How Much Speed Do We Really Need?

There is a lot of buzz floating around in the industry that the FCC might lower the official definition of broadband from 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. Two of the current FCC commissioners including the chairman opposed setting that definition a few years back. Lowering the speeds would let the FCC off the hook for the requirement by law to make sure that the whole country can get broadband. If they lower the definition, then voila, millions more Americans would be declared to have adequate broadband.

So today I thought I’d take a look at the download speeds we really need at our homes. You may recall that back when the FCC set the 25/3 Mbps definition that they made a list of the broadband speed needed to do typical activities. And in doing so they tried to create profiles of some typical American households. That attempt was awkward, but it was a good starting point for examining household bandwidth needs. I’m updating their list a bit for things that people do today, which is already different than just a few years ago. Consider the following web activities:

  • Web Background 5 Mbps
  • Web Browsing 1 – 2 Mbps
  • Online Class 1 – 2 Mbps
  • Social Media 1 – 2 Mbps
  • Streaming Music 3 Mbps
  • Voice over IP 2 Mbps
  • SD Video stream 1 – 3 Mbps
  • HD Video Stream 4 – 6 Mbps
  • 4K Video Stream 15 – 20 Mbps
  • Gaming 1 – 3 Mbps
  • Skype / Video Conference 1 – 3 Mbps
  • Big File Downloader 50 Mbps

People don’t agree with all of these listed speeds because there are no standards for how the web works. For example, by using different compression schemes a video stream from Netflix is not identical to one from Amazon. And even from one source there is variation since an action move takes more bandwidth than something like a stand-up comedy routine.

It’s important to remember that broadband demand can come from any device in your house – desktop, laptop, smartphone, tablet, etc. It’s also important to note that these are speed requirements for a single user. If two people in the house are watching an separate video, then you have to double the above number.

What the FCC failed to consider back when they set the speed definition is that households need enough bandwidth to handle the busiest times of the day. What matters is the number of simultaneous activities a home can do at the same time on the web, with most families being busiest in the evenings. There might be somebody on social media, somebody watching an HD movie, while somebody else is doing homework while also using a smartphone to swap pictures.

There is another issue to consider when trying to do simultaneous tasks on the Internet – packet loss. The connection between the ISP and a customer gets more congested when it’s trying to process multiple data streams at the same time. Engineers describe this as packet collision – which sounds like some kind of bumper-car ride – but it’s an apt way to describe the phenomenon. Most home routers are not sophisticated enough to simultaneously handle too many multiple streams at once. Packets get misdirected or lost and the router requests the missing packets to be sent again from the originator. The busier the router, the more packet interference. This is also sometimes called ‘overhead’ in the industry and this overhead can easily grow to 15% or more of the total traffic on a busy connection, meaning it takes 15% more bandwidth to complete a task than if that task was the only thing occurring on the broadband connection.

There is another kind of interference that happens in homes that have a WiFi network. This is a different kind of interference that has to do with the way that WiFi works. When a WiFi network gets multiple requests for service, meaning that many devices in the home are asking for packets, the WiFi router gets overwhelmed easily and shuts down. It then reinitiates and sends packets to the first device that gets its attention. In a busy network environment the WiFi router will shut down and restart constantly as it tries to satisfy the many needed devices. This kind of interference was designed into the WiFi specification as a way to ensure that WiFi could satisfy the needs of multiple devices. This WiFi overhead can also easily add 15% or more to the network demand.

Anybody who lives in a home with active users understands how networks can get overwhelmed. How many of you have been frustrated trying to watch a movie when others in the house are using the Internet? Even big bandwidth can be overwhelmed. I have a friend who has a 100 Mbps fiber connection on Verizon FiOS. He went to watch a video and it wouldn’t stream. He found that his two teenage sons were each using half a dozen gaming streams at the same time and had basically exhausted his fast bandwidth pipe.

