Home Broadband Usage Explodes

ISPs have all been reporting increased bandwidth usage due to employees and students being asked to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps the best proof we’ve seen yet of the huge increase in home broadband usage comes from OpenVault, which has been tracking home broadband usage for several years.

The company reported that as of the end of March that the average US home used 402.5 gigabytes of usage, up 17% from the 344.0 gigabytes reported just 3 months earlier at the end of 2019, and up 47% from the 273.5 gigabytes measured a year earlier. OpenVault says that most of the growth was realized in the last two weeks of March as employees and students started working from home in earnest.

The OpenVault numbers represent total bandwidth used by a home, meaning the numbers are a combination of download and upload usage. OpenVault validated the widely reported phenomenon that the demand for upload bandwidth is increasing far more than the need for downloading.

Another interesting way to look at broadband usage is by considering the median usage – which is the speed at which half of homes use more and half less broadband. The median broadband usage is the US has always been lower than average usage because of the large number of rural homes that are stuck using slow broadband connections. A home with a 1 Mbps download speed cannot easily use the same amount of bandwidth as a home with a 100 Mbps connection. Median usage for the first quarter was at 233.6 gigabytes, up 60% from 146.0 gigabytes from a year earlier, and up 22% from the 190.7 gigabytes used at the end of 2019. The big news in the growth of median speeds is that even homes with slower broadband connections are burning through more broadband.

One of the most startling numbers to come from OpenVault is what they call power users – homes that are using more than 1 terabyte of data per month. At the end of March, 10% of all US homes were using a terabyte of data, an increase of 138% over the 4.2% of homes that used a terabyte of data just three months earlier at the end of 2019. Even more interesting, 1.2% of homes used 2 terabytes of data at the end up march, up 215% from the end of December. The big ISPs like Comcast are supposedly not billing for data caps during the pandemic – but they must be licking their chops at the flood of new revenues this is going to create if broadband usage doesn’t return to pre-COVID levels.

We saw the demand for faster broadband products also leap upward. At the end of March the percentage of homes subscribing to gigabit data products jumped to 3.75% of homes, up from 2.8% at the end of 2019 and up from 1.9% a year earlier. Amazingly, more than 1% of all homes in the US upgraded to a gigabit data plan in just the last three months – that’s something that’s been predicted for years. Those homes are not likely going to downgrade to slower speeds – so gigabit broadband is now becoming a significant segment of the market. OpenVault says that 12% of US homes now subscribe to speeds of 200 Mbps or faster.

The OpenVault data also validates what’s been reported widely by ISPs – that the patten of broadband usage is changing by time of day. In the recent past the peak period for broadband usage – the busy hour – was always in the evenings. In the first quarter the amount of usage in the evenings was flat and all of the increased usage came during the daytime as employees and students used broadband and video conferences to function.

OpenVault says that usage peaked in the third week of March. It will be interesting going forward to see the how home usage changes. OpenVault doesn’t have any better crystal ball than the rest of us, but they are predicting that broadband usage will never return to the historic patters. They predict that a lot of people will continue to work from home, meaning increased broadband demand during the day. They believe there will be continued pressure on the upload data paths. People who have learned to videoconference during the recent months are likely to continue that practice in the future. Companies and employees that realize they can be productive at home are likely to work more from home, even if only on a part-time basis.

The Upload Crisis

Carriers continue to report on the impact of COVID-19 on their networks. One of the more interesting statistics that caught my eye was when Comcast reported that upload traffic on their network was up 33% since March 1. Comcast joins the rest of big ISPs in saying that their networks are handling the increased traffic volumes.

By ‘handling’ the volumes they mean that their networks are not crashing and shutting down. But I think there is a whole lot more to these headlines than what they are telling the public.

I want to start with an anecdote. I was talking to a client who is working at home along with her husband and two teenagers. The two adults are trying to work from home and the two kids are supposed to be online keeping up with schoolwork. Each of them needs to create a VPN to connect to their office or school servers. They are also each supposed to be connecting to Zoom or other online services for various meetings, webinars, or classes.

These functions all rely on using the upload path to the Internet. The family found out early in the crisis that their broadband connection did not provide enough upload speed to create more than one VPN at a time or to join more than one video call. This has made their time working at home into a major hassle because they are being forced to schedule and take turns using the upload link. This is not working well for any of them since the family has to prioritize the most important connections while other family members miss out on expected calls or classes.

