Reaching Critical Mass for Gigabit Connections

The statistics concerning the number of gigabit fiber customers is eye-opening. Openvault tracks the percentage of customers provisioned at various broadband speeds. At the end of 2019, the company reported that 2.81% of all households in the US were subscribed to gigabit service. By the end of the first quarter of 2020, just after the onset of the pandemic, the percentage of gigabit subscriptions had climbed to 3.75% of total broadband subscribers. By the end of the second quarter, this exploded to 4.9% of the total market.

It’s clear that households are finally migrating to gigabit broadband. The gigabit product has been around for a while. The earliest places I remember selling it to homes were municipal systems like Lafayette, Louisiana, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. Some small fiber overbuilders and small telcos also sold early gigabit products. But the product didn’t really take off until Google fiber announced it was going to overbuild Kansas City in 2011 and offered $70 gigabit. That put the gigabit product into the daily conversation in the industry.

Since then there are a lot of ISPs offering the gigabit product. Big telcos like AT&T and CenturyLink push the product where they have fiber. Most of the big cable companies now offer gigabit download products, although it’s only priced to sell in markets where there is a fiber competitor. Google Fiber expanded to a bunch of additional markets and a few dozen overbuilders like Ting are selling gigabit broadband. There are now over 150 municipal fiber broadband utilities that sell gigabit broadband. And smaller telcos and cooperatives have expanded gigabit broadband into smaller towns and rural areas all around the country.

The title of the blog uses the phrase ‘critical mass’. By that, I mean there are probably now enough gigabit homes to finally have a discussion about gigabit applications on the Internet. Back after Google Fiber stirred up the industry, there was a lot of talk about finding a gigabit application that needed that much bandwidth. But nobody’s ever found one for homes for the simple reason that there was never a big enough quantity of gigabit customers to justify the cost of developing and distributing large bandwidth applications.

Maybe we are finally getting to the point when it’s reasonable to talk about developing giant bandwidth applications. The most obvious candidate product for using giant bandwidth is telepresence – and that’s been at the top of the list of candidates for a long time as shown by this article from Pew Research in 2014 asking how we might use a gigabit in the home – almost every answer from industry experts then talked about some form of telepresence.

Telepresence is the technology to bring in realistic images into the home in real-time. This would mean having images of people, objects, or places in your home that seem real. It could mean having a work meeting, seeing a doctor, talking to distant family members, or playing cards with friends as recently suggested by Mark Zuckerberg. Telepresence also means interactive gaming with holographic opponents. Telepresence might mean immersion in a tour of distant lands as if you are there.

Early telepresence technology is still going to be a long way away from a StarTrek holodeck, but it will be the first step in that direction. The technology will be transformational. We’ve quickly gotten used to meetings by Zoom, but telepresence is going to more like sitting across the table from somebody while you talk to them. I can think of a dozen sci-movies that include scenes of telepresence board meetings – and that will soon be possible with enough broadband.

I’m looking forward to Openvault’s third-quarter report to see the additional growth in gigabit subscribers. We might already by reaching a critical mass to now have a market for gigabit applications. A 5% market penetration of gigabit users means that we’re approaching 7 million gigabit households. I have to think that a decent percentage of the people who will pony up for gigabit broadband will be willing to tackle cutting edge applications.

This isn’t something that will happen overnight. Somebody has to develop portals and processors to handle telepresence streams in real-time – it’s a big computing challenge to make affordable in a home environment. But as the number of gigabit subscribers keeps growing, the opportunity is there for somebody to finally monetize and capitalize on the capability of a gigabit connection. As somebody who now spends several hours of each day in online video chats, I’m ready to move on to telepresence, even if that means I have to wear something other than sweatpants to have a business meeting!

Data Usage Remains Robust in 2Q20

OpenVault recently published its Broadband Insights Report for the second quarter of 2020. Since OpenVault’s software is used to track usage in major Internet POPs, the company has a unique perspective on broadband usage in the country.

