Despite Gigabit Hype, Internet Access Speed is Not the U.K. or U.S. Experience Bottleneck

Bragging rights and therefore marketing advantages are believed to accrue to Internet service providers with the highest perceived Internet access speeds.

Some--if not most--of that marketing hype apparently is misplaced, a new study by Ofcom, the U.K. communications regulator, might suggest.

The study found that “access speed” matters substantially at downstream speeds of 5 Mbps and lower. In other words, “speed matters” for user experience when overall access speed is low.

For downstream speeds of 5 Mbps to 10 Mbps, the downstream speed matters somewhat.

But at 10 Mbps or faster speeds, the actual downstream speed has negligible to no impact on
end user experience. Since the average downstream speed in the United Kingdom now is about 23 Mbps, higher speeds--whatever the perceived marketing advantages--have scant impact on end user application experience. Some 85 percent of U.K. fixed network Internet access customers have service at 10 Mbps or faster.

Investing too much in high speed access is, as a business issue as investing too little. The important insight is that it is perception that now matters most in the United Kingdom and United States, not the actual threshold required to provide reasonable end user experience of Internet applications such as web browsing and streaming video.

Average access speeds in the United States are 10 Mbps, according to Akamai. Average speeds are 32 Mbps, according to Ookla. Another study shows that average Internet access speeds in the United Kingdom and United States are equivalent, in fact.  

The quality of the upstream path and in-home network have some impact, at all speed ranges, but at a dramatically lower level as speeds climb above 10 Mbps.  

One finding was surprising. The Ofcom tests of end-to-end user experience suggest that web browsing is significantly affected by upstream and downstream access speeds, the home network and the Internet service provider’s network interconnection policies.

Both the upstream and downstream speeds affect user experience of streaming video, while voice experience is, relatively speaking, barely affected.

Those are important findings. The quality of the broadband experience is not solely dependent on
access speed. In-home wiring (including Wi-Fi performance) and peering arrangements etween internet service providers can also be important.

“Indeed, for connections with a download speed greater than 10Mbps, access speed appears to become less significant than these other factors,” Ofcom says.

At connection speeds above the range of 5 Mbps to 10Mbps, though, the relationship breaks down and broadband connection speed is no longer an important determinant of performance, Ofcom says.

The important observation is that elements of the end-to-end value chain--other than access speed--now are becoming greater bottlenecks.
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