Do We Really Need Gigabit Broadband?

I recently read an article in LightReading titled “All That’s Gigabit Doesn’t Glitter.” The article asks the question if the industry really needs to make the leap to gigabit speeds. It talks about the industry having other options that can satisfy broadband demand but that telco executives get hooked into the gigabit advertising and want to make the gigabit claim. A few of the points made by the article are thought-provoking and I thought today I’d dig deeper into a few of those ideas.

The big question of course is if telco providers need to be offering gigabit speeds, and it’s a great question. I live in a cord cutter family and I figure that my download needs vary between 25 Mbps and 50 Mbps at any given time (look forward to a blog soon that demonstrates this requirement). I can picture homes with more than our three family members needing more since the amount of download speed needed is largely a factor of the number of simultaneous downloads. And certainly there are people who work at home in data intensive jobs that need far more than this.

There is no doubt that a gigabit is a lot more broadband than I need. If we look at my maximum usage need of 50 Mbps then a gigabit is 20 times more bandwidth capacity than I am likely to need. But I want to harken back to our broadband history to talk about the last time we saw a 20-fold increase in available bandwidth.

A lot of my readers are old enough to remember the agony of working on dial-up Internet. It could take as much as a minute at 56 kbps just to view a picture on the Internet. And we all remember the misery that came when you would start a software update at bedtime and pray that the signal didn’t get interrupted during the multi-hour download process.

But then along came 1 Mbps DSL. This felt like nirvana and it was 20 time faster than dial-up. We were all so excited to get a T1 to our homes. And as millions quickly upgraded to the new technology the services on the web upped their game. Applications became more bandwidth intensive, program downloads grew larger, web sites were suddenly filled with pictures that you didn’t have to wait to see.

And it took a number of years for that 1 Mbps connection to be used to capacity. After all, this was a 20-fold increase in bandwidth and it took a long time until households began to download enough simultaneous things to use all of that bandwidth. But over time the demand for web broadband kept growing. As cable networks upgraded to DOCSIS 3.0 the web started to get full of video and eventually the 1 Mbps DSL connection felt as bad as dial-up a decade before.

And this is perhaps the major point that the article misses – you can’t just look at today’s needed usage to talk about the best technology. Since 1980 we’ve experienced a doubling of the amount of download speeds needed by the average household every three years. There is no reason to think that growth is stopping, and so any technology that is adequate for a home today is going to feel sluggish in a decade and obsolete in two decades. We’ve now reached that point with older DSL and cable modems that have speeds under 10 Mbps.

The other point made by the article is that there are technology steps between today’s technology and gigabit speeds. There are improved DSL technologies and G.Fast that could get another decade out of embedded copper and could be competitive today.

But it’s obvious that the bigger telcos don’t want to invest in copper. I get the impression that if AT&T found an easy path to walk away from all copper they’d do so in a heartbeat. And none of the big companies have done a good job of maintaining copper and most of it is in miserable shape. So these companies are not going to be investing in G.Fast, although as a fiber-to-the-curb technology it would be a great first step towards modernizing their networks to be all-fiber. CenturyLink, AT&T and others are considering G.Fast as a technology to boost the speeds in large apartment buildings, but none of them are giving any serious consideration of upgrading residential copper plant.

It’s also worth noting that not all companies with fiber bit on the gigabit hype. Verizon always had fast products on their FiOS and had the fastest speed in the industry of 250 Mbps for many years. They only recently decided to finally offer a gigabit product.

And this circles back to the question of whether homes need gigabit speeds. The answer is clearly no, and almost everybody offering a gigabit product will tell you that it’s still largely a marketing gimmick. Almost any home that buys a gigabit would have almost the same experience on a fiber-based 100 Mbps product with low fiber latency.

But there are no reasonable technologies in between telephone copper and fiber. No new overbuilder or telco is going to build a coaxial cable network and so there is no other choice than building fiber. While we might not need gigabit speeds today for most homes, give us a decade or two and most homes will grow into that speed, just as we grew from dial-up to DSL. The gigabit speed marketing is really not much different than the marketing of DSL when it first came out. My conclusion after thinking about this is that we don’t need gigabit speeds, but we do need gigabit capable networks – and that is not hype.