The family’s upload connection is a choke point in the network and is seriously limiting their ability to function during the stay-at-home crisis. But the story goes beyond that. We all recall times in the past when home Internet bogged down in the evenings when everybody in the neighborhood was using broadband to watch videos or play games. Such slowdowns occurred when the download data path into the neighborhood didn’t deliver enough bandwidth to satisfy everybody’s request for broadband. When that download path hit maximum usage, everybody in the neighborhood got a degraded broadband connection. When the download path got overloaded, the network responded by giving everybody a little less bandwidth than they were requesting – and that resulted in pixelating video or websites that lose a connection.

The same thing is now happening with the upload links, but the upload path is a lot more susceptible to overload.  For technologies like coaxial cable networks or telephone DSL the upload path leaving the neighborhood is a lot smaller than the download path into the area. As an example, the upload link on a coaxial network is set to be no more than 10% of the total bandwidth allowed for the neighborhood. It takes a lot more usage to overload the download path into the neighborhood since that path is so much larger. On the upload path, the homes are now competing for a much smaller data path.

Consider the difference in the way that homes use the download path compared to the new way we’re all using uploading. On the download side, networks get busy mostly due to streaming video. Services like Netflix stay ahead of demand by downloading content that will be viewed five minutes into the future. By doing so, the neighborhood download network can have cumulative delays of as much as five minutes before the video streams collapse and stop working. The very nature of streaming creates a buffer against failure – sort of a network insurance policy.

Homes are not using the upload links in the same way. Connecting to a school server, a work server, or a video chat service creates a virtual private network (VPN) connection. A VPN connection grabs and dedicates some minimum amount of bandwidth to the user even during times when the person might not be uploading anything. A VPN carves out a small dedicated path through the upload broadband connection provided by the ISP. There is no buffer like there is with downloading of streaming video – when the upload path gets full, there’s no room for anybody else to connect.

The nearest analogy to this situation harkens back to traditional landline telephone service. We all remember times, like after 911, when you couldn’t make a phone call because all of the circuits were busy. That’s what’s happening with the increased use of VPNs. Once the upload path from the neighborhood is full of VPNs, nobody else is going to be able to grab a VPN connection until somebody ‘hangs up’.

Residential customers have historically valued download speeds over upload speeds and ISPs have configured their networks accordingly. Many technologies allow an ISP to balance the upload and download traffic, and ISPs can help upload congestion by providing a little more bandwidth on the upload stream. Unfortunately for cable companies, the current DOCSIS standards don’t allow them to provide more than 10% of bandwidth on the upload side – so their ability to balance is limited.

As I keep hearing these stories from real users I am growing less and less impressed by the big ISPs saying that everything is well and that their networks are handling the increased load. I think there are millions of households struggling due to inadequate upload speeds. It’s true, as the big ISPs are reporting, that the networks are not crashing – but the networks are not providing the connections people want to make. No big ISP is going to admit this to their stockholders – but I bet a lot of those stockholders already understand this first-hand from having troubles trying to work from home.

Congress, Don’t Be Too Hasty

As Congress is handing out relief money for the COVID-19 crisis, rumors are flying around that rural broadband relief is one of the issues being discussed. The plight of employees and students unable to work from home has certainly bubbled up to a majority of those in Congress.

My advice to Congress is to not be to hasty. Don’t have the knee-jerk reaction of just tossing big bucks towards the rural broadband problem, because if you do much of the money will be wasted. There have been back-of-the-envelope estimates made that it would take anywhere from $60 billion to well over $100 billion to bring fiber to everywhere in rural America. Nobody knows the number and my guess is that it’s towards the upper end of that scale.

The typical Washington DC approach to the problem would be to earmark a pile of money to solve the problem, with no forethought of how to use the funds. This tendency is bolstered by the fiscal year spending nature of government funding, and Congress would likely expect broadband money to be spent quickly.

