses will likely include the same sort of features like Google Glass such as being able to record what’s in front of you, using the web to browse for facts, or dipping into the web to call-up information about people you meet. With the advances we’ve made in facial recognition since 2011, that last item is a lot scarier today than it was a decade ago.

I recall the tech industry excitement about Google Glass and other proposed wearables back in 2010. The vision was to seamlessly be able to carry tech with you to create a constant human-computer interface. Google was stunned when the public universally and loudly rejected the idea, because to most people the technology meant an invasion of privacy. Nobody wanted to have a casual conversation with a stranger and then later find it posted on social media.

It’s hard to think that is still not going to be the reaction again today. Of course, as a baby boomer, I am a lot leerier of technology than are the younger generations. It seems that Generation Z is a lot less concerned about privacy and it will be interesting to see if young people take to the new technology. We may have one of the biggest generational rifts ever between the first generation that finally embraces wearables and everybody older.

Google Glass never died and morphed into a pair of glasses to use in factories. It allows workers to pull up schematics in real-time to compare to work-in-progress in front of them. The technology is said to have greatly improved complex tasks like wiring a new jetliner – something we all want to be 100% correct.

I will likely remain leery of the technology. What might eventually bring me around is Zuckerberg’s vision of being able to play poker with distant friends. I’ve been predicting telepresence as the technology that will finally take advantage of gigabit fiber connections. I’m not sure that we need glasses that secretly hide the technology capability to make this work – but I guess this is an early step towards that vision.

CBRS Auction Winners

The FCC held a recent auction for the  3.5GHz Citizens Band Radio Spectrum (CBRS). The auction went for 76 rounds and raised over $4.5 billion for the FCC. This auction was unique in that spectrum was licensed at the county-level awarding up to seven licensed 10 MHz channels in each county. Each PAL (Priority Access License) is good for 10 years.

CBRS spectrum can be used in several applications. The spectrum has good field operating parameters and falls in the middle between the two existing blocks of spectrum used for WiFi. This makes the spectrum ideal for rural point-to-multipoint fixed wireless broadband since it can carry a decent amount of bandwidth for a decent distance. The best aspect of this spectrum is that it’s licensed and will largely be free from interference. For the same reasons, this is also a good spectrum for cellular data.

The biggest winner in the auction was Verizon which spent $1.89 billion on the spectrum. The company landed 557 PALs licenses in 57 counties. The company needed this spectrum to fill-in mid-range spectrum for 5G. Verizon has also recently announced a fixed cellular broadband product for rural homes and this spectrum could provide an interference-free way to deliver that product from rural cell sites.

As expected, Dish networks was also a big winner and will be paying $913 million for CBRS spectrum. As the newest nationwide cellular carrier, the company needed this spectrum to fill in the holes in the cellular spectrum it already controls. The other traditional cellular companies were a no-show. AT&T didn’t buy any of the CBRS spectrum. T-Mobile only purchased 8 PALs licenses in six counties.

The largest cable companies scored big in the auction. Charter bought $464 million of spectrum, Comcast is paying $458 million for spectrum, and Cox purchased $212 million of spectrum. As the newest entrants in the cellular business, Comcast and Charter have been buying wholesale cellular broadband from Verizon – this spectrum will let them shift to their own cell sites for a lot of cellular traffic. There is also speculation that cable companies might be planning on using the new spectrum to launch a fixed-wireless product in the rural areas surrounding their cable properties. Both Charter and Cox have entered the upcoming RDOF auction that is awarding $16.4 billion for rural broadband and the companies might be planning on using this spectrum to cover any areas they can win in that reverse auction.

One of the smaller cable companies, Midcontinent Communications, spent over $8.8 million for PALs licenses. Midco already won sizable rural grants to deploy 100 Mbps broadband in Minnesota and the Dakotas. This spectrum will help the company meet those grant pledges and perhaps allow it to pursue RDOF grants.

There were a few other large bidders. One was Nextlink which provides fixed wireless broadband today in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois. Windstream purchased over 1,000 PALs and the traditional telco is likely going to replace aging rural copper with wireless service, while also possibly be expanding into new service territories with fixed wireless. SAL Spectrum LLC won 1,569 PALs. This company owns numerous other blocks of spectrum and it’s not clear who the user of this new spectrum might be.

The biggest news is that the auction allowed smaller bidders to win licensed spectrum. There were 228 different winners in the auction, most of which are small WISPs, telcos, and electric cooperatives. These entities benefited by the FCC’s willingness to auction the spectrum at the county level. Most previous wireless spectrum was allocated using much larger footprints, which kept small bidders from acquiring spectrum.

Broadband and New Factories

There is a lot of talk across the political spectrum about the need to bring manufacturing back to the US. The pandemic has made it clear that the US is far too dependent on other countries that make the things we need to succeed. I found it painful back in March and April watching governors pleading with foreign countries to ship us the basic supplies needed to test for the coronavirus.

