One of the many aspects of modern daily life that will likely change dramatically under President Biden is internet technology – and specifically many of the rules and regulations overseen by the Federal Communications Commission. During the last four years, Chairman Pai ran the FCC with a self-described “light touch” approach to internet regulation. Now that Biden’s new Acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel has taken up the reigns, she has already made it clear that this administration is keen to tackle the bandwidth disparity available to low-income homes as well as to households and businesses outside of major metropolitan areas. One of the details I am most excited to see moving forward, as a technology fan, is a concerted, funded effort to improve broadband mapping. This "map" can provide the information Congress needs to make responsible, fact-based decisions about how and where to spend tax dollars to best address the disparity in bandwidth available to major cities, but not available in the rest of our country.
Since many office workers are approaching the one-year anniversary in working from home, it got me thinking about how much bandwidth each of our devices and software programs use, let alone how much bandwidth all that work (and distraction) can eat up in cost each month.
A common measurement of average internet speed across the USA in 2017 was less than 19Mbps. I don’t have to share my home bandwidth with anybody, but I have marveled at how my neighbors with school-age kids are somehow sharing enough bandwidth (and laptops) to do everybody’s school and work online.
I did some digging to find out if home bandwidth has become faster or slower since 2017, and whether there is a difference between average speeds in a city like Boston vs our area. It turns out that and organization called "SpeedTest" is reporting a global jump in average bandwidth speeds. As of December 2020, the US average fixed broadband (usually defined as cable connection in the home) has shot up to 174Mbps and now has the 10th speediest bandwidth in the world.
So how does the math play out for working at home? I found several at home internet use “calculators” that walk a household through figuring out how much bandwidth their devices use in a month, and therefore how much to budget for monthly cost. However, I was surprised not to be able to find resources to help households calculate how much bandwidth demand each of their devices and software are using – at the same time – at any given minute of a workday.
Let’s say you’re a family of four with two adults working from home and two kids attending school from home. What are the kinds of software likely to be running that require bandwidth during any given work and school day?
Zoom/Microsoft Teams/Telehealth services averages around 3Mbps per participant on a video meeting
Communication software (email, skype, Dropbox, Google Sync, WeChat, WhatsApp, Slack, Google Chat, Facebook) that remain active and syncing data throughout the day range from around 1.3Mb per day to 2Mbps per service
Adobe Connect Subscriptions (Photoshop, Reader, etc) 512Kbps
An HD video requires around 5Mbps per stream/device
Mobile phones connected to your home wifi can easily double bandwidth demands because many apps are set to keep in sync with all other instances of software running on both phones and laptops
Spotify/Music Streaming Services 2Mbps per song
Smart Speakers/Internet Connected Devices (iHomeetc) 36Mb per day
For spit ball math purposes, let’s assume the following for a family of four:
Two adults both work full time from home
Kids are in remote school sessions
Everybody has a mobile phone
The house has at least one smart device
My back-of-the-napkin math calculates that it is impossible for my neighbors to work remotely, while their kids attend remote school, using cable internet that cost less than $120 bucks a month. Yikes! While today’s COVID-caused bandwidth demands might not continue indefinitely, I think it is clear that household bandwidth demands for work and school will never return to pre-COVID levels.
Since my calculations are colloquial, it’s clear to me that Rosenworcel is on the right track in saying there needs to be "maps before money.” "[F]or too long, the FCC has lacked the data it needs about precisely where service is and is not throughout the country," she said. "The good news is that Congress just appropriated $65 million to help the agency develop better data for improved maps so we can get started on this in earnest."
Only a handful of countries have managed to successfully couple public money and private investment to develop smart, cutting-edge bandwidth technologies at speeds that everyone in their country can access equally. The good news in being a little behind is that we don’t have to re-invent the wheel others have already designed. It’s also a hopeful sign that members on both sides of the aisle in Congress are supporting the FCC’s effort to dive in and figure out how best to improve access to this vital utility to all of us, no matter where we live.