25 Years Since the First Web Site

aol-dial-up-630x354Today I was reading and thinking about all of the different ways that various governments around the world are trying to somehow control and regulate content on the web. And while doing so I saw an article that said that we just passed the 25th anniversary of the first web site. That honor belongs to the CERN research facility in Switzerland. Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist there, posted the first web site on December 20, 1990. This first web page explained how the web worked and provided a few links on how to use the new World Wide Web.

Before web sites there was already a very active online community. These were the days of dial-up ISPs and bulletin boards. It’s easy today to complain about the price of broadband, but most of us have forgotten when you had to pay a monthly fee plus rates of between $1 and $6 per hour to gain access to online dial-up services.

This was all before AOL was large. At the time the predominant web services available were Prodigy and CompuServe. These were the first two services that offered a wide range of different services from email and chatrooms, to gaming and news services.

But the real fun online was to be had using the hundreds of different private servers throughout the country. Guys with a computer and an interest in something would start their own service and their own community. I remember joining an online baseball fantasy league in the early 80s and also playing trivia online at a private server.

What is most amazing is how far we have come in just 25 years. At that time the fastest dial-up modems were at 14.4 kbps. The number of people who were active online was a few million at most. Since then we have already gone through several different major ages of the Internet. First was the AOL age where AOL aggregated so much content that they killed most of their competitors and became the predominant way to get online.

Then came web pages and all of a sudden everybody was adding ‘content’ to the web. We all ‘surfed’ the web looking at the huge variety of pages that people would post. Both businesses and people created their own web pages. I can recall a period where I was amused by using a service that would show random web sites.

Web sites also unleashed e-commerce and all of a sudden shopping became a big thing. eBay was huge for a while until it was eclipsed by Amazon. This was followed by the age of social media and social interactions. Facebook obviously won the social media war but in the early days there were many smaller social media sites that were more specialized and fun. And things like dating online became a big phenomenon.

Today we have entered the age of web video and the hours spent watching video on the web eclipses everything else being done.

It’s easy to think of the web as some sort of fixed thing, but the fact is that there have been major changes every few years since 1990 and there was always something new being done or something new being trendy. Kids today would die if they had to endure the web experience of the mid-90s.

During each of these various phases of the web there have been major issues that everybody was concerned about. For every new innovation that came along something negative was also introduced. We’ve suffered through piracy, spam, hackers, trolls, and viruses at various stages of the web’s development.

This flood of memories brings me back to my original thought about regulators trying to control what happens on the web. Mostly I find the idea amusing, because whatever it is they think they are regulating will change faster than any laws they can formulate – their efforts are always going to be a few years behind web innovation. The Internet genie is out of the bottle and I can’t imagine any way to put it back inside.

Dial-up is Still Around

aol-dial-up-630x354Since most people in the country can get some form of broadband many people think that dial-up is dead. We all remember those days of trying to get a connection to a modem and then listening for the beeps and boops. But I looked and found there is still a significant dial-up business in this country.

At the end of 2014 AOL still claims to have 2.3 million paying dial-up customers. That is obviously way down from their peak when they had 126 million customers, but it’s still a very impressive number. AOL said those customers account for $155 million in revenue, which still exceeds the company’s next biggest revenue source which is advertising at $144 million.

AOL is not the only one still in the business. Some other big names from the past are still around like EarthLink and NetZero. EarthLink advertises that it has the most dial-in numbers in major markets like 50 in Miami and 45 in San Diego. And then there are dial-up companies that you probably never have heard of including Basic ISP, Toast.net, Turbo USA and Copper.net. Finally, many telephone companies like AT&T still offer dial-up. A surprising number of my smaller telco clients also still operate small pockets of dial-up customers.

It’s hard to get industry figures since most of these companies don’t publish their customer counts, but if AOL still has 2.3 million customer then nationwide there must be more than 4 million households still using dial-up. The FCC says that about 2% of households are still on dial-up, but AOL alone is slightly more than 2%.

Dial-up has gotten better than what most of us remember due to the use of compression techniques where the ISP will compress whatever is being sent to the dial-up customer. But it’s still agonizingly slow compared to other broadband and the realized speed of dial-up is still capped at 56 kbps on good copper. And much of the copper that is left is not very good. With compression techniques dial-up can appear to be twice that base speed.