Medical supplies are just the tip of the iceberg and as a country, we’ve outsourced goods across the spectrum. It’s disappointing to look at the iconic American companies that no longer make their goods in the US. We’ve outsourced Schwinn bikes, Rawlings baseballs, Levi jeans, Converse All-star sneakers, Fisher-Price toys, Samsonite luggage, Brach’s candy, Fender guitars, Dell computers, Black & Decker and Craftsman tools, Radio-Flyer red wagons, and even America Girl and Barbie dolls.

Over 60,000 US factories have shut since 2001 when China joined the WTO. Manufacturing jobs at the end of WW2 II represented over 60% of all jobs in the US economy, and that has dropped today to under 9%. The reasons we’ve lost American factories are complex. While much of it can be blamed on manufacturers chasing higher margins through lower labor costs, many US factories also grew old and obsolete as owners didn’t put profits back into modernization. The strong US dollar has often contributed to US-made goods being at a disadvantage on world markets.

The current administration has made it a priority to create American manufacturing jobs and has succeeded in adding back about 900,000 manufacturing jobs since the start of 2017. Joe Biden in his recent presidential acceptance speech talked about creating policies that would create 5 million new manufacturing jobs. The pandemic has made it clear to politicians on both sides of the aisle that we need to manufacture critical goods like drugs and electronics in this country again. It’s insane for the country to have to rely on others for basic commodities like medicines.

The question I ask today is if communities in America are ready for new factories? New factories are different than traditional factories. New factories will almost universally include at least some level of automation. New factories will require a fast and secure broadband connection. Factories today are tied into the cloud for much of the software they use. They use the Internet to interface real-time with suppliers and customers. Factories are often connected to other branches of the company that collaborate over broadband in real-time.

Any community that wants to attract new factories must have great business broadband. That means not only fiber to connect to the business parks where factories are located, but it means diverse fiber routing so that a factory doesn’t lose broadband if somebody cuts a fiber inside of a city. It also means having diverse Internet routes leaving a city so that a fiber cut doesn’t isolate broadband. Factories are not going to locations where the Internet connections are not iron-clad.

Many communities I work with are still working to solve the first issue, which is to build the basic fiber infrastructure. We always hear about communities that have made the big plunge to build fiber to everybody in town, but there are far more communities that have quietly found ways to bring fiber to industrial parks and other key employers.

However, building fiber to business parks is only half of the needed solution. It’s just as important to a community that the fiber connection between the community and the Internet is secure. Factories really don’t care if the reason for fiber outages is inside or outside the community – they want to locate in places where broadband connections are virtually guaranteed.

Unfortunately, many communities are served by poor middle-mile networks that make the community susceptible to Internet outages. This blog from May talks about the counties in northwest Colorado that have suffered as a region every time there has been an outage on CenturyLink’s middle-mile fiber. It was fairly common for a fiber outage in the region to knock out broadband to the whole region and the key infrastructure like hospitals, law enforcement, and factories. These communities banded together to construct Project THOR – a fiber network built to guarantees that a fiber cut or an electronics outage doesn’t disrupt broadband.

If we are going to see a resurgence of new factories, then communities need to make an honest assessment of the local and regional broadband capabilities and vulnerabilities. Cities that have sound broadband infrastructure need to be crowing about it, and communities with gaps in Internet capability need to get in gear and find ways to solve broadband problems. If we indeed see a flood of new factories being built, it might be a once-in-a-generation event, and cities don’t want to miss out due to not having decent basic fiber infrastructure.

Data Usage Remains Robust in 2Q20

OpenVault recently published its Broadband Insights Report for the second quarter of 2020. Since OpenVault’s software is used to track usage in major Internet POPs, the company has a unique perspective on broadband usage in the country.

The report says that the peak of data usage this year was in March when people first reacted to the pandemic. Data usage is down slightly compared with the first quarter, but still much higher than data usage a year ago, In the second quarter the average home used 380 gigabytes of data per month. This is down 6% compared to the average usage in March 2020 of 403 gigabytes. But the second quarter data usage is up 36% over the average usage of 280 gigabytes per household used in the second quarter of 2019. Before the pandemic, household broadband usage was growing at a rate just above 20% annually, so the 36% growth in a year demonstrates the huge impact on the pandemic on broadband.

Median data usage has increased even faster than average usage. The median usage measures the middle point where half of homes use less and have of homes use more broadband. The median usage in the second quarter of 2019 was 144 gigabytes and has grown 54% in a year to 223 gigabytes. This indicates that even households that previously would have been light data users are now using a lot more data during the pandemic. This likely can comes from both increase cord-cutting as well as from students and adults working from home.

