FCC – Please Focus on Upload Speeds

I wrote a recent blog that talked about how the FCC is recommending to stick with the 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband for another year. In that blog, I mostly talked about how 25 Mbps download is out of touch when the FCC claims that 85% of homes today can buy 250/25 Mbps broadband.

Today I want to look at the second half of the definition – the upload speed. The FCC is proposing, in 2020 – the year when millions were sent home for work and school – that 3 Mbps upload is a sufficiently high definition of broadband. Sticking with the 3 Mbps definition of broadband makes no sense. I contend that 3 Mbps is massively out of touch with the needs of the average home. To make matters worse, the FCC will allow an ISP that offers 25/3 broadband to bid in and win grant funding in October’s RDOF grant – a network which the ISP then has six years to build. The FCC doesn’t just think that 25/3 is adequate broadband today, they think that is okay broadband size years from now.

The pandemic has made it clear to a lot of households that upload speeds matter. Before the pandemic, customers that cared about the upload speeds tended to be folks that sent huge files such as doctors, architects, engineers, photographers, etc. When they worked from home these folks have known for years that the upload speeds on the average home network are inadequate.

All of a sudden this year, millions of homes found out that they don’t have enough upload broadband speeds. Consider the amount of bandwidth that is needed to work from home. There are two uses of upload broadband that are new to most people – connecting to a school or work server and participating in Zoom or other online meetings.

Many home and work servers require the creation of a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN is a dedicated connection – the home connects and stays connected to a school or work server. It generally requires dedicating at least 1 Mbps of bandwidth, but usually more, to create and maintain a VPN connection. This means that somebody working at home on a VPN is going to tie up 1 – 3 Mbps of bandwidth that can’t be used for anybody else in the home.

Zoom calls also require upload bandwidth. The Zoom website says that a home should have a 2 Mbps connection, both upload and download to sustain a Zoom session between just two people. The amount of download bandwidth increases with each person connected to the call, meaning Zoom recommends the 2 Mbps upload, but a 6 Mbps download for a meeting with three other people.

There are other uses for upload bandwidth in the home as well. For example, a telemedicine call can use even slightly more bandwidth than connecting to work or school servers. Upload bandwidth is needed for gaming in the cloud. Upload bandwidth is also used to back-up data files, pictures, etc. into the cloud.

It doesn’t take complicated math to see why a 3 Mbps connection is inadequate for any household that wants to make more than one upload-heavy connection to the Internet at the same time. 3 Mbps is not enough bandwidth for multiple people in a home trying to connect to work and school servers or to make Zoom-like calls. I’ve heard from numerous people this year telling me they can’t have more than one person at a time using their home broadband connection. Many of these complaints came from households using broadband provided by the big cable companies, and many of these homes thought they had plenty of bandwidth until the pandemic hit.

For the FCC to stick with 3 Mbps upload as the definition of broadband is a slap in the face to every family where more than one person wants to connect to the web at the same time. With that definition, the FCC is blessing any ISP that delivers 3 Mbps upload speeds.

Even if the FCC doesn’t want to upgrade the download component of the definition of broadband, they can’t turn a blind idea to the millions of homes trying to make it through the pandemic. If social scientists are right, there will likely be millions of people who continue to work remotely even after the end of the pandemic. This is not a temporary problem that is somehow going to go away.

It’s hard to think that the minimum acceptable definition of upload speeds should be anything slower than 25 Mbps. Assuming a robust WiFi network, that’s enough bandwidth for 3 – 4 adults and/or students to work from home at the time. So FCC, please reconsider the definition of upload speeds. If you stick with 3 Mbps upload as the definition of broadband it means you don’t support broadband networks that can deliver the speeds that the average households need.

Bandwidth Needed to Work from Home

The pandemic made it clear that the millions of homes with no broadband or poor broadband were cut off from taking the office or the school home. But the pandemic also showed many additional millions of homes that their current ISP connection isn’t up to snuff for working or doing schoolwork from home. Families often found that multiple adults and students couldn’t share the bandwidth at the same time.

The simplest explanation for this is that homes were suddenly expected to connect to a school or work servers, use new services like Zoom, or make telemedicine connections to talk to doctors. These new requirements have significantly different bandwidth needs when a home’s big bandwidth need was watching multiple video streams at the same time.  Consider the following bandwidth needs listed by Zoom:

Zoom says that a home should have a 2 Mbps connection, both upload and download to sustain a Zoom session between just two people. The amount of download bandwidth increases with each person connected to the call, meaning Zoom recommends 6 Mbps download for a meeting with three other people.

Telemedicine connections tend to be even larger than this and also require the simultaneous use of both upload and download bandwidth. Connections to work and schools servers vary in size depending upon the specific software being used, but the VPNs from these connections are typically as large or larger than the requirements for the Zoom.

Straight math shows fairly large requirements if three or four people are trying to do make these same kinds of 2-way simultaneous connections at the same time. But houses are also using traditional bandwidth during the pandemic like watching video, gaming, web browsing, and downloading large work files.

