Maybe speed isn’t everything when it comes to connectivity

  • Despite all the hype about gigabit offerings on the market, a significant number of U.S. households still fall short of 100/20 Mbps speeds

  • For bandwidth-constrained households, some ISPs and vendors are exploring alternative routes to enhance network performance

  • Traffic prioritization tools within the home, for instance, could be a more cost-effective approach than putting further investment into their access networks

Speed is often at the forefront of telecom talk: “Gig this, gig that,” or “Look how fast this service or that product can go!”

This week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced it would change its definition for fixed broadband service to 100/20 Mbps as part of a broader report on the state of broadband deployments in the U.S.

Yet speed is but one thread in the tapestry of connectivity and user experience.

Mark Giles, an analyst at Ookla, noted that despite the FCC's new broadband definition, a significant number of U.S. households still fall short of 100/20 Mbps speeds. For these households, more investment in access networks would be the obvious fix.

However, “that takes time,” Giles said, and could be uneconomical for network operators in some locations. To address bandwidth-constrained households, some ISPs and vendors are exploring alternative routes to enhance network performance.

Traffic prioritization tools within the home, for instance, offer a potential solution for the bandwidth-constrained. In one example last month, Plume announced its Network Priority tool that allows people to prioritize a traffic category (streaming, gaming, video calls, etc.), a person or a device within a home for a period of time.

In the U.K., BT offers a “Complete Wi-Fi” solution, which includes a home router and an additional access point. If that’s not sufficient for the end user, then it offers up to three additional access points for free.

Other router manufacturers offer traffic QoS prioritization options. Although, Giles said these settings are often embedded within complex settings menus and are designed more with the home networking expert in mind, rather than your average consumer. 

The key to driving user adoption of tools like this, he added, is to make the interface easy to use, and automate where possible.

“Most ISPs and vendors see this as a revenue opportunity,” Giles told Fierce Telecom. 

Has speed become ‘less relevant’?

As internet speeds on the market skyrocket, the gap between available speeds and actual usage is widening.

OpenVault CEO Mark Trudeau highlighted that a third of subscribers tracked by the company have adopted gig-speed connections, yet most subscribers couldn’t possibly use the bandwidth available to them.

Speed has become “less relevant,” Trudeau said, now that the industry has reached multi-gig levels. Operators have done a good job of upgrading their networks to the point where they've got head room for “many, many years ahead,” and they don't really need to keep increasing speeds at the rate that they have been.

“A lot of the speed discussions and things that operators are doing are really for marketing purposes as much as anything,” Trudeau added. “And I think that bears itself out when you look at the data and realize you can't even use the speeds that are available now.”

That said, he also cautioned we exactly don't know when the "next killer app" is going to come out and raise bandwidth needs.

Ok, fine. Speed still matters

None of this is to say bandwidth isn’t still important. And OpenVault represents a lot of cable operators, which sometimes tend to downplay bandwidth speeds.

Behavioral shifts in usage patterns, particularly in the wake of COVID-19, have reshaped the landscape of connectivity. A lot of subscribers don't have enough bandwidth going into their home and remain unaware of their evolving bandwidth needs, Trudeau said. Oftentimes, that's mistaken for capacity issues on the access network layer, but "that’s not necessarily true."

There are still “plenty” of subscribers that inevitably need a bigger pipe going into their home, and we shouldn't forget about the customers stuck at the lowest end of the speeds available.

"They're the ones that are going to be calling into customer care," Trudeau continued.

Driving down latency

Commissioner Nathan Simington dissented in voting to approve the FCC’s report, which introduced several regulatory changes in addition to the fixed broadband benchmark lift. Despite his overall disapproval of the report, Simington praised it for considering latency.

Latency and bandwidth are both important parts of network performance, but they represent different characteristics. Latency, or the time that data takes to transfer across the network, is an important consideration when it comes to user experience.

To better provide internet service for everyone, Simington said driving down latency will enable users to tap into new interactive internet applications, ideally without much interruption.

This does not necessarily mean new rules or impositions on ISPs, he added, but might instead involve more initiatives with router manufacturers and Wi-Fi vendors.