And that’s where the rub comes in. The broadband industry is not prepared to handle a sudden huge influx of funding. Consider all of the following issues that would quickly become apparent if this were to happen:

  • The first big question that would be asked with funding is where to spend the money – which parts of the country need the funding help? Unfortunately, the FCC will be of nearly zero help in this area, so you can’t run a giant grant program through them. The upcoming RDOF grants are supposedly aimed at bringing broadband to all of the places that don’t already have 25/3 broadband. But due to the dismal FCC mapping process, the current maps miss huge swaths of rural America that also need better broadband but that are misclassified by the FCC maps. If Congress gives the money to the FCC to disperse, the agency has no idea where to spend it according to its flawed data.
  • The next big question is how to award funds. The FCC’s RDOF grant program is using a reverse auction to award funds – but this only works when the funding is awarded to a specific footprint of grant areas. More traditional grant awards require the writing of extensive grant requests to prove the worthiness of a grant applicant and the worthiness of grant project. Anybody that remembers the Stimulus grants for broadband recalls that even at that time there were almost no qualified and experienced people available to review grant applications – and a lot of the Stimulus funding went to unworthy projects. A poorly run grant program also invites fraud and waste – the bigger the dollars the bigger the problems.
  • In perhaps the hardest issue for many to believe, there are not enough qualified ISPs ready and able to handle a big influx of funding and of operating the ensuing broadband businesses. We hear about small ISPs offering service all over the country, but all of them together don’t serve more than perhaps 5% of the broadband customers in the country today. Most small ISPs are already fully leveraged today as they’ve borrowed money to expand their footprint. Any grants that require matching funds might find a dearth of takers. If we throw money at the industry too quickly, it’s going to all end up going to the big telcos – and that likely just means pouring money down a black hole. It’s not hard to look back at the total bust of the CAF II program where the big telcos spent $11 billion in FCC funding and didn’t make any dent in the rural broadband problem. If Congress spreads awards out over time, then big new ISPs like electric cooperatives can prepare to go after the awards – most of them are not close to ‘shovel-ready’ today.
  • You can’t ask for broadband funding without some sort of engineering estimate of the cost of building a network and some sort of business plan showing that the network can operate profitably at the end of the funding. There are not a lot of ‘shovel-ready’ broadband projects laying around waiting for funding, and so the first step after a big Congress funding program would be to develop hundreds of new business plans. All of the consultants and engineers I know are already full-time busy helping companies to prepare for the $16.4 billion RDOF grants and the various state grant awards around the country.
  • The same is true of fiber construction companies. During this last construction season, we started seeing construction companies bidding up rates to go to the builder willing to pay the most for their services. There are not a lot (if any) idle fiber construction crews sitting around waiting for work. Fiber construction is not something that can be taught quickly to new workers – it takes years to develop a good fiber splicer or to train somebody to be able to determine pole make-ready.
  • We’re also starting to see backlogs for fiber materials. The waiting times for ADSS fiber that goes into the power space recently crept up to six months. The far bigger concern is electronics. Right now, the world supply chains are a mess due to COVID-19 and the industry is expecting delays in electronics delivery in the coming construction season. Supply houses and vendors aren’t talking about this, hoping it will magically go away, but there will likely be electronics shortages in the 2020 construction season even without pressure from new grants. Such shortages can cripple construction projects.
  • Finally, I am positive that any federal broadband grant money will come with stupid rules, many slapped on the funding by the big ISP lobbyists. There will be needless hoops to jump through and rules that make it hard to spend the money well. There is zero chance that federal grant funding wouldn’t come with ridiculous rules and ridiculous restrictions. If Congress is going to award big money they need to take a little time that the rules are fair and efficient.

There will be people reading this in amazement and wondering how a rural broadband advocate could be recommending caution. One only has to look back to the stimulus grants to recall that probably half of that money was wasted due to the haste of the grant programs. My fear is a knee-jerk federal reaction that will throw giant bucks at the problem when the proper solution would be a series of grants awarded over five or more years to allow ISPs time to get ready. Funding in one giant lump would result in a mess of epic proportions. I fear that DC would then wash their hands of rural broadband by saying that they already funded it, and any communities left behind after a flawed grant program would likely be left behind for decades to come. Congress, if you want to help your constituents, please ask for advice and get it right.

