What’s the real bandwidth story?

Mike PaxtonThe recent release of the FCC's National Broadband Plan shined a spotlight on bandwidth, a topic that continues to be somewhat obscure to many consumers.

According to the FCC’s plan, by 2020, 100 million U.S. households should have access to an “affordable high-speed broadband service” providing speeds of 100 Mbps downstream and 50 Mbps upstream. In addition to access, the plan states that the “vast majority” of these 100 million households should be using a service that provides these speeds.

As a goal, the FCC’s plan seems like a good one. After all, who doesn’t support faster broadband service? At the same time, however, discussions about broadband service speeds often lead to the question: “What speeds are broadband subscribers actually receiving?”

To better address this question, In-Stat conducts an annual survey that measures the amount of bandwidth currently available to residential broadband subscribers in the United States.

Using an online speed test, we ask a standing panel of more than 500 broadband subscribers to measure and report their downstream and upstream speeds, in addition to reporting the type of access technology they use, the identity of their service provider and their level of satisfaction with their current broadband speeds.

Key findings produced by this survey, which we most recently conducted in December, include:

  • In the U.S., the majority of residential broadband connections were either cable modem or DSL connections – 86 percent of the survey respondents used one of the two.
  • U.S. residential broadband subscribers are generally satisfied with the current speed of their broadband service. More than 79 percent of the survey respondents stated they were either "very satisfied" or "somewhat satisfied" with their current connection.
  • The average downstream speed for all of the survey respondents was 7.12 Mbps, an increase of 28 percent over the average download speed in December 2008.
  • The average upstream speed for all of the survey respondents was 2.42 Mbps, an increase of 16 percent over the results recorded in December 2008.

Based on the average speeds reported by the survey respondents, broadband service providers in the U.S. have some work to do before we get anywhere near the FCC’s goal of 100 Mbps downstream and 50 Mbps upstream. However, it should also be noted that the annual rate of increase in speeds is certainly trending in the right direction.

In addition, we looked closely at the speeds being offered by different broadband access technologies. In terms of raw downstream speed, fiber-to-the-home service provided the fastest downstream connection, followed by cable modem service.

Downstream speeds by access technology were: FTTH: 13.82 Mbps; cable modem: 9.44 Mbps; fixed wireless: 6.73 Mbps; DSL: 3.07 Mbps. Upstream speeds by access technology were: FTTH: 6.96 Mbps; cable modem: 2.6 Mbps; fixed wireless: 4.58 Mbps; DSL: 0.94 Mbps.

Both the downstream and upstream speeds of FTTH service were clearly superior to other access technologies. At the same time, it’s interesting to note that cable modem service subscribers were averaging more than 9 Mbps downstream, a speed almost three times as fast as DSL service. Focusing closer on cable modem services, the survey also revealed that:

  • Fixed wireless service subscribers (who were mostly WiMAX-based service subscribers) actually had faster upstream speeds than cable modem service subscribers. However, the number of fixed wireless end-users accounted for only 2 percent of the total respondents.
  • An increasing number of broadband service providers now offer ultra-highspeed broadband services with downstream speeds of up to 100 Mbps. Almost 3 percent of the survey respondents had highspeed broadband connections of more than 25 Mbps downstream. Almost all of these service providers have either an FTTH connection or subscribe to a cable modem service using the DOCSIS 3.0 cable modem standard.
  • Forty percent of cable modem subscribers had downstream speeds of more than 10 Mbps.
  • Cable modem service speeds also stood out among the broadband access technologies due to their rapid rate of growth. The average downstream speed recorded in December 2009 increased at an annual rate of 33 percent in comparison to the speed recorded in December 2008.

The results from this survey highlight that cable modem service continues to offer some of the fastest-available service speeds in the U.S. At the same time, it shows that broadband services relying on other access technologies are ramping up their speeds, too.

Given the widening availability of DOCSIS 3.0-based services, we expect cable modem service speeds to increase by another 30 percent in 2010. In-Stat will report on the actual changes in broadband speeds sometime in early 2011.

Next month, BigBand Networks CTO Ran Oz will take on the Open Mic column.