Is Peak Broadband Usage Leveling Off?

COVID Dashboard Update

As we continue to work, learn, live and play from the confines of our homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, NCTA intends to continue reporting on how the cable industry’s broadband networks are performing.

Last Tuesday, we unveiled the new COVID-19 Internet Dashboard – aggregated data from cable internet service providers that deliver broadband to tens of millions of homes and businesses – to provide an initial snapshot of what we have seen since early March. We have updated the dashboard again today and will do so weekly.

So what trends are we seeing from the broadband performance data? First and most importantly, despite the fact that tens of millions of Americans are now stationed at home, our broadband networks are meeting this unprecedented challenge and delivering a quality experience.

Two specific key takeaways from this week’s data shows:

  • While overall national consumer downstream peak usage is up 19% overall since March 1, the last week has seen a slight decrease of -1%. This could indicate that consumer usage and demand is leveling off, but we will want to see more than one week of data before making any conclusions.
  • Overall national consumer upstream peak growth is still increasing – up 4% week over week – but at a lower level than last week’s 7% growth rate. Since March 1, national upstream peak growth has seen a 33% increase. This could also indicate a leveling off in consumer demand and usage and we will track in future weeks.

Why are cable’s networks working so well?

  • Network operators follow a version of the ‘Wayne Gretzky’ rule: They don’t just build networks to cover the demands of today. They work to anticipate the demand 12 -18 months out. So, today’s network performance reflects in part, the prudent decisions made many months ago, to keep ahead of the curve and be prepared for expected, and unexpected, spikes in demand.
  • Networks are engineered to handle peak demand.  In simple terms, the internet pipe is built fat enough to handle the maximum amount of traffic in a day. Analogize the situation to a very large water pipe built to handle a huge flow of water in the evening (think Netflix streaming).  Normally, there is a very modest amount of water flowing in the daytime, but if suddenly there is a surge of water in the midday (as we are seeing with COVID-19), that does not place any significant burden on the pipe as long as that volume of water is below the peak capacity of it.

As we update the dashboard weekly, we will continue to highlight trends and observations regarding broadband performance.

Also, for a deeper dive into network performance issues, we recommend this AEI podcast, “Explain to Shane: Roger Entner explains broadband network capacity amid the COVID-19 pandemic”. In the podcast, among other things Entner highlights how cable’s network has evolved to accommodate the kind of demand we are seeing with this pandemic:

“Cable had a huge advantage through its evolving standards, called DOCSIS [Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification]. We’re now at DOCSIS 3.1 which can deliver gigabit speeds. That’s because they’re able to put more data on the same about of fiber and cable. What they’ve also done is reduced the number of households per cable head, you have four times the capacity, and then you have the new standards you end up with 10 or 15 times more capacity. And that’s what allows the cable networks to really do that quite well.”