Predictions for a Post-COVID-19 World

While it might still be too early to make predictions, there are dozens of articles on the web predicting how the COVID-19 pandemic might change our long-term behavior. Here are some of the more interesting predictions I’ve seen that involve broadband and telecom:

An Outcry for Better Home Broadband. Millions of people were sent home for work or school to homes that didn’t have good broadband. These folks have been telling the world for years that they don’t have good broadband. When this crisis is over these people are going to insist on being heard, and they are going to take out their anger on politicians who don’t help to find broadband solutions. This means Mayors and City Councils that are not pro-broadband. This means County Boards and Commissions that don’t offer matching grants to attract ISPs. This means any state politician who votes against significant state broadband grants or who votes against municipal participation in broadband. And this means federal Senators and Representatives that support the big cable companies and telcos over their constituents. Folks are not likely to be fooled any longer by false legislation that supposedly is pro-broadband but which is the exact opposite – because folks are going to be paying attention to any news concerning their home broadband.

Digital Meetings Are Here to Stay. We are all seeing how effective it can be to meet online. People are going to be a lot less willing to travel for a one or two-hour meeting. I know my days of doing that kind of traveling are over. This means airline business travel is likely never coming back to former levels, but it means a lot more. I was talking to somebody in local government the other day who told me that they spend over 10 hours of every workweek driving between meetings around a large county. He said he thinks the day or required live attendance at such meetings is likely over.

Demand for Faster Upload Speeds. The permanent uptick in more video meetings means there will be an increased demand for faster upload broadband speeds. The FCC still talks about 25/3 Mbps as acceptable broadband, but a home or office getting only 3 Mbps upload is not able to hold multiple simultaneous video calls. Homes and businesses are going to favor technologies willing to meet that upload speed demand.

Telemedicine has Arrived. I have been watching the glacial acceptance of telemedicine for fifteen years. The biggest hurdles have been the reluctance of doctors to try telemedicine and the willingness of insurance companies to pay for it. We’ve broken both of those barriers and telemedicine is here to stay. There are numerous routine doctor visits that don’t require an office visit. It’s never made sense to force patients who aren’t sick to march through a waiting room that has been filled all day with those with colds, the flu, or worse.

Expect Contactless Payments. I can remember being promised twenty years ago that we’d be able to pay for things by waving a cellphone. Nobody wants to hand a credit card to a clerk or even pass a credit card through a device that other people have used all day – so stores that install touchless payment systems are quickly going to become preferred. Expect an expansion of telephone, voice, and vision interface at checkout locations and a phase-out of credit card swiping. Also, expect an increased reluctance to take cash. There were already stores in New York City last year that made headlines by refusing to accept cash – expect a lot more of that.

More Telecommuting. Businesses have seen that people can be effective when working from home. Expect to see businesses more easily allowing for working from home at least part-time. This likely means a downturn in business real estate. For example, my neighbor is an architect who works at a small local branch of a larger firm. They’ve already seen the effectiveness of working from home and have already discussed not reopening the local office when the crisis is over. More telecommuting means more daytime use of neighborhood bandwidth and an increased expectation of residential broadband signal quality.

A Reboot for Corporate Security. We just spent a decade moving corporate data behind firewalls and restricting access to data from outside the business. Many businesses scrambled to find ways to allow employees to work from home, and in doing so undid many of their security protocols. Expect a major reboot as companies implement security solutions that support telecommuting.

The FCC Releases Needed Spectrum

The FCC made two moves in the last week concerning spectrum. Chairman Ajit Pai announced intentions to vote later this month to release the entire 1,200 MHz band of 6 GHz spectrum for unlicensed usage. They also awarded special temporary authority for 33 WISPs to use 45 MHz out of the 5.9 GHz band to boost rural fixed broadband during the COVID-19 crisis.

It’s expected that the recommendation for the 6 GHz spectrum will be approved unanimously by FCC Commissioners. This announcement is huge news. This would increase the bandwidth available for WiFi by almost a factor of 5. The WiFi band already carries far more data than any other swath of spectrum and this bolsters WiFi for the next few decades. The order proposes to uses for the new spectrum. The entire 1,200 MHz of frequency would be released for indoor usage at low power. 850 MHz of the band would be released at standard power levels and can be used outdoors in hot spots and for point-to-multipoint fixed wireless networks.

The cellular carriers have been lobbying hard to have some of the bandwidth sold as licensed spectrum. Instead, the FCC order would allocate it all to public use, but allows anybody, including the cellular carriers to use the spectrum subject to automated frequency coordination. That’s the system that senses existing use of the spectrum before allowing a second interfering use. The cellular carriers might elect to use this spectrum heavily, on an as-needed basis, in urban areas, but likely won’t bother in rural areas – freeing this bandwidth mostly for rural broadband usage.

