Driving broadband traffic

As it turns out, the speed of a household internet connection isn’t what is driving broadband traffic. The amount of data used by a household is more closely correlated to demographic factors than the subscribed data rate.

That finding was reported in the October issue of Telecommunications Policy, based on studying usage data from Ofcom, the UK telecom regulator. “What drives broadband traffic?” found demographic factors appear to be the key drivers of traffic volumes. For example, “areas with larger households, younger population, and higher percentages of those able to speak English are all associated with higher use.”

The paper has interesting implications for rural broadband investment. The authors suggest that data traffic is not constrained by households using mid-speed services. “The benefits of policy interventions to support higher speeds remain somewhat speculative.”

The abstract for the paper notes:

Worldwide there is an ongoing policy and regulatory push to make very high speed broadband available as widely as possible. Underlying the policy interventions to support higher speeds is an implicit assumption that higher speeds will enable different (and socially valuable) use. In this paper we empirically test whether higher speed lines are associated with greater household data usage in the UK. We find that after allowing for demographic factors, higher speed in fact has a very limited relationship to traffic.

Early into the COVID pandemic lockdown, I looked at the relatively modest speed requirements for various business collaboration applications and streaming video.

I have been told the CRTC is about to update its Communications Monitoring Report data. According to the latest published data, by year end 2021, 91.4% of Canadians had access to the national objective of 50Mbps down, 10 Mbps up with unlimited data. More than three quarters of Canadian households (77.4%) have access to gigabit speeds. Among rural households, 62.0% had access to the service objective, while 36.9% had gigabit service available by year end 2021.

This isn’t to say that gigabit access isn’t useful. Depending on the household characteristics, ultra high speed broadband may deliver a better user experience. From a policy perspective, the report suggests the speed of the connection doesn’t seem to be driving household broadband traffic. Traffic appears to be more dependent on the characteristics of who is using the service.

If Canada chooses to revisit its broadband objective, similar studies could be important contributors to the discussion.

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