How Fast Does Broadband Really Have to Be?

There now is debate over whether 10 Mbps or 25 Mbps should provide the baseline minimum definition of “broadband.” Leaving aside the commercial dimensions for a moment, the 25-Mbps standard is a bit problematic, as a “one size fits all” definition.

In a larger sense, the floor does not indicate the present ceiling. In most urban areas, people can buy 100-Mbps and faster service if they want it, on fixed networks. Also, speeds only matter in relation to what people want to do with their access.

And speed does not always take care of latency issues, which for some users already is the prime performance issue.

Beyond some ever-changing point, any single user can only effectively “use” so much bandwidth. Whether that minimum is 8 Mbps or some higher number, there is a point beyond which having access to faster speeds does not improve user experience.

For mobile apps, there arguably are few, if any, routine apps used by consumers that require more than about 15 Mbps.

For fixed accounts, there is debate about whether gaming or high-definition video has the most stringent requirements. Some suggest 4 Mbps is enough for gaming. Others think 10 Mbps to 25 Mbps is required.
Minimum Download Speed (Mbps)
General Usage
General Browsing and Email
Streaming Online Radio
Less than 0.5
VoIP Calls
Less than 0.5
5 - 25
5 - 25
File Downloading
Social Media
Watching Video
Streaming Standard Definition Video
3 - 4
Streaming High Definition (HD) Video
5 - 8
Streaming Ultra HD 4K Video
Video Conferencing
Standard Personal Video Call (e.g., Skype)
HD Personal Video Call (e.g., Skype)
HD Video Teleconferencing
Game Console Connecting to the Internet
Online Multiplayer

For fixed accounts, the major variable is likely to be the number of concurrent users, not the actual apps being used at any time. In other words, it typically is multi-user households that require speeds in excess of 25 Mbps.

Basic web surfing and email might require less than 5 Mbps, according to Netgear. Web surfing or single-user streaming might require 10 Mbps.

Online gaming might require speeds of 10 Mbps to 25 Mbps. Beyond that, consumer connections mostly hinge on the number of concurrent users, assuming each concurrent user is a gamer or watches lots of high-definition video.

By some estimates, users heavily reliant on cloud storage might need 50 Mbps per user.

All those estimates probably assume one bandwidth-intensive activity at a time, by any single user, is the pattern. As always, there is a difference between “peak” potential usage and “routine” usage, which will be lower.

Also, it is not so clear how fast the typical fixed connection now operates.

On one hand, average access speeds in 2016 were, by some measures, already in excess of 50 Mbps. So it really does not matter whether the floor is set at 10 Mbps or 25 Mbps. Other estimates of average speed in 2016 suggested the average was in excess of 31 Mbps.  

On the other hand, In 2017, the “average” U.S. internet access connection ran at 18.75 Mbps, by some estimates. If that is true, then the definitions do matter.

Using the 25-Mbps standard, many--perhaps most--common access services--including Wi-Fi, many fixed access connections, satellite access and mobile connections (at some locations and times) are not “broadband,” even if people actually use them in that way.

The definitions matter most where it comes to mobile internet access, which arguably is the way most people actually use internet access on any given day.

Fixed network internet access subscriptions in the United States have declined in recent years, falling from 70 percent in 2013 to 67 percent in 2015, for example.

Some 13 percent of U.S. residents rely only on smartphones for home internet access, one study suggests. Logically, that is more common among single-person households, or households of younger, unrelated persons, than families. But it is a significant trend.

Some suggest that service providers are actively pushing mobile services as an alternative to fixed access, for example.

In fact, some studies suggest that U.S. fixed internet access peaked in 2009, and is slowly declining, though other studies suggest growth continues. Still, some studies suggest U.S.  fixed network subscriptions declined in 2016, for example.

The point is that it is getting harder to clearly delineate internet access by the type of connection. And, until 5G is ubiquitous, mobile, satellite, non-5G fixed wireless and public Wi-Fi speeds will lag.

That, it can be argued, means a single definition does not work for every access method and network. Though 5G likely will change matters, access speed on most networks other than cable TV or fiber-to-home platforms will vary dramatically. And those other networks arguably carry most of the traffic, and represent much of the value of internet access.

That is not an argument for maintaining “slow” access on any network, but simply to note that people use all sorts of networks daily, and most of those networks, while providing satisfactory experience, do not run as fast as fixed networks of the cable TV or fiber to  home variety.

In other words, it arguably makes little sense to define out of existence many access connections that work well enough to support nearly-all the apps and use cases buyers actually want to use.  

In early 2017, the typical U.S. mobile user, for example,  had routine access at speeds ranging from about 15 Mbps to 21 Mbps.

Public hotspot speeds are less than 10 Mbps, according to a study by Ooma. The Hughesnet and Exede satellite services now operate at 25 Mbps, in the fastest retail tier.

That, of course, is the reason some prefer using the 25-Mbps standard: it creates a “problem” to be solved.

But is is a bit problematic when “most connections” able to support nearly-all consumer end user requirements are deemed “not broadband.”
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