The FCC can tinker with the official definition of broadband since that is their prerogative. But what they can’t do is to define for any given home how much bandwidth they really need. The funny thing is that the big ISPs all understand this issue. The cable companies have unilaterally increased speeds across-the-board to urban customers several times in recent years and in most markets offer speeds considerably faster than the current FCC definition of broadband. These ISPs know that if they were only delivering 25 Mbps that they would be overwhelmed with customers complaining about the connection. Those complaints are the real proof of how much bandwidth many homes need. If the FCC lowers the definition of broadband then they have on blinders and are ignoring how homes really use broadband today. If they lower the speed definition it’s hard to see it as anything other than a political move.

If You Think You Have Broadband, You Might be Wrong

Speed_Street_SignThe FCC has published the following map that shows which parts of the country they think have 25 Mbps broadband available. That is the new download speed that the FCC recently set as the definition of broadband. On the map, the orange and yellow places have access to the new broadband speed and the blue areas do not. What strikes you immediately is that the vast majority of the country looks blue on the map.

The first thing I did, which is probably the same thing you will do, is to look at my own county. I live in Charlotte County, Florida. The map shows that my town of Punta Gorda has broadband, and we do. I have options up to 110 Mbps with Comcast and I think up to 45 Mbps from CenturyLink (not sure of the exact speed they can actually deliver). I bought a 50 Mbps cable modem from Comcast, and they deliver the speed I purchased.

Like a lot of Florida, most of the people in my County live close to the water. And for the most parts the populated areas have access to 25 Mbps. But there are three urban areas in the County that don’t, which are parts of Charlotte Beach, parts of Harbor View and an area called Burnt Store.

I find the map of interest because when I moved here a little over a year ago I considered buying in Burnt Store. The area has many nice houses on large lots up to five acres. I never got enough interest in any particular house there to consider buying, but if I had, I would not have bought once I found there was no fast broadband. I don’t think I am unusual in having fast Internet as one of the requirements I want at a new home. One has to think that in today’s world that housing prices will become depressed in areas without adequate Internet, particularly if they are close to an area that has it.

The other thing that is obvious on the map of my county is that the rural areas here do not have adequate broadband, much like most rural areas in the country. By eyeball estimate it looks like perhaps 70% of my county, by area, does not have broadband as defined by the FCC. Some of that area is farms, but there are also a lot of large homes and horse ranches in those areas. The map tells me that in a county with 161,000 people that over 10,000 people don’t have broadband. Our percentage of broadband coverage puts us far ahead of most of the rest of the country, although the people without broadband here probably don’t feel too lucky.

I contrast the coasts of Florida by looking at the Midwest. In places like Nebraska it looks like nobody outside of decent sized towns has broadband. There are numerous entire counties in Nebraska where nobody has access to 25 Mbps broadband. And that is true throughout huge swaths of the Midwest and West.

There are pockets of broadband that stick out on the map. For example, there is a large yellow area in rural Washington State. This is due to numerous Public Utility Districts, which are county-wide municipal electric systems, which have built fiber networks. What is extraordinary about their story is that by Washington law they are not allowed to offer retail services, and instead offer wholesale access to their networks to retail ISPs. It’s a hard business plan to make work, and still a significant amount of fiber has been built in the area.

And even though much of the map is blue, one thing to keep in mind that the map is overly optimistic and overstates the availability of 25 Mbps broadband. That’s because the database supporting this map comes from the National Broadband Map, and the data in the map is pretty unreliable. The speeds shown in the map are self-reported by the carriers who sell broadband, and they frequently overstate where they have coverage of various speeds.

Let’s use the example of rural DSL since the delivered speed of that technology drops rapidly with distance. If a telco offers 25 Mbps DSL in a small rural town, by the time that DSL travels even a mile out of town it is going to be at speeds significantly lower than 25 Mbps. And by 2–3 miles out of town it will crawl at a few Mbps at best or not even work at all. I have helped people map DSL coverage areas by knocking on doors and the actual coverage of DSL speeds around towns looks very different than what is shown on this map.

