The true power of broadband connectivity has been unleashed by the global pandemic

© Deutsche Telekom

© Deutsche Telekom

  • The broadband genie is well and truly out of the bottle
  • Growth in broadband usage will continue to increase in 2021
  • North American monthly average usage could hit 480 GB to 500 GB next year
  • In Europe, the conservative estimate is between 240 GB and 270 GB

Since March the entire world has been subject to rolling regimes of lockdowns as Covid-19 has wreaked global havoc. Unsurprisingly, broadband usage has gone through the roof as individuals, enterprises and governmental, health service agencies and the requirements of remote education have relied more and more on video and other high bandwidth apps and services to maintain communication and economic and social life.

Throughout the progress of the pandemic, OpenVault, the Hoboken, New Jersey-headquartered provider of industry analytics and SaaS technology to broadband operators, has been monitoring the increased use of broadband across three key areas, overall usage, business-hours usage and the upstream. In his latest blog, OpenVault CEO Mark Trudeau puts some flesh on the bones of the base figures acquired so far and from them extrapolates likely broadband demand in 2021.

When OpenVault began tracking changes in broadband consumption patterns in mid-March of this benighted year, early figures show that business-hours consumption at the end of Q1, 2020 was up by more than 50 per cent on what it had been at the beginning of the quarter. 

On the home front, analysis showed that in April, at the start of Q2, domestic broadband usage surged to a peak of 402.8 GB-per-household per month, up from the 273.5 GB registered for the same period in 2019. Meanwhile, upstream usage also surged to unprecedented levels as masses of people began to work and be educated from home. Overall, across the three key areas broadband usage rose by 47 per cent overall and the levels reached in Q1 were within striking distance of the growth that was forecast for the end of Q4, 2020 i.e. in just 15 days time. By the end of April this year broadband consumption was close to 460 GB per month.

The greatest increase in consumption is attributed to what OpenVault call "power users" who consume 1 TB or more, and “extreme power users,” who chew up 2 TB or more. Astonishingly, by the end of this March, a full 10 per of broadband subscribers were power users, up by 138 per cent in Q1 2019.

Obviously working from home together with the lockdowns and the travel restrictions imposed at the beginning of the pandemic were the root cause of the increase in demand and some service providers reported that their networks were under strain even as they relaxed broadband quotas. In Q1 in the US, subscribers responded to the relaxations by upping their consumption. 

Those with usage-based plans consumed 49.05 per cent more broadband than they had previously while those on flat-rate billing plans increased their consumption by 44.42 per cent. Meanwhile subscriptions to gigabit-speed services increased by 97 per cent in Q1, with most of the increased demand coming between mid- to late-March. In the event,  broadband outages were rare as service providers and telcos rose to the challenges of shifting patterns of increased broadband usage and adapted their network management and performance capabilities to meet the new demand and kept services going. They also made plenty of money.

1 TB and more "power users" will make up 11 per cent of US subscribers next year

Broadband consumption continued to increase during Q2 and Q3 but not at the same rates as experienced in Q1. Upstream consumption rose 5.3 per cent mainly on the increased use of videoconferencing for business, educational and lifestyle purposes. Indeed, between the end of Q2, 2019 and Q2, 2020 upstream consumption was up 56 per cent year-over-year as consumer usage increasingly extended across multiple devices simultaneously.

Furthermore, even though in Q2 (during the comparatively relaxed spring and summer months) consumption fell back to 380 GB from the 402 GB level hit in QI, usage was still 36 per cent up on the pre-pandemic level of 280 GB recorded at the end of  Q4, 2019. With relaxed usage quotas in place, subscribers on usage-based billing increased their broadband consumption by 42 per cent year-on-year. Over in Europe, average use in Q2 fell to 221.6 GB from the peak of 227 GB recorded in Q1, 2020 but was up by 30 per cent from the 170.2 GB recorded for Q2, 2019. 

Looking to the future, Matt Trudeau says "conservative projection for average monthly broadband use in 2021 would be 10 per cent growth in North America or 430 - 445 GB per subscriber, but monthly averages already are pushing past 480 GB and perhaps even 500 GB". He adds, "In Europe, our conservative baseline is 240 - 250 GB, but could exceed 270 GB under the right conditions". The OpenVault CEO points out that it is to be expected that those levels of consumption will abate "when conditions ease".

Furthermore and "regardless of the variables, we expect to eclipse a milestone in North America for the percentage of power users who consume 1 TB or more of data per month. We believe it will reach 10 per cent to 11 per cent - a 14 per cent or more increase over 2020 – and it could go as high as 13 per cent to 14 per cent while lockdowns are in place". 

Meanwhile, in Europe, the projection is that "power users" will account for 1.5 per cent of all subscribers under normal conditions which translates to a 12 per cent increase year-on-year. Matt Trudeau adds, ominously, that "numbers could reach 2.5 per cent to 2.7 per cent under a worst-case pandemic scenario".

OpenVault’s main research is based on the actual usage of more than a million broadband subscribers through the US and shows that even after the first peak of increased demand moderated as winter gave way to spring and broadband demand fell back to some extent, an overall increase in consumption had become, and remains, the norm. What has happened is that after all the years of marketing budgets and advertising campaigns whose purpose was to promote fast Internet access and drive up subscriptions and usage plans, the response to the pandemic by the public, enterprises and government agencies has demonstrated the true power of broadband connectivity in ways that might never have happened otherwise.

Downstream broadband across networks built for high peak activity handled the increased demand very well and they continue to do so. However, as OpenVault points out, surges in  upstream traffic, caused mainly by videoconferencing, big file uploads and online video gaming have put parts of some networks in jeopardy of overload and outage and re-configurations and increased capex on network enhancements will be necessary if, as seems a racing certainly, the new usage patterns and increased network traffic shaped by Covid-19 will remain largely in place e=once when the pandemic is over. The bandwidth genie is out of the bottle and it's not going to climb back inside.

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