The simplistic way to look at bandwidth needs is to add up the various uses. For instance, if four people in a home wanted to have a Zoom conversation with another person the home would need a simultaneous connection of 8 Mbps both up and down. But bandwidth use in a house is not that simple, and a lot of other factors contribute to the quality of bandwidth connections within a home. Consider all of the following:

  • WiFi Collisions. WiFi networks can be extremely inefficient when multiple people are trying to use the same WiFi channels at the same time. Today’s version of WiFi only has a few channels to choose from, and so the multiple connections on the WiFi network interfere with each other. It’s not unusual for the WiFi network to add a 20% to 30% overhead, meaning that collisions of WiFi signals effectively waste usable bandwidth. A lot of this problem is going to be fixed with WiFi 6 and 6 GHz bandwidth which together will add a lot of new channels inside the home.
  • Lack of Quality of Service (QoS). Home broadband networks don’t provide quality of service, which means that homes are unable to prioritize data streams. If you were able to prioritize a school connection, then any problems inside the network would affect other connections first and would maintain a steady connection to a school. Without QoS, a degraded bandwidth signal is likely to affect everybody using the Internet. This is easily demonstrated if somebody in a home tries to upload a giant data file while somebody else is using Zoom – the Zoom connection can easily drop temporarily below the needed bandwidth threshold and either freeze or drop the connection.
  • Share Neighborhood Bandwidth. Unfortunately, a home using DSL or cable modems doesn’t only have to worry about how other in the home are using the bandwidth, because these services used shared networks within neighborhoods, and as the demand needs for the whole neighborhood increase, the quality of the bandwidth available to everybody degrades.
  • Physical Issues. ISPs don’t want to talk about it, but events like drop wires swinging in the wind can affect a DSL or cable modem connection. Cable broadband networks are also susceptible to radio interference – your connection will get a little worse when your neighbor is operating a blender or microwave oven.
  • ISP Limitations. All bandwidth is not the same. For example, the upload bandwidth in a cable company network uses the worse spectrum inside the cable network – the part that is most susceptible to interference. This never mattered in the past when everybody cared about download bandwidth, but an interference-laden 10 Mbps upload stream is not going to deliver a reliable 10 Mbps connection. There are a half dozen similar limitations that ISPs never talk about that affect available bandwidth.

The average home experiencing problems when working at home during the pandemic is unlikely to be able to fully diagnose the reasons for the poor bandwidth. It is fairly obvious if you are having problems with having multiple zoom connections if the home upload speed isn’t fast enough to accommodate all of the connections. But beyond the lack of broadband capacity, it is not easy for a homeowner to understand any other local problems affecting their broadband experience. The easiest fix for home broadband problems is for an ISP to offer and deliver faster speed, since excess capacity can overcome many of the other problems that might be plaguing a given home.

New Emphasis on Working from Home

One of the hottest topics in the news related to coronavirus is working from home. Companies of all sizes are telling employees to work from home as a way to help curb the spread of the virus. Companies without work-at-home policies are scrambling to define how to make this work to minimize disruption to their business.

Allowing employees to work at home is not a new phenomenon. Most large corporations have some portion of the workforce working at home at least part-time. Studies have shown that home-based employees are often more productive than those working in the office. Those working at home enjoy big savings, both in dollars and time, from not commuting to an office.

There are a few communities around the country that have offered incentives to attract employees who work from home. The first such program I heard of was in 2018 where Vermont offered a cash incentive of between $5,000 and $10,000 for families with a home-worker to relocated to the state. The state has an aging population and wanted to attract families with good incomes to help energize the local economy. The state recognized that the long-term local benefits to the state from attracting high-paying jobs is worth a lot more than the cash incentive they are offering.

Since then other communities have tried the same thing. I recently read about a similar effort in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which has been watching its population drop since 2016. In Tulsa, a foundation is fronting the $10,000 payments used to attract home workers to the community. There is a similar program in Topeka, Kansas and in northwest Alabama.

I’ve been working from home for twenty years, and during that time I’ve seen a big shift in the work-from-home movement. When I first worked from home, I didn’t know anybody else who was doing so. Over time that has changed and in my current neighborhood over a third of the homes on my block include at least one adult working from home. According to Bloomberg, about 4% of the full-time workforce, not counting self-employed people, now work from home. Adding in self-employed people means that work-from-home is a major segment of the economy.

Wall Street seems to have recognized the value of working at home. As I write this article the Dow Jones average has dropped over 11% since February 14th. During that same time, the stock price of Zoom, a company that facilitates remote meetings has climbed over 27%.

I’m sure that most of the people being sent home to work are going to eventually return to the office. However, this current crisis is likely to make many companies reexamine their work-from-home philosophy and policies. Companies that allow people to work from home, at least part-time, are going to be the least disrupted by future economic upheavals.

If you read my blog regulatory you knew what’s coming next. The one group of people who can’t work from home are those who can’t get a decent home broadband connection. Huge numbers of rural homes in the country still have no broadband option or can only buy broadband that is not sufficient for working from home. Most corporations test the home broadband connection before letting employees work from home, and homes can be disqualified due to poor download speed, poor upload speed, or poor latency. A home broadband connection that meets the FCC definition of broadband at 25/3 Mbps might still be deemed by a corporation to be inadequate for working from home.

My consulting firm CCG talked to a homeowner this week who moved to a rural area looking for an improved lifestyle. The wife works from home, and before they bought the new home they were assured that the broadband there was fast enough to support work at home. It turns out the home is served by a WISP that is delivering less than the advertised speed, and that working from home is impossible in the new home. This family is now facing a crisis caused by lack of good broadband – and there may be no solution for their problem.

Sadly, a whole lot of America is losing economically by not being able to attract and support good-paying jobs from those working at home. If a city like Tulsa is willing to pay $10,000 to attract one work-from-home employee, imagine the negative impact on rural counties where nobody can work from home.