Many of the telcos claim the advertised speed of their DSL for the whole area where it reaches. They probably can deliver the advertised speeds at the center of the network near to the DSL hub (even though sometimes this also seems to be an exaggeration). But the data supplied to the National Broadband Map might show the same full-speed DSL miles away from the hub, when in fact the people at the end of the DSL service area might be getting DSL speeds that are barely above dial-up.

So if this map was accurate, it would show a greater number of people who don’t have 25 Mbps broadband available. These people live within a few miles of a town, but that means they are usually outside the cable TV network area and a few miles or more away from a DSL hub. There must be many millions of people that can’t get this speed, in contradiction to the map.

But the map has some things right, like when it shows numerous counties in the country where not even one household can get 25 Mbps. That is something I can readily believe.

Telemedicine Needs Big Bandwidth

Medical_Software_Logo,_by_Harry_GouvasThe Federal Government is a big believer in telemedicine and there are several branches of the government that have been vigorously pursuing it as a way to better treat patients. Some of these initiatives include:

  • The Department of Veterans Affairs kicked off their telehealth program in 2011 named Special Care Access Network – Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes (SCAN-ECHO). This program is aimed at providing care to veterans without requiring them to travel to a VA hospital. In some parts of the country VA hospitals are widely scattered and the VA knows that a lot of doctor visits are routine and can be handed adequately through telemedicine links.
  • The Department of Defense started working on a telemedicine program almost two decades ago for use on the battlefield. Their telemedicine links allow specialists to weigh in on battlefield injuries along with field medics, and they had great results in Iraq and Afghanistan. The DoD has named their system ECHO and has recently licensed it to Kaiser Permanente. The hospital chain sees use of the technology to field triage accident victims and to use for their patients who can’t make it to a hospital.
  • The Air Force has been working on a focused telemedicine program for the last four years. Instead of working on remotely treating patients, which is being pioneered by others, they have been focused on four specific areas within teleimaging: teleradiology, telecardiology, tele-endoscopy and telepathology. In a nutshell they are working with field devices that can create the diagnostic images that telemedicine doctors need to better treat field injuries. This would provide more detailed diagnostics for accident victims and remote patients who can’t easily get to a hospital.

Telemedicine is a priority for the Veterans Administration which reports that they are today treating 380,000 vets who live in rural areas. They have nearly 11,000 veteran patients now using the VA’s tele-audiology system, but they would like to greatly expand their telemedicine capabilities.

What all of these programs have come to realize is that the broadband in rural America is not adequate for what they are trying to do. One thing every one of the above efforts needs is big broadband capacity to connect to patients through video links or to transmit gigantic imaging files.

The military is used to having big broadband on the battlefield. We tend to think of satellite data links as small bandwidth and slow connections, but satellites can download significant bandwidth pipes with the right receivers and at the right price. I would assume (but don’t know) that the military has their own data satellites in orbit to provide bandwidth on the battlefield.

So these agencies are adding their voice to the cry for better rural broadband, which is the primary place where intensive telemedicine technologies are most needed. As these agencies are moving battlefield-tested technology into the civilian world they are bumping up against the same rural bandwidth limits that others have been seeing for years.

Just last week the FCC boldly increased the definition or broadband in the country to 25 Mbps download and 4 Mbps upload. According to the FCC’s numbers this means that 55 million Americans, or 17 percent of the population do not have access to broadband.

If you have followed my blog you know that I think the number is even higher than that since the FCC’s estimate is based upon a very flawed National Broadband Map, which is populated by the carriers. But one can be pretty certain that the vast majority of the people who can’t get the FCC’s newly defined broadband live in rural areas.

I have worked for years with rural communities and the lack of broadband has some real life repercussions for the people living there. There are numerous rural communities without hospitals, without doctors and without universities, and the people who live in these remote places have to undertake long drives to do things the rest of us consider as routine like see a doctor or take a class.