The report says that the peak of data usage this year was in March when people first reacted to the pandemic. Data usage is down slightly compared with the first quarter, but still much higher than data usage a year ago, In the second quarter the average home used 380 gigabytes of data per month. This is down 6% compared to the average usage in March 2020 of 403 gigabytes. But the second quarter data usage is up 36% over the average usage of 280 gigabytes per household used in the second quarter of 2019. Before the pandemic, household broadband usage was growing at a rate just above 20% annually, so the 36% growth in a year demonstrates the huge impact on the pandemic on broadband.

Median data usage has increased even faster than average usage. The median usage measures the middle point where half of homes use less and have of homes use more broadband. The median usage in the second quarter of 2019 was 144 gigabytes and has grown 54% in a year to 223 gigabytes. This indicates that even households that previously would have been light data users are now using a lot more data during the pandemic. This likely can comes from both increase cord-cutting as well as from students and adults working from home.

OpenVault reports that usage for homes with unlimited broadband plans (no data caps) grew even faster and increased by 42% over 2019. The company surmises that the big increase is at least partially because the big ISPs are not enforcing data caps during the pandemic. However, part of this increase is also likely due to an increase of what OpenVault calls power users. These are homes that use more than 1 terabyte of data per month.

In the second quarter 8.7% of homes used at least 1 terabyte of data per month, more than double the 4.1% of terabyte homes a year earlier. This now includes 1% of all homes that are using more than 2 terabytes of data, triple since a year earlier in 2019.

One reason for the higher data usage might be explained by households subscribing to faster data plans. At the end of the second quarter, 4.9% of homes are now subscribed to gigabit data speeds, more than double the 2.1% of gigabit subscribed in the second quarter of 2019. Over 61% of homes in the country are now subscribed to broadband speeds greater than 100 Mbps. That includes 37.8% subscribed to plans between 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps, 13.5% subscribed to plans between 200 Mbps and 400 Mbps, 5% subscribed to speeds between 400 Mbps and 900 Mbps, and 4.9% subscribed to gigabit speeds. Less than 20% of homes nationwide are subscribed to plans slower than 40 Mbps.

There is one segment of broadband usage that continued to increase in the second quarter of 2020. Upload usage from homes is up 56% over a year earlier. Upload demand is directly related to the need to connect for homes to connect to school and work servers and to take part in Zoom and other video conferencing services. It’s likely before the pandemic that many homes had never much needed the upload link from home.

What is most intriguing about the continued increase in upload demand is that upload usage continued to grow even after school semesters were ending for the year. During the second quarter tens of millions of upload links to school servers would have gone quiet as school semesters ended, and yet upload demand continued to grow. It’s going to be interesting to see what the fall school semester does to broadband usage.

Why Does the FCC Support Data Caps?

Most people may not have noticed that the upcoming RDOF grants allow, and even encourage ISPs to enforce data caps on customers. I have a hard time thinking of even one reason why the FCC would suggest that ISPs use data caps.

The RDOF grants have four performance tiers for ISPs, with the auction rules weighted to give preference to faster data speeds. Each of these performance tiers comes with a suggested monthly usage allotment – which means a data cap. ISPs that will deliver speeds of either 25/3 Mbps or 50/5 Mbps can introduce a data cap of 250 gigabytes or the U.S. average, whichever is higher. ISPs offering speeds of 100/20 Mbps or 1 Gbps/500 Mbps can set a data cap at 2 terabytes.

The natural question is to ask why the FCC is setting any data cap at all? Remember, this is an FCC that no longer regulates broadband, and yet they are suggesting rules that encourage ISPs that win the grant funding to introduce data caps. Past experience says that if the rules allow for data caps, the ISPs that win the money are likely to implement them.

I find the data caps for the 25/3 Mbps and 50/5 Mbps to be intriguing since ISPs can’t set the data caps at less than the US average. Who is going to measure that? The FCC doesn’t gather the kind of data needed to measure data caps around the country. Further, there are companies like CenturyLink that have data caps but that often don’t enforce them. I haven’t the foggiest idea how anybody would measure the national average data cap.

It’s important to put these data caps into perspective. The data caps on the slower products are incredibly stingy at 250 gigabytes per month.  OpenVault reported earlier this year that the average US home used 344 gigabytes of data per month in December 2019, up from 274 gigabytes a year earlier. Due to the impact of COVID-19, that number exploded to 402.5 gigabytes by the end of March. Homes being limited to using 250 gigabytes of data are being told not to use their broadband like everybody else. It’s nearly impossible for a home that has people working from home or students doing schoolwork at home to limit themselves to only 250 gigabytes of data per month.

