Will Broadband Go Wireless?

For years it’s been impossible to go to any industry forum without meeting a few folks who predict that residential broadband will go wireless. This buzz has accelerated with the exaggerated claims that fast 5G broadband is right around the corner. I’ve seen even more talk about this due to a recent Pew poll that shows that the number of people that only use their cellphones for data has climbed significantly over the last few years – I’m going to discuss that poll in another upcoming blog.

The question I’m asking today is if it’s possible that most residential broadband usage in the country can go wireless. Like I usually do I looked around the web to try to define the current aggregate amount of landline and cellular data currently being used in the US. It’s a slippery number to get a grasp of for a number of reasons, not the least being that broadband usage is growing rapidly for both cellphones and landline connections. It looks like landline data usage per household is still doubling about every three years; it looks like cellphone data usage is doubling every two years.

OpenVault recently reported that the average monthly household broadband usage has grown to 273.5 gigabytes for the first quarter of this year, up from 215.4 gigabytes a year earlier in 2018 – a growth rate of 27% which almost exactly doubles usage in three years if sustained.

There are currently a little more than 127 million households, and the FCC says that around 85% of all households have broadband. Extrapolating that all out means that US landline networks in aggregate carried almost 30 exabytes of broadband for households monthly in the first quarter of this year. (An exabyte is 1 million terabytes, or 1 billion gigabytes).

I’ve seen a few recent statistics that says that about 77% of Americans now have a smartphone, up from 67% in 2017. Recent statistics from several sources say that the average data usage per smartphone is now over 4 gigabytes per month, with buyers of ‘unlimited’ data plans averaging more than 6 gigabytes per month and others still down closer to 1 gigabyte per month. With a current population around 329 million and using an average of 4 gigabytes per month per residential phone, the cellular networks are currently carrying about 1 exabyte of residential broadband per month.

If we extrapolate forward six years, assuming keeping the existing growth rate for each kind of broadband, we can predict that total monthly US residential broadband usage will be something like the table below. Note that these figures exclude business broadband usage.

:

Monthly Exabytes
Landline Cellular
2019 30 1.0
2020 38 1.4
2021 48 2.0
2022 61 2.9
2023 78 4.2
2024 99 6.0

Today the landline residential broadband networks are carrying 29 exabytes more of data per month than cellular. Within six years that difference grows to 93 exabytes. There is no reasonable path forward that will have cellular data usage overtake residential usage in our lifetime.

The next issue to address is the overall capacity of the cellular network. The engineers at the cellular networks are likely cringing at the possibility of having to carry 6 exabytes of cellular data per month in six years – a 600% increase over today. The cellular companies are going to be increasing data capacity in three ways – adding small cells, adding more mid-range spectrum, and adding 5G efficiency captured mostly through frequency slicing. It’s going to take all of those upgrades just to keep up with the growth in the above chart.

There are those who say that the way the cellular companies will handle future growth is through millimeter wave spectrum. However, that technology will require a fiber-fed small cell site near to every home. We really need to stop referring to millimeter wave spectrum as 5G wireless and instead call it what it is – fiber-to-the curb. When thought of that way, it’s easy to realize that there are no carriers likely to make the investment to deploy that much fiber along every residential street in America. Wireless 5G fiber-to-the-curb is not coming to most neighborhoods. The bottom line is that the world is not going to go wireless, and anybody saying so is engaging in hyperbole and not reality.

The Ever-Growing Internet

The InternetI spent some time recently looking through several of Cisco’s periodic predictions about the future of the Internet. What is most fascinating is that they are predicting continuing rapid growth for almost every kind of Internet traffic. This is certainly a warning to all network owners – a lot more bandwidth usage will be coming your way.

Cisco predicts that total worldwide Internet usage will grow from 72 Exabytes (an Exabyte being one billion Gigabytes) per month in 2015 to 168 Exabytes per month in 2019. That’s an astounding 33% growth per year. They published a short chart of the history of global Internet bandwidth which is eye-popping. Following are some historical and predicted statistics of worldwide bandwidth usage:

  • 1992 100 GB per day
  • 1997 100 GB per hour
  • 2002 100 GB per second
  • 2007 2,000 GB per second
  • 2014 16,144 GB per second
  • 2019 51,794 GB per second

We know that the current bandwidth usage on the Internet has been driven by an explosion of residential video consumption. Cisco predicts that video will keep growing at a rapid pace. They predict that video bandwidth worldwide will grow from 40 Exabytes per month in 2015 to 140 Exabytes per month in 2019, an increase of 37% per year. Those volumes include all kinds of IP video including Netflix type services, IP Video on Demand, video files exchanged through file sharing, video-streamed gaming, and videoconferencing.

Perhaps the fastest growing segment of the Internet is Machine-to-Machine traffic. Cisco predicts M2M traffic will grow from 0.5 Petabytes (a Petabyte is 1 million Gigabytes) per month in 2015 to 4.6 Petabytes per month in 2019, an astounding 210% annual increase. The Internet has always had a core of M2M traffic as the devices that run the web communicate with each other. But all of the billions of devices we are now adding to the web annually also do some coordination. This can vary from the big bandwidth uses like smart cars to a smartphone or PC that is checking to see if it has the latest version of a software update.

Cisco also predicts that Internet speeds will get faster. For example, for North America they predict that from 2014 to 2019 the percentage of homes that can buy data speeds faster than 10 Mbps will grow from 58% to 74%, those that buy speeds greater than 25 Mbps will grow 33% to 45% and those that buy data speeds faster than 100 Mbps will grow from 2% to 8%.

They aren’t quite as rosy for cellular data speeds. They predict that North American speeds will grow from an average of 3 Mbps in 2015 to 6.4 Mbps in 2019. But they show that mobile devices now carry the majority of the data traffic worldwide. In 2014 mobile devices carried 54% of worldwide data traffic and by 2019 they predict that mobile devices will carry about 67% of worldwide traffic. It’s important to remember that outside of the US and Europe that mobile devices are the predominant gateway to broadband usage. Cisco also shows that the vast majority of mobile device traffic use WiFi rather than cellular networks.

Perhaps the statistic that matters most to network engineers is that busy hour traffic (the busiest 60-minute period of the day) is growing about 5% faster per year than the growth of average traffic. ISPs need to buy capacity to handle the busy hour and the demands of video traffic are increasingly coming in the busiest hours.

Cisco shows that the volumes of metro traffic (traffic that stays within a region) already passed long-haul traffic in 2014, and by 2019 they predict that 66% of all web traffic will be metro traffic.