Telemedicine has a huge potential for diagnosing and treating rural patients. It is already being used worldwide to bring modern healthcare into remote communities. But I find it sad that many places in our own country can’t have this great technology due to the lack of broadband infrastructure.

How Should the US Define Broadband?

FCC_New_LogoThe FCC just released the Tenth Broadband Progress Notice of Inquiry. As one would suppose by the title there have been nine other of these in the past. This inquiry is particularly significant because the FCC is asking if it’s time to raise the FCC’s definition of broadband.

The quick and glib answer is that of course they should. After all, the current definition of broadband is 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. I think almost everybody will agree that this amount of bandwidth is no longer adequate for an average family. But the question the FCC is wrestling with is how high they should raise it.

There are several consequences of raising the definition of bandwidth that have to be considered. First is the purely political one. For example, if they were to raise it to 25 Mbps download, then they would be declaring that most of rural America doesn’t have broadband. There are numerous rural town in the US that are served by DSL or by DOCSIS 1.0 cable modems that have speeds of 6 Mbps download or slower. Even if the FCC sets the new definition at 10 Mbps they are going to be declaring that big portions of the country don’t have broadband.

And there are consequences of that definition beyond the sheer embarrassment of the country openly recognizing that the rural parts of America have slow connectivity. The various parts of the federal government use the definition of what is broadband when awarding grants and other monies to areas that need to get faster broadband. Today, with the definition set at 4 Mbps those monies are tending to go to very rural areas where there is no real broadband. If the definition is raised enough those monies could instead go to the rural county seats that don’t have very good broadband. And that might mean that the people with zero broadband might never get served, at least through the help of federal grants.

The next consideration is how this affects various technologies. I remember when the FCC first set the definition of broadband at 3 Mbps download and 768 Kbps upload. At that time many thought that they intended to shovel a lot of money to cellular companies to serve broadband in rural areas. But when we start talking about setting the definition of broadband at 10 Mbps download or faster, then a number of technologies start falling off the list as being able to support broadband.

For example, in rural areas it is exceedingly hard, if not impossible, to have a wireless network, either cellular or using unlicensed spectrum, that can serve every customer in a wide area with speeds of 10 Mbps. Customer close to towers can get fast speeds, but for all wireless technologies the speed drops quickly with the distance from a tower. And it is also exceedingly hard to use DSL to bring broadband to rural areas with a target of 10 Mbps. The speed on DSL also drops quickly with distance, which is why there not much coverage of DSL in rural areas today.

And when you start talking about 25 Mbps as the definition of broadband then the only two technologies that can reliably deliver that are fiber and coaxial cable networks. Both are very expensive to build to areas that don’t have them, and one wonders what the consequences would be of setting the definition that high.

The one thing I can tell you from practical experience is that 10 Mbps is not fast enough for many families like mine. We happen to be cord cutters and we thus get all of our entertainment from the web. It is not unusual to have 3 – 4 devices in our house watching video, while we also surf the web, do our daily data backups, etc. I had a 10 Mbps connection that was totally inadequate for us and am lucky enough to live where I could upgrade to a 50 Mbps cable modem service that works well for us.

So I don’t envy the FCC this decision. They are going to get criticized no matter what they do. If they just nudge the definition up a bit, say to 6 or 7 Mbps, then they are going to be rightfully criticized for not promoting real broadband. If they set it at 25 Mbps then all of the companies that deploy technologies that can’t go that fast will be screaming bloody murder. We know this because the FCC recently used 25 Mbps as the minimum speed in order to qualify for $75 million of their experimental grants. That speed locked out a whole lot of companies that were hoping to apply for those grants. They might not have a lot of choice but to set it at something like 10 Mbps as a compromise. This frankly is still quite a wimpy goal for a Commission that approved the National Broadband Plan a few years ago that talked about promoting gigabit speeds. But it would be progress in the right direction and maybe by the Twentieth Broadband Inquiry we will be discussing real broadband.