Even the 2 terabyte data caps for faster broadband will become problematic is a few years. OpenVault says that over 10% of homes were already using more than 1 terabyte of data as of the end of the first quarter of 2020 and 1.2% were using over 2 terabytes. By the time these networks are built with RDOF money it wouldn’t be surprising for 10% of homes to be using more than the 2-terabyte cap.

With these grant rules the FCC is actively supporting ISP to introducing data caps that are smaller than the national average broadband usage at the end of 2018 and that will easily be less than half of the national average usage by the time the networks funded by the RDOF grants are constructed.

It seems like the FCC never learns any lessons. Every grant program they have administered has some major flaws. The FCC is handing out billions of dollars to provide broadband to home that don’t have it today. This program is a major boon for the rural communities that get broadband because of the grants. But with these rules, the RDOF money will be used to bring broadband to homes for the first time and immediately cripple homes from using that broadband due to data caps. For the federal government to support a 250-gigabyte data cap is an incredibly bad policy. They are saying to folks – here, we funded broadband, but don’t use it. I can’t conceive of any reason why data caps are even mentioned in the grant rules unless this is another case of bowing to the lobbyists from the big ISPs or the satellite broadband providers.

Looking at the bigger picture, it’s somewhat surprising that the FCC would take any position on things like data caps since they have given away their authority to regulate broadband. What these grant rules tells us is that this FCC would heartily support data caps if they still had that authority. This provision in this grant program provides tacit support to Comcast and AT&T to bill customers huge amounts of extra money for exceeding arbitrary and stingy data caps.

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 Rural Broadband Gap is Widening

A lot of attention is being paid to the broadband gap between urban and rural America. There are a lot of different estimates of the number of rural homes and businesses that don’t have broadband. At the low end of the scale are the FCC estimates that come from the overstated FCC broadband maps that are derived from overstated 477 data from ISPs. States and counties have made estimates of broadband coverage which invariably show more places without broadband than the FCC data. What everybody agrees on is that there are still a lot of rural places with poor broadband, be that number 18 million or 30 million people or 50 million – there is a definite urban versus rural broadband gap.

The FCC has been publicly touting that they are solving the gap by funding programs that bring broadband to places that don’t have it. The upcoming $20 billion RDOF grants will make a dent in the places without broadband, although the 6-year required construction buildout that doesn’t start until next year will feel glacial to places that desperately need broadband today. We’ll have to wait for the reverse auction to see how many millions of homes eventually get broadband from this program – at best it’s likely to only help a fraction of those with no broadband. Unless Congress acts, there isn’t going to be a solution for the many millions that are not going to be covered by FCC programs.

There is another broadband gap that is not getting the press coverage. The average speed of broadband is growing rapidly. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai took credit for this growth in a recent tweet and claimed faster speeds are due to the end of net neutrality and to ending broadband regulation: “Two years ago today, some Washington politicians promised you that the Internet would slow down. What’s happened since? Average U.S. fixed broadband speeds are UP over 76% according to Ookla. It [repealing net neutrality] wasn’t the end of the Internet as we know it—not even close.”

I’m not sure what Ookla numbers he’s referring to. In the Ookla Speedtest Global Index, the company says that the average fixed broadband speed in the US climbed from 111.69 Mbps to 134.77 Mbps during 2019 – an impressive 21% increase. This matches with recently announced statistics from OpenVault that says that average speeds in the US increased from 103 Mbps to 128 Mbps for the year ending in the third quarter of 2019 – a growth rate of 24%.

I’m not that sure any of the speed increase is due to FCC actions. Faster speeds come from several sources. Most of the increase comes from the big cable companies unilaterally increasing broadband speed in urban markets to as much as 200 Mbps. Since the big cable companies serve two-third of the broadband market, any changes they make in speeds immediately affects the average. The urban speeds are further increased by the continued migration of urban customers from DSL to cable modem. There is also an increase in customers buying gigabit broadband, which according to OpenVault is now 2.8% of all broadband customers – nearly doubling in 2019. Finally, there is a small increase due to some rural markets getting broadband upgrades – but the rural customers added to the market are too small to make much of an impact on the national average. I guess I’d like Chairman Pai to be more specific, because I don’t see an FCC fingerprint on these industry trends.

