Myth #7: We are missing out on important applications because the necessary speeds are not available.

Myth

We need 100 Mbps broadband internet to access new and important applications.

Where this notion comes from

There features of different network types lend themselves to more or less throughput.  For example mobile networks can become congested with too many users in a given location. This is not an issue for ultra fast and high bandwidth LTE, a technology where the US is leagues ahead of the rest of the world.

Facts

  • A high definition film (900 MB) is almost 1 million times as “dense” as an email (10 kb).
  • Real time entertainment is the overwhelming driver of internet traffic in the world today.  This is essentially film, TV shows and videos online.  Netflix (32.25%) and YouTube (17.11%) account for half of all downstream traffic on fixed line networks in North America.  BitTorrent, a file sharing application for accessing movies and music, accounts for another 5.57%. Ordinary web browsing is just 11.11%. For mobile networks in the US, real time entertainment accounts for 43% of all traffic.[1]
  • Video conferencing applications such as Skype comprise relatively small portion of the internet.  For an ordinary video call Skype recommends 500 kbps, with up to 1.5 Mbps for high definition. [2]

Analysis

Let us look more closely at Netflix, the largest source of traffic, as well as telemedicine, one of the much talked about areas of application development.

Traffic breakdown North America 2013

Click to enlarge. Internet Traffic in North America for Q1 2013. Real time entertainment takes the vast majority of bandwidth (Sandvine).

The 2010 US Census reports that there are about 85 million households with internet access in the US.[3] Netflix, with 29 million subscribers, appears in roughly every third American home. Netflix provides performance reports of how well it service runs on different networks, noting that a 2.5 Mbps connection is sufficient for high quality experience.  Furthermore Netflix is constantly making its service more efficient, and it has developed its own content delivery network to cache and speed content to its users.

The Norwegian Centre for Integrated Care and Telemedicine, the world’s leading institute for telemedicine, has studied telemedicine for 25 years. They note that most applications run fine on average broadband levels (for example, video consultation), and even the most advanced app would require no more than 10 Mbps. Indeed the limiting factor for telemedicine is not broadband deployment but rather health care providers who are resistant to change.  The other requirements for telemedicine to take off are mobile networks and devices. The rollout of LTE is some of the best news for telemedicine.

As for telemedicine, it should be seen first an efficiency-reducer, rather than a health enhancer.  Telemedicine can eliminate trips to the doctor and speed diagnosis, not to mention enabling diagnosis from remote locations. Also, it can provide some important preventive and life-saving functions, such as heart monitoring for people at risk for heart attacks.

But put telemedicine into perspective. In the USA today, more than 60% of medical spending is for chronic disease. Americans would improve health outcomes drastically just by eating better, exercising, and quitting smoking. Here is where behavior trumps technology. We get more bang from our buck from changing our habits than buying more gadgets.

As for the leading websites, Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Amazon; they want to have as wide exposure  as possible, so they are not necessarily trying to make their data heavier. Even YouTube, which takes up a disproportionate share of network traffic , tries all the time to make their platform leaner.

The question we should be asking is not how do we get more bandwidth but rather how well are we using the bandwidth we have today?  Is real time entertainment so important to us?  Do we keep on consuming music and movies like digital junk food? Perhaps less Netflix and a walk outdoors instead may be the better choice for health.

Reality

We have more than adequate speed and capacity for the applications available today.


[1] http://www.sandvine.com/news/global_broadband_trends.asp

[2] https://support.skype.com/en/faq/FA1417/how-much-bandwidth-does-skype-need

Real time entertainment is the overwhelming driver of internet traffic in the world today.  This is essentially film, TV shows and videos online.  Netflix (32.25%) and YouTube (17.11%) account for half of all downstream traffic on fixed line networks in North America.  BitTorrent, a file sharing application for accessing movies and music, accounts for another 5.57%. Ordinary web browsing is just 11.11%. For mobile networks in the US, real time entertainment accounts for 43% of all traffic.