This is big news because until this announcement there was still the possibility that some of the spectrum would be allocated to a licensed auction. The Chairman did say that he was considering making this all public spectrum a year ago, but a decision was never official until now. This is big news for the whole WiFi industry as well, since any spectrum allocated to licensed spectrum would have been off-limits for indoor WiFi use. As I’ve written in other blogs, this new spectrum, along with the introduction of WiFi 6 technology means a massive upgrade in capability for home and office WiFi performance. This should enable multiple simultaneous large-bandwidth uses of bandwidth within the home or office without interference. WiFi 6 also uses techniques that cut down on interference from neighboring hotspots.

The second action by the FCC is interesting. They granted special temporary authority to 33 rural WISPs to use 45 MHz of the 5.9 GHz spectrum for the next 60 days. This will allow these WISPs to beef up rural bandwidth during the COVID-19 crisis. The WISPs report that they are seeing a 35% increase in traffic volumes along with a requests for more bandwidth due to students and employees suddenly working from homes.

The extra bandwidth will allow these ISPs to boost bandwidth since they use software-defined radios that already work in the nearby 5 GHz WiFi spectrum band. I would expect the FCC to continue the temporary use of the spectrum if shelter-in-place extends in some places past the 60-day window.

These temporary uses of the spectrum might presage a more permanent use of this spectrum band. The 5.9 GHz spectrum was set aside many years ago for vehicle-to-vehicle communications. The self-driving and assisted driving vehicle technology has advanced much more slowly than originally anticipated, plus some car manufacturers are using a different spectrum solution for communicating from car to car. The FCC was already considering splitting the spectrum band and cutting the amount of spectrum available to vehicles in half, with the rest likely going to public auction. The cellular carriers claim that they still only have half of the mid-range spectrum they need to support full deployment of 5G, and the FCC seems likely to grab this spectrum for that purpose.

Free the Fiber Now

A few blogs ago I mentioned that the FCC had taken away restrictions to allow broadband supplied by E-Rate funding to be used to provide free WiFi for the public. That’s a good idea that will provide some relief for areas with little or no other broadband. But the announcement raises a more fundamental question – why was such a restriction in place to begin with?

I see such restrictions all of the time where broadband infrastructure that is built with public dollars cannot be used for commercial purposes, or in the case of school bandwidth, can’t even be used to distribute broadband to the public for free.

The first time I ran across this was over twenty years ago when I was working with a city in Virginia that wanted to build a backbone fiber to connect city buildings, but also to connect to a few business districts that had lousy broadband. The city had a fairly robust fiber network that was used to control streetlights and there was enough spare fiber in this network to provide a significant portion of the needed solution. Upon investigation, it turns out that about one-fourth of that fiber had been funding through a grant from the state highway department that came with a clear prohibition from using the fiber for any other purpose other than traffic control. The city attorney read that grant prohibition to even mean the city couldn’t use the fiber to connect city buildings, let alone run the fiber to a business district. And this was after the city had paid for most of the fiber out of local tax dollars. The city would have been far better off financially had it never taken the highway grant.

This happens all of the time. I’ve seen similar restrictions on fiber networks built to reach schools. There are often similar restrictions on fiber built to connect public buildings. Some states have laws that prohibit fiber built by a municipal electric or water utility to be used for any other purposes.

There are other fibers funded 100% by taxpayer dollars that are also off-limits for other purposes. For example, there was a lot of middle-mile fiber built as part of the $11 billion CAF II program that was given to the large telcos. The fiber was built as middle-mile fiber to reach DSL huts and cellular towers. None of that fiber was made available to anybody else, although the fiber was funded by federal money and most of the fiber sits unused today.

There are a few reasons such restrictions exist. In the case of the Virginia city, after a lot of investigation, we figured out that Comcast and Verizon had lobbied to restrict the use of state-funded fiber. The restriction wasn’t from a specific law in this case but had been written into state grant awards. In some cases such restrictions are written in state law, which likely is also due to lobbying by the big telcos and cable companies. We’ve found a few restrictions against using government-funded fiber that seem to come from bureaucrats who simply invented the rules without understanding the long-term ramifications.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that all of these restrictions must go. Government-funded fiber ought to be made available to ISPs, cities or others that want to use it to solve the digital divide. It’s ridiculous for the country to be sitting on huge amounts of empty fiber due to stupid political restrictions or boneheaded bureaucratic decisions at a time when people don’t have broadband in their homes.