The low speeds keep dial-up customers relegated to using very basic Internet functions such as email. Browsing the web can be incredibly slow since many website now include advertising and video and take a long time to open. Since shopping on the web is now very image oriented that can also be too slow for dial-up speeds. And obviously dial-up households can’t get streaming video of any kind since it requires anywhere from  steady 1 Mbps at the lowest quality up to 6 – 8 Mbps for the new 4K HD video.

So who is still using dial-up? It appears that there are three distinct communities. First are people everywhere who barely use the Internet and want the cheapest connection possible. Such people don’t do a lot more than check email and do basic tasks. Second is in immigrant communities where one would suppose that the low price is also important.

Finally are rural people who have no other alternative except maybe satellite. For those who have never used it, satellite broadband is not a great product. It’s very expensive with base plans between $60 and $80 per month. It is faster than dial-up, but it still has latency issues which make it hard to use for any real time purposes such as web voice or streaming video. It also comes with low and strict ceilings on monthly data usage. WildBlue has a monthly cap of 17 GB in total downloads, HughesNet is 20 GB, Exede is 25 GB and Dish is 30 GB.

One would think that if AT&T is really able to cut down millions of rural copper lines like they want that a lot of dial-up customers will disappear. All of those rural houses that use dial-up today as their most affordable option will end up with either satellite or cellphone data plans.

Writing this blog made me pause to marvel at how fast our technologies change and grow. The heyday of dial-up was only twenty years ago, and we have come so far since then. We think of dial-up as something ancient and yet twenty years is nothing in terms of mankind’s history. But in that very short time we have grown from having over half of the country on dial-up to seeing some cities connected with gigabit speeds. I remember when I was on dial-up and I envied a few of my friends who were on a shared T1 at their office. I would have called somebody crazy if they said then that within twenty years that people would be able to get a gigabit at their house.

Those Damned Statistics

thCAVW45NPOne of my biggest pet peeves in life is the misuse of statistics. I am a math guy and I sometimes tackle math problems just for the fun of it. I understand statistics pretty well and my firm performs surveys. I think I disappoint a lot of my clients when I try to stop them from interpreting the results in a survey to prove something that the responses really don’t prove. Surveys are a really useful tool, but too often I see the survey results used to support untruthful conclusions.

A week ago the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) released their latest poll looking at broadband usage in the US. The survey asked a lot of good questions and some of the results are very useful. For example, they show that overall broadband penetration in the US is up to 72% of households. But even that statistic is suspect, as I will discuss below.

The problem with this survey is that they didn’t ask the right questions, and this largely invalidates the results. The emphasis of this particular survey was to look at how people use cellphones for data access. And so they asked questions such as asking the various activities that people now use their phone for such as browsing the web or emails. And as one would expect, more people are using their cellphones for data, largely due to the widespread introduction of smartphones over the last few years.

There is nothing specific with any of the individual results. For example, the report notes that 42% of phone users browse the web on their phone compared to 33% in 2011. I have no doubt that this is true. It’s not the individual statistics that are a problem, but rather the way the statistics were used to reach conclusions. In reading this report one gets the impression that cellphone data usage is just another form of broadband and that using your cellphone to browse the web is more or less the same as browsing off a wired broadband connection.

The worst example of this is in the main summary where the NTIA concluded that “broadband, whether fixed or mobile, is now available to almost 99% of the U.S. population”. This implies that broadband is everywhere and with that statement the NTIA is basically patting themselves on the back for a job well done. But it’s a load of bosh and I expect better from government reports.

As I said, the main problem with this report is that they didn’t ask the right questions, and so the responses can’t be trusted. Consider data usage on cellphones. In the first paragraph of the report they conclude that the data usage on cellphones has increased exponentially and is now deeply ingrained in the American way of life. The problem I have with this conclusion is that they are implying that cellphone data usage is the same as the use of landline data – and it is not. The vast majority of cell phone data is consumed on WiFi networks at work, home or at public hot spots. And yes, people are using their cellphones to browse the web and read email, but most of this usage is carried on a landline connection and the smartphone is just the screen of choice.

Cellular data usage is not growing exponentially, or maybe just barely so. Sandvine measures data usage at all of the major Internet POPs and they show that cellular data is growing at about 20% year, or doubling every five years, while landline data usage is doubling every three years. I trust the Sandvine data because they look at all of the usage that comes through the Internet and not just at a small sample. The cell carriers have trained us well to go find WiFi. Sandvine shows that on average that a landline connection today uses almost 100 times more data than a cellphone connection. This alone proves that cellphones are no substitute for a landline.

