September 16, 2014 Jessica Sims
Is Your Broadband Too FAST?

Is Your Broadband Too FAST?

Some may think that the title of the article implies heresy due to the fact that there is a belief that there is no such thing as performance that is ‘too fast’ right?  Well, maybe.  Let’s explore the possible uses for broadband and the ways in which ultra-fast plans make things that much better, as well as how companies like Verizon and AT&T use bandwidth for more than just Internet access.  So, is there such a thing as ‘too fast’ when it comes to broadband?  Not really…

Usage vs. Performance

Performance is generally a function of necessity in the networking industry.  This means that consumers are usually wise to select a speed level that meets their needs.  For example, Netflix suggests that an hour of streaming best-quality HD content could consume up to 2.3 GB.  Translating bytes to bits and dividing by 3600 to get Gbps, we’re looking at 0.005, or about 5 Mbps and some change.  Most broadband plans have this at the lowest tier or 2nd from lowest tier.

Streaming media is likely to increase in complexity and bandwidth requirements several fold as HD gives way to 4K or 4K HD as the standard may eventually be known.  The need to move roughly 4 times the data to create a realistic picture will require bandwidth in the 20 Mbps plus range, and that is near the limit that some providers offer at this time.  With 4K literally right around the corner, this transition may be one of the forces that pushes ultra-high speed broadband into the masses before the decade is over.

Apps on demand can also consume a great deal of bandwidth.  Blizzard has a great model for this with their World of Warcraft game which requires a few gigabytes to begin playing, but will continue to download several additional gigabytes in the background.  The concept is simple: get everything necessary to start playing as quickly as possible, then download additional art and other assets that will be used as the person continues to play.  Unfortunately, this model is still so far from usable on today’s broadband that even the fastest connections measured in triple digit Mbps are not sufficient for instant play.  In fact, starting fresh on a new PC could take 30 minutes or more!  The holy grail of performance in this arena would be a connection so fast that someone could start playing on a freshly installed copy of the game in less than a minute, but nothing on the market is even close.  It will be interesting to see how Google’s gigabit project handles such content.

Other forms of app and game streaming are less severe, and focus more on remote usage.  The idea is that the app actually runs on a distant server but the images, audio, and feedback all come through the web.  Everything from games to professional apps are jumping onboard with this technology, but there is generally a certain amount of data that needs to be downloaded from the outset.  While most mid- to high-end broadband connections are easily capable of handling today’s streaming apps, more complex streaming apps are coming and they are likely to be more demanding and complex.

Gaming also offers a unique problem that is indirectly related to bandwidth: low ping times.  Ping times are the amount of time that it takes for data to go from a gaming device to a server that many players play on, and back again.  Think of ping time as snappiness, but also imagine what it would be like for someone else to have a fraction of a second advantage simply because they have a faster connection.  Unfortunately, download speed only indirectly relates to ping time.  Upload speeds are certainly important, but again only indirectly.  As a general rule, doubling connection speeds reduces ping time by about 10-15%, but only measured against the slowest speed increase.  So, increasing from a 5 Mbps/512 Kbps to a 10 Mbps 768 Kbps up/down speed would likely see a roughly 5-7.5% increase since upload speed only increased by half.  Remember, data has to go and come back in a ping time measurement.

Multiple Users

Of course one thing that has been overlooked so far is the fact that multiple users may be present, and this completely changes the value proposition.  Similarly, many users may have multiple devices that use data both actively and passively, which presents a secondary argument that more is always better.  When a smartphone connects over WiFi to update mail and check for app updates while a video game console is playing the latest shooter, a brief lag spike may occur.  The severity of the lag spike will be measured inversely against the speed of the connection.  Simply put, a faster connection will see a less significant disturbance than a slower one.  If the connection is not up to the challenge, the gaming session may even time out.  Simply put, more people equals greater needs in a way that scales linearly.

The Future

Looking back at the history of America it is clear to see that we are a country of people that love gadgets and gizmos, and we are also early adopters.  That tendency has led us to make enormous leaps and strides, often on the back of communications technology.  By adopting the latest and greatest technologies before anyone else, we are always well ahead of the curve and leading the way.  For example, the Soviet Union beat us to space, but we got to the moon first.  What was the difference?  Millions of Americans could watch the moon landing live, while only a handful of households in the former USSR had televisions by the time we landed on the moon.  Was the real achievement landing on the lunar surface, or the fact that we could all share and enjoy it?

Both are actually amazing achievements, and we do not want to be left out in the cold for the next big thing.  This is easily the best argument to continue pushing the boundaries of broadband speed.  In short, it is better to be there now and continue that push so that we as a nation do not get left behind.  Consider that many broadband providers are offering low-end service (1-5 Mbps) to urban areas for next to nothing in order to help connect the less fortunate.  That is only possible when consumers continue to push the boundaries further; we are all winning together.

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