Using Bigger Bandwidth Applications

The recent Cisco Annual Internet Report for 2018 – 2023 had one chart that I found intriguing. The purpose of Cisco’s report is to look at the future of broadband usage, and the report included a chart showing the amount of bandwidth needed for various web functions. To me this list was reminiscent of the list that the FCC made in 2015 when they set the definition of broadband at 25/3 Mbps – except that all of the item on this list require more bandwidth than the functions the FCC foresaw just five years ago.

I think Cisco’s point is that we find ways to use more broadband when it’s available. Most of the items on this list are already in use today, with the last few on this expected in the near future.

  • 4K security cameras – 16 Mbps
  • Streaming 4K Video – 16 Mbps
  • Virtual Reality Streaming – 17 Mbps
  • Self-Driving Car Diagnostics (done when your car pulls into the driveway) – 20 Mbps
  • Cloud Gaming – 30 Mbps
  • Streaming 8K Video – 51 Mbps
  • 8K Wall TV – 100 Mbps
  • Online HD Virtual Reality – 167 Mbps
  • Online 8K Virtual Reality – 500 Mbps

Cisco notes that these functions have become viable for the public as the amount of bandwidth to homes has grown. Anybody with broadband speeds of 125 Mbps or faster should be able to use all except the last few services. In the US a lot of homes now have Internet speeds in this range as Comcast, Charter and the other big cable companies have increased basic speeds to 100 – 200 Mbps homes with the introduction of DOCSIS 3.1. Charter increased my home last year from 60 Mbps to 135 Mbps.

4K security cameras have been on the market for a few years. They provide enough resolution to clearly identify people at the front door or outside a factory. The 16 Mbps bandwidth application is needed to upload video images into the cloud or to view the camera feed remotely over the web. Interestingly, a 4K security camera ought to have a fast upload speed to work properly – something that is still lacking for most cable company connections.

The web is now full of 4K videos on Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube and elsewhere. There are already web sites doing virtual reality streaming.

The self-driving car diagnostics is an interesting category. My wife’s 2019 Subaru already connects to the web every time she pulls into the driveway. This connection is likely not at 20 Mbps, but her car is doing diagnostics and uploading the results of driving to Subaru, and also making driving statistics available to us.

Cloud gaming is already here, although most applications are streaming at 4K or slower speeds. However, since several of the game companies have migrated online, the intensity and bandwidth needed for games is expected to increase, and Cisco pegs that at needed a 30 Mbps connection. What this speed requirement doesn’t tell you is that kids that routinely run several games simultaneously.

Bandwidth needs really shoot up for 8k video at 51 Mbps per stream. 8K content is already widely available on YouTube and other websites. 8K TVs have been around for a few years. Their prediction of 100 Mbps for an 8K TV assumes multiple simultaneous streams – something that sports fans routinely do.

Cisco also lists two near-future applications that will be real bandwidth hogs. They estimate that HD virtual reality done online will require 167 Mbps. They set 8K virtual reality as needing 500 Mbps. These functions are going to need faster broadband connections than what most homes have today. However, OpenVault reports that the number of US homes subscribing to a gigabit connection doubled in 2019 to 2.8% of all households. As that number keeps growing there will finally be a market for applications that need giant bandwidth. For years the industry has searched for gigabit applications, but nobody developed them since there have been so few homes that could use them. 8K virtual reality would bring true immersive virtual reality into the home – but ISPs are going to hate it. They love selling gigabit connections, but they don’t really expect homes to use that much bandwidth.

The Growth Rate of Broadband Speeds

Cisco has changed the name of its periodic predictions of broadband usage from the Visual Networking Index to the Annual Broadband Report, and recently issued a report that covers the period from 2018 to predictions made through 2023.

Cisco is one of the few industry players that projects future broadband usage. Their past reports have been spot on in terms of predicting future broadband usage.

One of the items forecast in the Cisco report this year is average landline Internet speeds by world region. Following is their prediction of the average broadband speeds (in Mbps) for North America. This represents a 20% compounded growth, just a hair slower than the 21% predicted in their 2019 report.

2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023
56.6 70.1 92.7 106.8 126.0 141.8

It’s worth noting that Cisco includes Canada along with the US in defining North America. I haven’t found equivalent numbers for Canada alone to know if they pull the composite number upward or downward. The big takeaway from the Cisco numbers is that broadband speeds are continuing to climb as ISPs either arbitrarily increase speeds or customers upgrade to faster networks.

Cisco also predicts the future of cellular broadband speeds, as follows:

2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023
23.6 31.2 40.1 48.2 54.4 62.4

Interestingly, the cellular speeds are faster than what has been reported by Opensignal. They reported average cellular speeds in early 2019 for the US carriers as AT&T – 17.8 Mbps, Verizon – 20.9 Mbps, T-Mobile – 21.1 Mbps, and Sprint – 13.9 Mbps. That’s slower than Cisco’s 2018  speeds – but it’s worth noting that Canada has one of the fastest cellular networks in the world, which probably raises the Cisco numbers. The bottom-line takeaway from the Cisco numbers is that cellular broadband speeds are growing at an average rate of 21% per year.

The Cisco numbers show that Cisco doesn’t buy into the story that 5G is going to massively increase cellular broadband speeds in the next few years. The most recent increases in broadband speeds come from a few factors. The big carriers are upgrading a lot of cell sites to full 4G and finally utilizing the full power of the 4G specifications. The recent proliferation of small cell sites is relieving congestion from tall cell sites, which should result in faster speeds. Some of the future speed increases are likely due to the phase-out of 3G. While 5G is obviously a component of future cellular speed increases we’re not likely to see a one-time spike in faster speeds.

Perhaps the biggest takeaways from the Cisco numbers is that the FCC is out of step with reality as they cling to the 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband. Cisco says the average landline broadband speed for all of North America in 2019 was 70 Mbps, climbing to almost 93 Mbps this year. Cisco estimates the average speed in three years at almost 143 Mbps. It’s hard to think of any possible justification for not increasing the definition of broadband to match the market.

Unfortunately there is one regulatory reason why the FCC won’t act. If they increase the definition of broadband, they will be declaring that millions of additional homes don’t have acceptable broadband. This particular FCC is not brave enough to take a black eye over the resulting headlines. They already fear that fixing their faulty broadband maps is going to uncover millions of additional rural households without adequate broadband.