The only way to fix this is in Congress. They could write and a pass a short simple bill that would remove all restrictions against using fiber funding by the government. The federal law should override contracts, state laws, and any restrictions created by state or federal agencies. The FCC sadly can’t consider this kind of ruling since they have written themselves almost completely out of the broadband regulation business. Since the FCC killed its own regulatory powers, a federal law should give the power to state regulatory commissions to work out any details.

I run into people all of the time who are upset because they live close to fiber but have no broadband. They get doubly mad when they find out that the fiber was funded by their tax dollars to provide broadband to highway signs or to serve a nearby school. A new law won’t automatically bring relief to everybody who lives near fiber because you shouldn’t cut into a long-haul fiber anywhere except existing access points. However, there is a huge amount of government-funded fiber in the world and this one simple change would unleash ISPs to find many more last-mile solutions.

The Government Needs to Address the Homework Gap

I’ve been at a bit of a loss over the last few days on what to write about, because suddenly newspapers, blogs, and social media are full of stories of how impossible it is for some students to work at home during the Covid-19 shutdowns. I’ve been writing this topic for years and there doesn’t seem to be a lot I can add right now – because the endless testimonials from students and families struggling with the issue speak louder than anything I can say.

There have been some tiny reactions of the federal government to help solve the issue. For example, the FCC removed the E-Rate exemption that said that government-powered broadband couldn’t be used for the general public. This allowed schools and libraries to aim their broadband outside for the general public and for students trying to keep up with homework. This was always a stupid restriction and I hope whatever DC bureaucrat originally dreamed this up is forced to use satellite broadband for the next year.

I’ve also seen notices from small ISPs that are distributing WiFi hotspots to students that need them. That is a great idea and I totally support. What I haven’t seen is anybody talking about who is going to pay the cellular data bills on those hotspots when they come due. Verizon has halped a little by temporarily adding 15 GB of usage to its data plans, but it doesn’t take long to rack up a big cellular data bill working on a hotspot.

These fixes are temporary bandaids. I’m sure any students benefiting by these recent changes are grateful. But it’s still second-class broadband that makes families park in cars while kids do homework. And as much as cellular hotspots are a great solution that brings broadband to the home – it’s also a curse if this brings monthly broadband bills of hundreds of dollars per month just to do homework.

I’m sure that most school systems will somehow slog through the rest of this school year. However, I’ve talked to several rural school administrators in the last week who worry that half of the children working at home are learning little or nothing while at home. I’ve seen school systems already asking if they should push all students to the next grade this year, whether they are ready or not.

The big challenge is going to come if this crisis carries forward into the next school year starting this fall. I doubt that there are many school systems with rural students that are ready to face this for a whole school year. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen, but if it does then our lack of broadband for students becomes a national shame.

I don’t have many suggested quick solutions that will help the homework gap by the fall. It’s hard to even predict how much fiber construction will be done this summer due to social distancing – likely less than was planned.

One might hope that communities will install many more outdoor-facing hotspots. It would be nice to see these at every government building and at socially-minded businesses everywhere. This is a fix that is within the reach of every community. Any business that has broadband ought to consider sharing it during the times of the day or night when the business isn’t using it. Let’s turn all parking lots for towns of all sizes into WiFi zones.

It would also be nice if the FCC could somehow turn up the pressure on the wireless carriers to provide fixed cellular broadband. This is the technology used by AT&T that beams data using cellular frequencies from cell sites to small dishes at homes. This provides a better indoor signal than regular cellular service, and the cellular companies price this more like a broadband service than cellular service. AT&T has halfheartedly rolled out the product as a way to implement their CAF II obligations – but the word from rural areas is that it’s not marketed and nearly impossible for customers to buy. T-Mobile promised to roll this product out in every rural market as part of the agreement to merge with Sprint and the government needs to hold their feet to the fire to make this happen quickly this year.

Unfortunately, the FCC sabotaged their ability to push for better broadband solutions when they killed Title II authority and stopped regulating broadband. The solution we really need this year is for Congress to resolve the Title II issue once and for all and to make the FCC responsible for finding broadband solutions. Right now everything the FCC says on the topic is rhetoric because they have no power to compel ISPs to do anything. This is no time for politics and rhetoric, but a time for action.