It’s great that broadband speeds are improving. Anybody who has been paying attention saw this coming, since average speeds having been growing at a rate of over 20% annually for several decades. What Chairman Pai and most others have missed is that these speed increases come almost entirely from urban customers. The speed gap between urban and rural America is widening rapidly as urban speeds climb.

This urban / rural speed gap is important to recognize because urban customers are finding ways to use the faster broadband. Consider the many uses of broadband in urban areas that are out of reach for a rural household. We routinely back-up data files into cloud storage. Our computers, cellphones, cars, TVs and numerous devices routinely and automatically download updates and upload data into the cloud. We use cloud-based security cameras that we can access when away from home. When we walk into our homes our cellphones automatically start using our home broadband. We are free to work from home, even if it’s only to log into a corporate WAN in the evening. Our kids routinely do online homework and practically all of the communications between schools, students, and parents is online. We now use a huge amount of machine-to-machine data that has nothing to do with video and entertainment.

People living without good broadband can’t do any of these things. In just the last week CCG interviewed several rural residents that tell a different story than that list above. Parents drive an hour so kids can use library broadband for schoolwork. Rural businesses can’t maintain a quality signal on satellite broadband to be able to take credit card payments. Residents frantically try to shut off automatically updating software to avoid going over their data caps. I could fill a week of blogs with the horror stories about rural broadband.

If we look back even just seven or eight years ago, the urban versus rural speed gap didn’t feel so wide. When the average urban home got speeds of 25 Mbps there wasn’t such a giant gap with rural residents because urban residents didn’t use broadband as extensively as they do today. But urban speeds are getting faster and faster while the broadband for too many rural homes has stayed stagnant – where it even exists. To quote a rural resident that we spoke to last week, rural people with poor broadband now feel like they aren’t part of the 21st century.

How FCC Policies Hurt Communities

I was recently looking at one of the counties where the winner of the CAF II reverse auction was Viasat, a satellite broadband provider. There are many other rural counties with an identical outcome. As I thought about these counties, I came to realize that a series of FCC policies and decisions have hurt these counties in their search for better broadband. There is no single FCC action that hurt them, but a cascading series of individual decisions have made it harder for them to find a broadband solution.

The first FCC decision that created the current situation is when the current FCC declined to consider an increase in the definition of broadband from 25/3 Mbps. That definition was set in 2015 and there is ample record on file in FCC proceedings that 25/3 is already an obsolete definition of broadband.

The most recent evidence comes from OpenVault. The company just released its Broadband Industry Report for 4Q 2019 that shows the average subscribed speed in the US grew from 103 Mbps in 2018 to 128 Mbps in 2019. That result is largely being driven by the cable companies and the fiber providers that serve more than 2/3 of all of the broadband customers in the country. The FCC is stubbornly sticking to the 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband even as a large majority of households in the country are being given speeds greater than 100 Mbps.

The decision to stick to the outdated 25/3 Mbps then created a second problem for rural America when the outdated FCC speed definition is used to award federal grants. The FCC decided in the CAF II reverse auction grants that any technology that met the 25/3 Mbps speed was acceptable. The FCC boxed themselves in since they couldn’t set a higher speed threshold for grants without admitting that the 25/3 Mbps threshold is inadequate. That auction awarded funding for technologies that can’t deliver much more than 25 Mbps. What’s worse is that the winners don’t have to finish building new networks until 2025. When the FCC blessed the use of the 25/3 threshold in the reverse auction they also blessed that 25/3 Mbps broadband will still be adequate in 2025.

The next FCC decision that is hurting these specific counties is when the FCC decided to allow satellite broadband companies to bid for scarce federal broadband grant monies. The FCC probably thought they had no choice since the satellite providers can meet the 25/3 Mbps speed threshold. This was a dreadful decision. Satellite broadband is already available everywhere in the US, and a grant given to satellite broadband brings no new broadband option to a rural area and only pads the bottom line of the satellite companies – it doesn’t push rural broadband coverage forward by a millimeter.