OpenVault reports that usage for homes with unlimited broadband plans (no data caps) grew even faster and increased by 42% over 2019. The company surmises that the big increase is at least partially because the big ISPs are not enforcing data caps during the pandemic. However, part of this increase is also likely due to an increase of what OpenVault calls power users. These are homes that use more than 1 terabyte of data per month.

In the second quarter 8.7% of homes used at least 1 terabyte of data per month, more than double the 4.1% of terabyte homes a year earlier. This now includes 1% of all homes that are using more than 2 terabytes of data, triple since a year earlier in 2019.

One reason for the higher data usage might be explained by households subscribing to faster data plans. At the end of the second quarter, 4.9% of homes are now subscribed to gigabit data speeds, more than double the 2.1% of gigabit subscribed in the second quarter of 2019. Over 61% of homes in the country are now subscribed to broadband speeds greater than 100 Mbps. That includes 37.8% subscribed to plans between 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps, 13.5% subscribed to plans between 200 Mbps and 400 Mbps, 5% subscribed to speeds between 400 Mbps and 900 Mbps, and 4.9% subscribed to gigabit speeds. Less than 20% of homes nationwide are subscribed to plans slower than 40 Mbps.

There is one segment of broadband usage that continued to increase in the second quarter of 2020. Upload usage from homes is up 56% over a year earlier. Upload demand is directly related to the need to connect for homes to connect to school and work servers and to take part in Zoom and other video conferencing services. It’s likely before the pandemic that many homes had never much needed the upload link from home.

What is most intriguing about the continued increase in upload demand is that upload usage continued to grow even after school semesters were ending for the year. During the second quarter tens of millions of upload links to school servers would have gone quiet as school semesters ended, and yet upload demand continued to grow. It’s going to be interesting to see what the fall school semester does to broadband usage.

The Other Homework Gap

I snagged today’s blog title from Christopher Ali, a professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. He recently wrote an article for the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society that reminds us that there is a second homework gap in addition to the one in K12 schools. There are almost 20 million college and graduate students across the country, most of which have been recently been notified that most or all of the fall semester this year will be done online.

Secondary education has already been in the process of migrating online. Eduventures estimated that the percentage of students already tackling an online degree before the pandemic was 29% of those pursuing an associate’s degree, 42% for a bachelor’s degree, 27% for a master’s degree and 3% of those working towards a doctorate. In the fall of 2020, nearly all secondary students will have some or all of the curriculum online.

Most college and university campuses have good broadband. Most campuses across the country are connected with fiber, coming in part from the effort by the folks at Internet2 which connects 321 universities to transmit data between campuses at gigabit speeds. Most college campuses have good broadband to classrooms, dorms, along with campuswide WiFi that enables students to easily connect to university data networks.

But the pandemic has sent college students home for the fall semester where they will have to take coursework online. Far too many students come from homes without good broadband. We’ve known for years that there are millions of rural homes without good broadband. But it’s easy to forget that 10% to 30% of the homes in various urban markets have no broadband, at home, mostly due to affordability issues. Ali says there are still 42 million Americans without home broadband.

In many states, school systems are finding broadband solutions for K12 students without broadband. Almost every state and county I’ve talked to since the start of the pandemic has one or more programs to connect K12 students. Many are providing cellular hotspots. Unfortunately, this is not always a great solution since many rural homes also don’t have a good cellular signal. Other schools are spreading hotpots around the community so that students can drive or walk to get broadband access. But nobody is making these same efforts for college students. These students are largely on their own, and there is no doubt that the lack of broadband will cause students to drop out of school.

Since broadband research is Ali’s field, he’s sensitive to the plight of his students and has designed a curriculum that will work for students who can get only rudimentary access to broadband. He’s prerecording classes so that students can download files rather than having to make a 2-way video connection. He’s gone old-school and has enabled group chats as a low-bandwidth way to have a dialogue with students.

But most college professors are not accommodating students without broadband. I have a daughter who is a senior at Texas Tech, and she tells me about the challenges of doing classes online. For example, she took a class in American Sign Language in the spring semester which become extremely challenging when moved online in the middle of the semester. Her professor is deaf and all communication during the course is done using sign language – which is hard to make work with twenty students online at the same time. She also has been taking science classes with labs that have been watered down due to going online. There are some aspects of college courses that will never translate well into an online format. It’s hard to picture how students taking a dance class, an anatomy dissection lab, or an advanced electronics lab class can transition easily to online. Some topics require hands-on experience.

At some point we’ll be out of the pandemic and back to normal, whatever that might come to mean. A big concern for universities is that they might lose a substantial portion of their current student population who are unable to keep up online. There are no easy answers to this dilemma, other than perhaps the kinds of steps that Ali is taking to accommodate students with low bandwidth. Universities can’t easily tackle the same solutions as K12 schools because their student base is likely dispersed widely. Universities are scrambling to figure this out, but if they don’t have a broadband contingency plan in place by now it’s too late for this school year.