Will Covid-19 Traffic Kill the Internet?

This is the question being asked all across the industry as the volume of data traffic has leaped upward due to students and employees working from their homes. We got our first glimpse of the impact of the crisis when Verizon announced a week into the crisis that they were seeing a 22% increase in data traffic in their network. More recently AT&T announced a 27% increase in network traffic. In perhaps a peek at what might be coming, Italy, which has been in a lockdown for longer than the US has seen a 90% increase in Internet traffic.

The answer to the question differs depending on somebody’s perspective of the network. For example, Evan Swartztrauber, described as an advisor to the FCC, says that the US Internet network is handling the surge in traffic just fine. He says the increased volume is significant, but it’s not at the same level as what is seen during the Superbowl or the finale of Game of Thrones. That’s reassuring news to hear, but he’s talking from the perspective of the big Internet POPs and the long-haul networks that carry Internet traffic from city to city. Even his answer is a bit glib because we’ve just seen more than a year’s growth in traffic in a matter of weeks and there must be places in the Internet backbone that need to be beefed up to meet the increased demand.

The question that matters is if Internet performance is getting worse for the average user, which is a question about the last mile network. I’ve been checking in on clients to understand the impact. So far, everybody with a fiber-to-the-home network says they are weathering the increased volumes, although several clients are looking into increasing bandwidth in a few parts of the network, such as between the core and field huts. Several clients who operate HFC or DSL networks have told me that their biggest problem is with upload speeds. People working from home as well as students are using a lot more upload bandwidth as they communicate with office and school servers. Gamers also need significant upload bandwidth. These technologies were not designed to handle significant amounts of uploaded bandwidth and customer performance is seriously degrading.

Many clients also say that they are increasing the bandwidth needed to connect to the Internet. Luckily most of them can do this easily, but some rural clients are constrained on the ability to easily add more bandwidth.

What nobody is talking about is the last-mile networks that were already broken. For example, I helped a rural county to get citizens to take speed tests right before the pandemic and we found almost no rural households in that county with broadband speed greater than 5 Mbps – and most are far under that modest number. These customers are served with DSL or fixed wireless broadband, and the local telco and WISPs are obviously bandwidth restricted either due to older technology or due to lack of backbone bandwidth.

Rural networks that are already underperforming might easily collapse under increased bandwidth usage. A 30% increase in usage won’t cut speeds by just 30%, the extra usage is likely to crash the networks. A large portion of rural America already has dreadful broadband. There are terrible ramifications if a network that is only delivering 3 Mbps broadband today gets further stressed. Degraded usage means that a home where a student might have been able to connect to a school server before Covid-19 might now be unable to maintain a connection. Good luck to somebody trying to connect to an office server as they work from home for the first time. And considering that some of these stressed rural networks have upload speeds measured in kilobits per second, good luck to anybody wanting to make a video connection for school or working from home.

Perhaps it’s true that the overall US Internet is not in danger yet of collapsing. Networks are going to see additional stress if the shelter-at-home restrictions carry through April and into May or June. What all of the national headlines are missing is that many rural Internet networks were barely functional before the pandemic. I’ve talked to numerous rural businesses in the last year that don’t even have adequate broadband to sustain a credit card transaction. I hear from homes across the country where the Internet is too slow, or latency too high to sustain connections to a school network to do homework. The current burst in new traffic is going to mean that the Internet performance for many rural users is going to go from barely functional to non-functional.

We might see a little relief if some of the biggest bandwidth users of the web cut back on broadband demand. Google announced that they are going to reduce the quality of video signals from YouTube as a way to cut back on the volume of data hitting networks. There is pressure on Netflix to do the same. AT&T announced that Netflix’s traffic volumes have hit an all-time high. Netflix announced that it is going to reduce traffic volumes by 25% in Europe but hasn’t made the same claim yet for the US. Unfortunately, these fixes are unlikely to make a big difference. the problems in last mile networks is due to having many more Internet users than before the pandemic, and the sheer number of users along with their attempts at using bandwidth-hungry applications is going to kick rural networks in the teeth.