I have the same problems with the report when it quantifies the percentage of households on landline broadband. The report assumes that if somebody has a cable modem or DSL that they have broadband and we know for large parts of the country that having a connection is not the same thing as having broadband. They consider somebody on dial-up to not be broadband, but when they say that 72% of households have landline broadband, what they really mean is that 72% of homes have a connection that is faster than dial-up.

I just got a call yesterday from a man on the eastern shore of Maryland. He live a few miles outside of a town and he has a 1 Mbps DSL connection. The people a little further out than him have even slower DSL or can only get dial-up or satellite. I get these kinds of calls all of the time from people wanting to know what they can do to get better broadband in their community.

I would challenge the NTIA to go to rural America and talk to people rather than stretching the results of a survey to mean more than it does. I would like them to tell the farmer that is trying to run a large business with only cellphone data that he has broadband. I would like them to tell the man on the eastern shore of Maryland that he and his neighbors have broadband. And I would like them to tell all of the people who are about to lose their copper lines that cellular data is the same as broadband. Because in this report that is what they have told all of us.

Broadband Map of the US

broadband-by-congressional-districtConsider the following map of US broadband. This map was compiled by Gizmodo using data on broadband usage gathered by Ookla. This is a rather different map than the official US Broadband Map that is generated by the FCC. The official map uses data that is self-reported by the carriers. However, this map has been created by sampling and pinging actual Internet connections. Ookla owns speedtest.net and tests millions of connections from all across the country and at all times of the day.

This map is at a fairly high level and is shown per congressional district. But more detailed maps are available at the state and County level.

broadband-by-congressional-district

This map shows that there is a wide disparity of broadband speeds around the country. One surprising finding to me is that the average Internet connection is now at 18.2 Mbps download. The map then goes on to show those areas that are faster than average in blues and slower than average in reds. The 18.2 Mbps number is faster than I expected and goes to show that carriers around the country have been increasing speeds. This is certainly faster than the speeds that have been reported by other sources.

When you look deeper than this map at the broadband statistics you see a lot of what you would expect to see. Urban areas generally have faster broadband than rural areas. And the Verizon FiOS areas have much faster broadband than other parts of the country.

And this map shows some areas with fast broadband that might surprise people. For example, North and South Dakota have faster than average broadband. This is because the states are largely served by independent telephone companies that have built fiber into small towns and rural areas. And central Washington has some of the fastest broadband in the country thanks to several municipal networks that have built fiber-to-the-home.

One thing the map doesn’t show, at this high level, is that there are pockets of fast Internet scattered in many places. There are FTTH networks built in many small towns but these towns are not large enough to skew the data for the larger congressional districts shown on this map.

One state with high broadband is Florida, where I live. I have speeds available up to 104 Mbps from Comcast. The map for Florida shows what the cable companies are capable of and it’s a shame they have not improved their networks in more places to be this fast.

Ookla reports that the fastest town in the US is Ephrata, Washington with an average download speed of 85.5 Mbps. Second is Kansas City at 49.9 mbps. One would assume that with gigabit service that Kansas City will become the fastest place as more people are added to Google’s fiber.

One thing the map shows, is that an awfully lot of the country is below the average. Ookla reports that the slowest places are Chinla and Fort Defiance in Arizona which both have an average speed of less than 1.5 Mbps. These towns are within the Apache reservation and many native American towns are woefully underserved. The map shows large swaths of poorly served areas like West Virginia and Kentucky in Appalachia, like north Texas and Oklahoma, like Wyoming and Montana, and Maine.

I know at my house I have a 50 Mbps cable modem service and to me it feels just right. It allows us to watch multiple streaming videos while also working and using  computers for on-line gaming. I just moved from a place where my speeds would bounce between 10 Mbps and 20 Mbps and I can see a big difference. In my line of work I talk to people all of the time in rural areas who are still stuck with only dial-up or satellite as their broadband options. I know I could not do my job from such areas. These areas probably are not even showing up on this map because people who have connections that slow are probably not doing speed tests very often. They know they are slow.

The good news to me from this map is that the average speed in the US is up to 18 Mbps. But the bad news is that there are so many large areas left without good broadband. We still have a lot of work to do.