My mom is a former librarian who taught me (what little I know) about html. She is online constantly for work and leisure—she shops, does research, checks her email, and streams PBS Frontline documentaries from her computer to her TV. She is technology savvy (and money-conscious) and when I told her that 80% of broadband users in the United States do not know the speed of their connection, she only paused a moment before telling me: “Oh, I have no idea what we get.” After recovering from my shame, I asked her to guess what she thinks she needs, at which point she hung up. So I did a little background for her:
Like most broadband consumers, my mom spends more time online and conducts a lot more of the business of her day-to-day life online than she did in 2002, when she first got broadband. While developing the National Broadband Plan, and in crafting policies for the future, the Commission is interested in projecting how consumer preferences and use of broadband Internet connections will change over time. Before we figure out what our networks should be able to do in the future, however, we need to have some idea of what we as consumers already use and expect from our connections.
The chart below shows the bandwidth requirements for the range of applications consumers and businesses use today. From basic email to enhanced video teleconferencing.
|Actual download speed (Mbps) |
|Actual download speed demands (Mbps) ||Example of applications/content providers |
(Speed impacts down/up time and render)
|- Basic download (or upload) usage ||- Basic email, E-book download |
- Web-browsing, job search, government website access
|- Streamed audio ||- PBS, Rhapsody, NPR, Pandora |
|- Voice over the Internet (VOIP) ||- Vonage, Skype, Net2Phone |
|- Basic interaction ||- Aleks (Online interactive education) |
- Pogo online games
- Instant Messaging
|0.3-0.5 ||- Basic streamed video ||- Consumer generated education videos |
(Speed impacts down/up time and render)
|- Large download (or upload) usage ||- Advanced web browsing |
- Social Networking, P2P, etc
- Medical Records download/sharing
|- Video-conference + VOIP ||- Lower definition telemedicine |
|1-5 ||- SD-quality streamed video ||- Streamed classroom lectures |
- Hulu.com, Vimeo, NetFlix
|- IP TV ||- IPTV |
|- 2-way advanced video interaction ||- Real-time interactive experiences & gaming |
|5-10+ ||- HP-quality streamed video ||- Broadcast quality HDTV |
- HD streamed University lecture
|- Enhanced video teleconferencing (HD quality or similar) ||- Video teleconference and TeleLearning |
- HD Telemedicine (diagnostic imaging)
So a user like my mom—who wants to have several browser tabs open, along with her email while watching a streamed TV show—probably requires download speeds between 1 and 4 Mbps. For her, video requires faster speeds than she needed for simple web browsing and e-mail, but most of the common video sites require relatively limited bandwidth; Hulu.com, for example, recommends a downstream bandwidth of 1,000 Kbps for smoothest playback while CNET TV recommends 2.5 Mbps minimum downstream speed for 720p HD videos and PBS offers both 800 Kbps and 300 Kbps streams.
My mom is probably slightly above average (she’ll love me for saying this) in her bandwidth requirements—according to comScore, in 2009, e-mail and web browsing accounted for almost 80% of the median consumer’s data usage.
Armed with this information, and in an attempt to get a ballpark figure for her subscribed speed, I sent my mom a link to Testmyisp.com to test her actual download and upload speeds. Based on data collected by the FCC and others, we know that in 2009, the mean and median advertised download speeds consumers purchased were between 7 and 8 Mbps. Yet, the Commission also learned, from Akamai and comScore, that U.S. consumers experienced an average of 4 Mbps and a median speed of 3 Mbps—about 50% of the advertised speed. Now I can tell her she should probably subscribe to an advertised service between 2 and 8 Mbps—if she ever calls me back.