Federal Communications Commission

What kind of user are you? Or: things my mom taught me about broadband.

August 11th, 2010 by Ellen Satterwhite

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
-, Vimeo, NetFlix

- 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;, 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 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.

10 Responses to “What kind of user are you? Or: things my mom taught me about broadband.”

  1. Guest says:

    So, the Commission is proposing to tax everyone's phone and broadband service in America so that people who live in the middle of nowhere can get 4Mbps and.....WATCH streamed sports on their computers?

    Is this some type of joke?

  2. Brett Glass says:

    Is your mom willing to pay between $200 and $800? If she lived in a rural area, where wholesale bandwidth prices (to the ISP, not even to the end user!) can be $100 or more per Mbps, she'd have to pay at least that.

    The FCC needs to focus on the issue known as "special access" to bring these prices -- which are set artificially high as an anticompetitive tactic -- down to Earth. Alas, it has given "special access" a low priority, making a .3-.5 Mbps connection all that most rural users will want to pay for. Time for the Commission to shift its priorities to things which will foster competition, stop anticompetitive behaviors, and help consumers!

  3. Guest says:

    Thanks, I also agree this is a useful article/table. Any chance of getting the source(s) used to produce the table?

    Jean Plymale
    Virginia Tech eCorridors Program
    Blacksburg Virginia

  4. One of the 3% says:

    I am one of the 3% of the people who live in 40% of the USA not easlily covered by the large carriers. Our cooperative has provided services in this area with the support of the USF system and continue to committ to upgrade the network in order to meet the demands for bandwidth by customers and content providers.

    The network is evolving always and a fixed bandwidth speed at a single point in time will not meet the demands from customers and content providers. A one time infusion of investment is limited to the life of that technology before continued upgrades are required. Funding mechanisms for rural cooperatives who are serving these areas need to be ongoing to allow for the evolution of the network.

  5. Guest says:

    Very useful article!
    Thanks for taking the time to assemble the data and references, Ellen.

    RW (Scotty) Scott
    Communications Policy & Regulation Division
    Fairfax County Government

  6. Mary says:

    Quote - "So, the Commission is proposing to tax everyone's phone and broadband service in America so that people who live in the middle of nowhere can get 4Mbps and.....WATCH streamed sports on their computers?

    Is this some type of joke?"

    Excuse me, some of us don't want broadband JUST to watch streamed sports on our computers. I happen to be a student at a technical school, and a lot of my classes require work from home. Next semester I have a course that has me doing online virtualization, not something that takes up a tiny bit of bandwidth.

    But on the same token as your comment, why shouldn't we have the same access to things like that as everyone else? It's not our fault the internet in "the middle of nowhere" is spotty and overpriced.

    The only thing I can get here and afford it Hughesnet satellite. The latency is terrible, and the speed for price ratio is atrocious. $80 a month for 1.5 Mbps. That's it. I could move into town and pay $45 for 25mbps, does that sound very fair to you?

    Just because you live in an area where it's easy to setup an internet infrastructure doesn't mean you have the right to yell about what the rest of us might do if we had access to it.

    BTW - You're already being taxed for it, just under another name. When you pay your cell phone bill, the Universal Service Tax? It was formerly to provide phone service to low income individuals. Guess what tax is being used for the broadband movement now? Yup.

  7. Guest says:

    Also you should note 2 other things are important in this;
    1) that you can do some things to in a sense "speed up your connection" if you are stuck with a really slow line. There are download accelerators you can install or there is one build onto the Opera Web browser
    2) Net Neutrality - It doesn't matter what speed you have if some ISP decides to slow you down because they don't have a commercial deal with the site you like going to...

  8. JD Lien says:

    It's not like it is some kind of obscure niche demand for people to watch streaming video (even HD video) on their computer these days - it's one of the primary uses of the Internet now. These kinds of arguments about typical use scenarios seem to harken back to the casual Internet use that was common in the '90s.

    As far as Rural Internet is concerned, there are solutions available these days, although none of them are great. The problem should be solved by pervasive mobile Internet from cellular providers, although currently the fees for that are still too high.

    On the go, of course, mobile browsing can be done with a browser like Opera Mini which is optimized for the low bandwidth scenarios, but if the connection is slow, it won't be so pleasant for desktop computing... this will be solved with WiMax and 4G technologies when they reach substantial market penetration.

  9. Islander says:

    Why are Networks allowed to block online video programs in Puerto Rico, USA with a caption that reads: Video available only in the US or This video is not available in your geographic region. These are unacceptable restrictions that make US residents in Puerto Rico feel like 2nd class citizens.

  10. Georgian says:

    To whom it may concern:

    I'm really in support of the tremendous effort the FCC has undertaken to curb and control service providers to what is fair to consumers. For example, not to long ago, the FCC inquired cell phone companies to explain each of their contract early termination fees, and how each company calculates them for different equipment subsidies. I believe this is the first step to keep cell phone companies fair and honest. On the other hand, I believe the FCC should get deeply involved with internet service providers and their anti-competitive and monopolistic ways.... Let me explain.

    How is it possible that I am being charged by AT&T $47.95 for internet service, "up to 6.0 Mbps download speed", when after performing broadband speed tests on the internet, even a speed test on this site, I am averaging 1.5 Mbps? I believe this is not fair to us, the consumers, who expect the service advertised, and are willing to pay for it. Internet service providers are using the term "up to" from their advertised download speeds to loosely. This is not just an AT&T issue, this is also an issue with Comcast, Charter, and the like. If this is the speed I will have available with AT&T, my bill should reflect an adjustment for this. I propose that internet service providers be required to keep logs of actual speed at every service location through out a billing cycle, and adjust their monthly bill accordingly. For example, if under my current rate plan, I have a download speed of 6.0Mbps through out the whole month available for my use, I will more than gladly pay my full rate of $47.95. But in the case of AT&T's current service, where their customer service actually claim my reduced download speed is in fact a direct result of AT&T's U-verse service roll-out in the Atlanta area, and not being physically prepared to deal with all of the new download heavy customers they now have, I should be able to pay less than the full rate. I believe my monthly bill should reflect the current service speeds provided. If their monthly service rate for 1.5 Mbps is actually $19.95, and the average speed for the complete billing cycle is 1.5Mbps, I should be billed $19.95 for this month, and any subsequent months I have received this actual measured speed. Or may be have monthly bills adjusted based on average speed recorded through out the month, based on every half an hour samples of speed tests to each service location (bill modified by $0.50 per every 0.5Mbps difference from the service the customer is signed up to). This method will actually help to regulate the industry, have companies provide good, quality service and continue to further make companies more competitive. Obviously, the current way internet service providers are doing business is not the most optimal way for customers, where a simple "up to XXMbps download speed" my be used to falsely advertise a service, leaving customers without having any legal recourse for claims.

    FCC and congress, please take a look at this issue, and include this on your current agenda of inquiries and efforts for net neutrality, which I loudly applaud, and continue to protect the interests of American citizens regarding communications.



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