I assume that most people know the famous line from Field of Dreams where the disembodied voice promises, “Build it, and he will come.” For twenty years, I’ve been advising broadband clients against taking that advice. It doesn’t make any sense to invest a lot of money into building a broadband network without first having done enough market research to know that people will buy your services.
Today I want to talk about a similar-sounding idea – build it, and they will fill it. This is a shorthand way to describe the unbelievable growth in broadband demand. I’m now warning clients to build new networks that are robust enough to handle the future demand that will inevitably be coming from customers.
We have a lot of evidence of the fast growth of broadband usage. Center stage is statistics from OpenVault that has reported on the average nationwide broadband usage by homes as follows:
1st Quarter 2018 215 Gigabytes
1st Quarter 2019 274 Gigabytes
1st Quarter 2020 403 Gigabytes
1st Quarter 2021 462 Gigabytes
It’s easy to think that the usage spike created by the pandemic is an anomaly, but recent broadband growth has been only slightly higher than the long-term growth trend. The amount of bandwidth used by the average home has been doubling about every three years for several decades.
Another statistic from OpenVault tells a similar story. OpenVault has labeled households that use more than a terabyte of data per month as power users. The percentage of power users has grown from 4% of all homes at the end of 2018 to almost 11% by the middle of 2021.
There are two reasons that average household broadband usage has been growing. Over time, homes are finding new ways to use broadband while also using more broadband for the things we’ve always done.
I think most of us see how familiar tasks are using more broadband. A few years ago, I used Microsoft Word and Excel locally on my computer and the only time I used bandwidth was when I sent a document to somebody else. Today, my files are automatically stored in the cloud as I type, and I also keep another backup copy of everything in a different cloud. I also participate in collaboration software that stores some of the same documents again. For somebody that creates as many spreadsheets and word documents as me, this is a major increase in home broadband usage.
But it’s the new uses of broadband that really add up. New uses of broadband are coming along every day. Just a few years ago, I talked almost exclusively on my cellphone. Today I probably average three hours per day on video calls. As a sports fan, it’s not unusual for me to be streaming two or three 4K games at the same time. I’m not a gamer, but the major game platforms were all in the process of migrating to the cloud just as the pandemic hit. Our Subaru dumps a big file into the cloud every time we pull into our driveway. YouTube has started accepting 8K video that requires a 50 Mbps download stream. There are already early experimental HD virtual reality streams online.
I’m regularly asked why fiber is superior to technologies like wireless or satellite networks – and the answer is easy. Anybody who builds a new broadband network must be prepared for that network to carry ten times more broadband traffic in a decade and one hundred times more traffic in twenty years. Fixed wireless networks are not going to be able to do that. Satellite networks won’t even come close. Until the cable companies make major upgrades, they are already fallen badly behind the demand curve for upload bandwidth.
If you build a fiber network, your customers will fill it. When it gets too busy you can upgrade electronics and start the growth cycle all over again.