Finally, the FCC recently rubbed salt in the wound by saying that areas that got a previous state or federal broadband grants won’t be eligible for the additional federal grants out of the upcoming $20.4 billion RDOF grant program. This means that a county where a broadband grant was given to satellite provider is ineligible for grant money to find a real broadband solution.

Such counties are possibly doomed to be stuck without a broadband solution due to this chain of decisions by the FCC. I’m sure that the FCC didn’t set out to hurt these rural counties – but their accumulated actions are doing just that. Each of the FCC decisions I described was made at different times, in reaction to different issues facing the FCC. Each new decision built on prior FCC decisions, but that culminated in counties with a real dilemma. Through no fault of their own, these counties are now saddled with satellite broadband and a prohibition against getting additional grant monies to fund an actual broadband solution.

A lot of this is due to the FCC not having a coherent rural broadband policy. Decisions are made ad hoc without enough deliberation to understand the consequences of decisions. At the heart of the problem is regulatory cowardice where the FCC is refusing to acknowledge that the country has moved far past the 25/3 Mbps broadband threshold. When 2/3 of the country can buy speeds in excess of 100 Mbps it’s inexcusable to award new grant monies for technologies that deliver speeds slower than that.

It’s obvious why the FCC won’t recognize a faster definition of broadband, say 100 Mbps. Such a decision would instantly classify millions of homes as not having adequate broadband. There is virtually no chance that current FCC will do the right thing – and so counties that fell through the regulatory cracks will have to find a broadband solution that doesn’t rely on the FCC.

Broadband Consumption Continues Explosive Growth

OpenVault Just released its Broadband Industry Report for 4Q 2019 that tracks the way that the US consumes data. The results of the reports are as eye-opening as OpenVault reports for the last few years. OpenVault has been collecting broadband usage for more than ten years.

As usual, the OpenVault statistics are a wake-up cry for the industry. The most important finding is that the average monthly data consumed by households grow by 27% from 2018 to 2019, and in the fourth quarter of 2019 the average home used 344 gigabytes of data, up from 275 gigabytes a year earlier. Note that consumption is a combination of download and upload usage – with most consumption being downloaded.

For the first time, the company compared homes with unlimited data plans to those that have plans with data caps. They reported that homes with no data caps used 353 gigabytes per month while homes with data caps used 337 gigabytes per month. That statistic would suggest that homes with data caps try to curb their usage to avoid overage charges.

Interestingly, median usage was significantly different than average usage. Median means the same as midpoint, and the median data usage was 191 gigabytes per month, meaning half of US homes used more than that and half used less. In looking at their numbers, I have to suppose that the median is a lot less than average due to the many homes using slow DSL that can’t consume a lot of broadband.

The report also looks at power users – homes that consume a lot of broadband. They report that nearly 1% of homes now use 2 terabytes per month and 7.7% use over 1 terabyte per month. A terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes. The percentage of homes using over 1 terabyte climbed from 4% a year earlier. This statistic is important because it shows a quickly increasing number of homes that will be hitting the 1 terabyte data caps of ISPs like Comcast, AT&T, Cox, and CenturyLink. I clearly remember Comcast saying just a few years ago that almost no homes had an issue with their data caps, but that no longer can be true.

Homes are starting to buy 1 gigabit broadband when it’s available and affordable. 2.8% of homes in the country now subscribe to gigabit speeds, up 86% from the 1.5% of homes that bought gigabit in 2018.

54% of homes now purchase broadband plans with speeds of 100 Mbps or faster. Another 23.6% of homes are subscribing to broadband between 50-75 Mbps. This means that nearly 78% of homes are subscribing to data plans of greater than 50 Mbps. The average subscribed speed grew significantly since 2018 from 103 Mbps to 128 Mbps. These subscriber statistics should shame the FCC for deciding to stick with the 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband. The agency is clearly setting a target speed for rural America that is far behind the reality of the marketplace.

OpenVault made one comparison to Europe and showed that we consume a lot more broadband here. While the US average consumption of broadband in 4Q 2019 was 344 gigabytes here, it was 196 gigabytes in Europe.