This pandemic has highlighted the horrendous inadequacies of rural broadband. The shortfalls of rural broadband already existed, but with the added traffic volumes, rural broadband is going to significantly worsen. Unfortunately, we didn’t see much funding to help rural broadband as part of the recent stimulus plan. I’m pretty sure politicians with rural constituents are going to hear a lot about this – at least constituents with enough bandwidth to tell their story.

Congress Ignores Rural Broadband

One of the biggest topics in rural America right now is the inability of employees to work from home and students to stay connected to schools from home due to the lack of broadband. Rural homes have struggled with poor broadband for many years, but the Covid-19 pandemic has brought the issue into a focus as rural residents are told to shelter in place, but don’t have the broadband needed to stay employed or to keep up with schoolwork.

I expected Congress to tackle this issue to some significant extent in the stimulus package that was just passed. However, the level of funding for broadband is disappointingly small in terms of finding any meaningful broadband solutions. The Senate bill contains the following:

  • $25 million to the RUS Distance Learning, Telemedicine & Broadband Program for the ‘‘Distance Learning, Telemedicine, and Broadband Program” (page 617).
  • $100 million for the USDA Reconnect program. This is a grant program administered by the USDA that provides grants and loans for bringing broadband to areas where at last 90% of households don’t have access to broadband of at least 10/1 Mbps. The money is to be prioritized to previous recipients of this grant (pages 622/623)
  • $50 million to the Institute of Museum and Library Services to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the coronavirus, including grants to States, territories, and tribes to expand digital network access (page 773).
  • Secretary of Veterans Affairs may enter into short-term agreements with telecommunications companies to provide temporary, fixed or mobile broadband service to provide mental health services to isolated veterans (page 807).

There is no such thing as bad grant money that brings better broadband, and all of the above allocations are welcome. However, none of this money is going to make more than a miniscule dent in the rural broadband issue. The only award that is likely to construct new broadband facilities is the $100 million for the ReConnect grant program. I’ve seen estimates over the years that it will take $100 billion to bring fiber to everybody in rural America. While a $100 million grant program might sound huge, if the need is $100 billion, then Congress just allocated one-tenths of one percent (0.1%) of the money needed to solve the rural broadband issue. It would take 1,000 years of grants at that level to bring fiber broadband to rural America.

Don’t get me wrong – the ReConnect grants have been going to independent telcos, electric cooperatives, and independent ISPs and any ISP that gets this extra money will be glad to get it. But when we map out the areas covered by this extra money you won’t be able to see it on a map of the US.

I think Congress is misreading rural America. My consulting firm does surveys and interviews in rural America and we have continued to do this during the pandemic. Rural America is pissed. They aren’t annoyed, they aren’t just sore – they are fuming mad that the government has been ignoring them for a decade by not bringing them broadband. They are mad at everybody – local politicians, state politicians, and federal politicians. Broadband isn’t a partisan issue, and I’m getting the sense that folks without broadband are ready to vote out anybody who is not bringing them a broadband solution, regardless of party.

You can’t blame them for being mad. One of the counties I’m working with right now is typical of much of rural America. We’ve done speed tests across the county and found almost nobody getting speeds faster than 5 Mbps, with many getting only a fraction of that. These homes mostly have DSL or fixed wireless broadband. These slow speeds are for the homes that can get at least some broadband – many homes have nothing. A large percentage of residents have tried satellite broadband and found it to be worthless. That’s understandable since we’re seeing latency of 700 to 900 milliseconds for satellite households – too much latency to connect to a corporate server or to connect to a school for remote classes or to do homework.

Almost every home we talk to has a story about how a lack of broadband costs them money when they have to drive 30 minutes each way to sit outside for a WiFi connection so their kids can complete their homework. Residents tell us of the inability to work from home or to start a home-based business. These folks are frantic and angry now that they are cut off from their jobs and schools.

It’s impossible not to sympathize with these rural residents. I am sitting in an office with good broadband. Sheltering in place is, at worst, a hassle for my wife and me. We’re able to work all day and we’re able to spend as much time on the Internet as we want when we’re not working. But what about people who have lost their paycheck because they are unable to work from home? What about students who feel they are losing a school year and are fearful they’ll have to repeat a grade? I find it impossible to believe that members of Congress aren’t hearing these same stories and I can’t understand how Congress ignored the millions of Americans without broadband in the stimulus plan.