Do We Really Need Gigabit To The Home? - InformationWeek

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Dan Tesch
Dan Tesch

Do We Really Need Gigabit To The Home?

Reports say the U.S. is losing the bandwidth race, but is this a competition we need to be in?

I recently read a blog titled “Yes, American broadband sucks: Here’s the real reason why,” and it put me over the edge. I’ve been listening to silly arguments for bringing gigabit to the home ever since the Google fiber craze.

The blog describes how the United States is falling behind the rest of the world when it comes to Internet speeds. It cites a New York Times article that says broadband speeds in Riga, Latvia are two-and-a-half times as fast as what’s available in San Antonio, Texas. The Times article also claims that fast broadband spurs economic growth.

Even if Latvians enjoy faster connections than Texans, I’m really curious how broadband speeds of more than a few Mbps for average households can have a material impact on the economy. A 6Mbps connection could easily support several home users simultaneously shopping on multiple e-commerce sites, downloading iTunes, streaming Spotify, and so on. Do Americans really need gigabit to the home?

For the record, I don’t dispute that we lack competition in the broadband market. Customer service and pricing might improve if we had more players. Realistically though, how many companies out there have the deep pockets to build the infrastructure required to go up against the incumbents? As for the incumbents, they aren’t building new high-speed networks because of simple economics: people don’t really need it, so the broadband companies can skip a generation or two.

Let’s look at some facts. The following are bandwidth requirements of a few popular services:

  • Pandora recommends “consistent bandwidth of at least 150 kbps.” If you want high-quality audio, Pandora recommends at least 300 kbps of bandwidth.
  • Netflix says you need 5Mbps for HD-quality streaming video, and 12Mbps for 3D quality.
  • Hulu Plus says “For Standard Definition videos we recommend a downstream bandwidth of at least 1.5 Mbps for a smooth playback experience. For High Definition videos we recommend a downstream bandwidth of at least 3 Mbps.”
  • Skype’s recommended download/upload speed for group video of seven or more people is 8Mbps.

Let’s not leave out the gamers; various posts on Tom’s Hardware forums suggest gaming requirements are similarly modest.

Even if you used all these services simultaneously, we’re only talking tens of megabits. My wife and I frequently work from home over VPN and remote desktop. My kids could be using online services at the same time, and the 20Mbps that speed-test sites tell me I’m getting is more than adequate.

Still not convinced? I run the network for my company of about 100 users. As I walk around I see people on YouTube and all sorts of other sites, and I’m sure many are shopping online during the work day. We have site-to-site VPNs to several data centers. We have developers deploying software multiple times per day. We have engineers performing all manner of load testing, and so on. My NetFlow data even lets me know there is Torrent activity.

You know what my SNMP data tells me? We average 12.5Mbps to our main data center, and 2.9Mbps to our public websites. We have closet switch uplinks that support around 40 users that sometimes might peak at 30Mbps, but my busy company doesn’t come close to filling a gigabit pipe.

I realize this traffic may not be typical; I’m sure there are companies that find ways to consume many times the bandwidth we do and still not have enough. But does the American home need a gigabit connection? I’d say not quite yet--and the providers know it. For the foreseeable future, fiber to the home is like a Bugatti Veyron in rush hour traffic!

What would I really like when it comes to Internet service? I’m tired of not getting the speed I’m paying for, and I am particularly annoyed at how often I have to reboot my brand new router when it loses connectivity. A more consistent and stable network would be more valuable than a bigger pipe.

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User Rank: Apprentice
7/31/2015 | 1:39:11 AM
Upload is the real weakness of most connections
Good article, but you seem to miss something important. While 25 megs down is fine for the downloading needs of the average home, you probably aren't getting enough upload bandwidth (usually around 5 megs upload with that download speed), if video conferncing is being used along with gaming and other services. Upload is the limiting factor, not download, and getting the upload up to 25 megs with maybe 50 megs down, would really be enough for pretty much any home. Getting more upload really costs right now.
User Rank: Apprentice
1/22/2014 | 12:55:18 PM
Re: Finding Ways To Fill The Pipe
I agree Drew, and lack of decent access is making a very large digital divide. The reason there are gigabit networks being built is because a proper network is built with fibre, and its just as easy to put a gigabit through it as it is to put 10 or 20 meg.

The argument isn't really about speed, its about the incumbents trying to keep us shackled to a copper phone network, which can't deliver high data transfer at affordable rates, nor can it deliver on long line lengths.

Far better to invest in the infrastructure that can deliver whatever people are going to need rather than patching up an obsolete network to appease shareholders.
User Rank: Apprentice
1/22/2014 | 12:21:46 PM
Re: Finding Ways To Fill The Pipe
I'm also in agreement, that I would rather NOT have to reset my router a couple times/ week or troubleshoot with Comcast's finest on a regular basis.  Home network optimization is far more important to me than keeping up with Latvia's internet availability!   
Drew Conry-Murray
Drew Conry-Murray,
User Rank: Ninja
1/22/2014 | 9:44:03 AM
Finding Ways To Fill The Pipe
I agree that gigabit for just for gigabit's sake doesn't make a lot of sense. But it also seems like however fast our computers get or however big the bandwidth pipe becomes, we always find ways to fill it.
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