As OpenVault statistics have done in the past, they show network engineers that the demand for new broadband is not abating but is continuing to explode. An annual 27% increase in broadband consumption means that broadband demand is continuing to double every three years. If that growth rate is sustained, then our networks need to be prepared within a decade to carry 8.6 times more data than today. That’s enough to keep network engineers up at night.

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.

How We Use More Bandwidth

We’ve known for decades that the demand for broadband growth has been doubling every three years since 1980. Like at any time along that growth curve, there are those that look at the statistics and think that we are nearing the end of the growth curve. It’s hard for a lot of people to accept that bandwidth demand keeps growing on that steep curve.

But the growth is continuing. The company OpenVault measures broadband usage for big ISPs and they recently reported that the average monthly data use for households grew from 201.6 gigabytes in 2017 to 268.7 gigabytes in 2018 – a growth rate of 33%. What is astounding is the magnitude of growth, with an increase of 67.1 gigabytes in just a year. You don’t have to go back very many years to find a time when that number couldn’t have been imagined.

That kind of growth means that households are finding applications that use more bandwidth. Just in the last few weeks I saw several announcements that highlight how bandwidth consumptions keep growing. I wrote a blog last week describing how Google and Microsoft are migrating gaming to the cloud. Interactive gaming already uses a significant amount of bandwidth, but that usage is going to explode upwards when the machine operating the game is in a data center rather than on a local computer or game console. Google says most of its games will operate using 4K video, meaning a download speed of at least 25 Mbps for one stream plus an hourly download usage of 7.2 GB.

I also saw an announcement from Apple that the users of the Apple TV stick or box can now use it on Playstation Vue to watch up to four separate video steams simultaneously. That’s intended for the serious sports fan and there are plenty of households that would love to keep track of four sporting events at the same time. If the four separate video streams are broadcast in HD that would mean downloading 12 GB per hour. If the broadcasts are in 4K that would be an astounding 29 GB per hour.

The announcement that really caught my eye is that Samsung is now selling an 8K video-capable TV. It takes a screen of over 80 inches for the human eye to perceive any benefit from 8K video. There are no immediate plans for anybody to broadcast in 8K, but the same was true when the first 4K TVs were sold. When people buy these TVs, somebody is going to film and stream content in the format. I’m sure that 8K video will have some improved compression techniques, but without a new compression scheme, an 8K video stream is 16 times larger than an HD stream – meaning a theoretical download of 48 GB per hour.

Even without these new gadgets and toys, video usage is certainly the primary driver of the growth of household broadband. In 2014 only 1% of homes had a 4K-capable TV – the industry projects that to go over 50% by the end of this year. As recently as two years ago you had to search to find 4K programming. Today almost all original programming from Netflix, Amazon, and others is shot in 4K, and the web services automatically feed 4K speeds to any customer connection able to accept it. User-generated 4K video, often non-compressed, is all over YouTube. There are now 4K security cameras on the market, just when HD cameras have completely replaced older analog cameras.

Broadband usage is growing in other ways. Cisco projects machine-to-machine connections will represent 51% of all online connections by 2022, up from 40% today. Parks and Associates just reported that the average broadband home now has ten connected devices, and those devices all make internet connections on their own. Our computers and cellphone automatically update software over our broadband connections. Many of us set our devices to automatically back-up our hard drives, pictures, and videos in the cloud. Smart home devices constantly report back to the alarm monitoring service. None of these connections sound large, but in aggregate they really add up.

And sadly, we’re also growing more inefficient. As households download multiple streams of music, video, and file downloads we overload our WiFi connection and/or our broadband connection and thus request significant retransmission of missing or incomplete packets. I’ve seen estimates that this overhead can easily average 20% of the bandwidth used when households try to do multiple things at the same time.

I also know that when we look up a few years from now to see that broadband usage is still growing that there will be a new list of reasons for the growth. It may seem obvious, but when handed enough bandwidth, households are finding a way to use it.

Broadband Usage Continues to Grow

The firm OpenVault, a provider of software that measures data consumption for ISPs reported that the average monthly data use by households grew from 201.6 gigabytes in 2017 to 268.7 gigabytes in 2018 – a growth rate of 33%. The company also reported that the medium use per household grew from 103.6 gigabytes in 2017 to 145.2 gigabytes in 2018 – a growth rate of 40%. The medium represents the midpoint of users, with half of all households above and half below the medium.

To some degree, these statistics are not news because we’ve known for a long time that broadband usage at homes, both in total download and in desired speeds has been doubling every three years since the early 1980s. The growth in 2018 is actually a little faster than that historical average and if the 2018 growth rate was sustained, in three years usage would grow by 235%. What I find most impressive about these new statistics is the magnitude of the annual change – the average home used 67 more gigabytes of data per month in 2018 than the year before – a number that would have seemed unbelievable only a decade ago when the average household used a total of only 25 gigabytes per month.

There are still many in the industry who are surprised by these numbers. I’ve heard people claim that now that homes are watching all the video they want that the rate of growth is bound to slow down – but if anything, the rate of growth seems to be accelerating. We also know that cellular data consumption is also now doubling every two years.

This kind of growth has huge implications for the industry. From a network perspective, this kind of bandwidth usage puts a big strain on networks. Typically the most strained part of a network is the backbones that connect to neighborhood nodes. That’s the primary stress point in many networks, including FTTH networks, and when there isn’t enough bandwidth to a neighborhood then everybody’s bandwidth suffers. Somebody that designed a network ten years ago would never have believed the numbers that OpenVault is reporting and would likely not have designed a network that would still be sufficient today.

One consequence of the bandwidth growth is that it’s got to be driving homes to change to faster service providers when they have the option. A household that might have been happy with a 5 Mbps or 10 Mbps connection a few years ago is likely no longer happy with it. This has to be one of the reasons we are seeing millions of homes each year upgrade from DSL to cable modem each year in metropolitan areas. The kind of usage growth we are seeing today has to be accelerating the death of DSL.

This growth also should be affecting policy. The FCC set the definition of broadband at 25/3 Mbps in January of 2015. If that was a good definition in 2015 then the definition of broadband should have been increased to 63 Mbps in 2019. At the time the FCC set that threshold I thought they were a little generous. In 2014, as the FCC was having this debate, the average home downloaded around 100 gigabytes per month. In 2014 the right definition of broadband was probably more realistically 15 – 20 Mbps and the FCC was obviously a little forward-looking in setting the definition. Even so, the definition of broadband should be increased – if the right definition of broadband in 2014 was 20 Mbps, then today the definition of broadband ought to have been increased to 50 Mbps today.

The current FCC is ignoring these statistics for policy purposes – if they raise the definition of broadband then huge numbers of homes will be classified as not having broadband. The FCC does not want to do that since they are required by Congressional edict to make sure that all homes have broadband. When the FCC set a realistic definition of broadband in 2015 they created a dilemma for themselves. That 2015 definition is already obsolete and if they don’t change it, in a few years it is going to be absurdly ridiculous. One only has to look forward three years from now, when the definition of broadband ought to be 100 Mbps.

These statistics also remind us of the stupidity of handing out federal subsidies to build technologies that deliver less than 100 Mbps. We still have two more years of CAF II construction to upgrade speeds to an anemic 10 Mbps. We are still handing out new subsidies to build networks that can deliver 25/3 Mbps – networks that are obsolete before they are completed.

Network designers will tell you that they try to design networks to satisfy demands at least seven years into the future (which is the average life of many kinds of fiber electronics). If broadband usage keeps doubling every three years, then looking forward seven years to 2026, the average home is going to download 1.7 terabytes per month and will expect download speeds of 318 Mbps. I wonder how many network planners are using that target?

The final implications of this growth are for data caps. Two years ago when Comcast set a terabyte monthly data cap they said that it affected only a few homes – and I’m sure they were right at the time. However, the OpenVault statistics show that 4.12% of homes used a terabyte per month in 2018, almost double from 2.11% in 2017. We’ve now reached that point when the terabyte data cap is going to have teeth, and over the next few years a lot of homes are going to pass that threshold and have to pay a lot more for their broadband. While much of the industry has a hard time believing the growth statistics, I think Comcast knew exactly what they were doing when they established the terabyte cap that seemed so high just a few years ago.