We need more broadband internet than ever, but how much bandwidth is enough?

With work on the kitchen table, online classes in the kid's bedroom, and streaming TV, we need more, better and affordable broadband than ever before.

In Before Times, you may have wanted faster internet, but you probably didn't need faster internet. How things change. One pandemic later, and many of us are still  working from home,  our children are going to school virtually, and we try to keep ourselves amused with streaming media and online games. 

The pandemic has transformed our lives, including our appetite for internet bandwidth.

So, how much bandwidth do we need? According to John Horrigan, a senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute, and former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) research director, it's not a hard number. After all, "not all online activities require the same speeds: For a group video call, 2.5 Mbps speeds suffice, while streaming videos may require 25 Mbps for high-definition quality. How much speed you need, and how you experience that speed, relies on multiple factors, including the applications and the number of people online."

It's those last two factors that are making life hard these days. Horrigan said, "Take a common example as the nation responds to the pandemic: If two parents are conducting video meetings while two kids are logged in to online classrooms or trying to watch streaming video at the same time, some may experience slower or interrupted connections, even if they've signed up for the fastest home internet service." 

Then throw in more advanced streaming technologies such as virtual reality (VR) applications, which libraries and schools are increasingly using, which require at least 50 Mbps to work and we're heading straight into a bandwidth shortage with a gigabit connection. 

As technology journalist Rob Pegoraro reported in Fast Company, "We're streaming video for work, we're streaming video for school, and we're streaming video for entertainment," said Avi Greengart, Techsponential's president and lead analyst. "If you have multiple people in your household, these activities get multiplied." Add in updates and patches for your computers, devices, and games and you're talking big data.

OpenVault's OpenVault Broadband Insights Report found that the median broadband usage, a leading indicator of usage growth, rose sharply. Median usage was 233.6 GB, a 60% increase from 146.0 GB during the first quarter of 2019 and up 22% from 190.7 GB at the end of 2019. Importantly, the rate of increase in media growth accelerated to 122% during the first quarter of 2020.

OpenVault also discovered power users, subscribers who use 1 TB or more of data a month, and extreme power users, those who use 2 TB or more, numbers jumped. Power users reached 10% of all users during the first quarter, a 138% increase over the 4.2% who were power users in the year-ago quarter. Extreme power uses were 1.2% of all users last quarter, a 215% increase over the 0.38% who reached that level during the first quarter of last year. 

Take an ordinary household of four. They each own a smartphone, a PC, and a smart speaker. Next, everyone in the house shares two tablets, two gaming consoles, and a pair of 4K TVs. These days, it's a safe bet everyone's using these devices a lot. By Broadband's Now Bandwidth Calculator's reckoning you should have at least a 180 Mbps connection. Good luck getting that in many places. 

The FCC official broadband definition is only 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. That's pathetic. Soon to be out of office FCC chairman Ajit Pai wanted to reduce that number to 10 Mbps in 2018

Making matters worse, few of us have any real choice in ISPs. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance in its latest Profiles of Monopoly: Big Cable and Telecom report found United States' largest ISPs: Comcast, Charter, AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Frontier, and Windstream have divided up the country so that  "83.3 million Americans can only access broadband through a single provider." 

Adding insult to injury, these same providers, with the support of Pai's FCC, have successfully lobbied 22 state legislatures to outlaw community government ISPs. It's no wonder that Starlink satellite internet is so eagerly awaited by millions of users. 

if you live out in the country, BroadbandNow Research using the FCC's data found 42 million don't even have broadband access at its inadequate standard. 

On top of that, The New America centrist think tank found in its 2020 Cost of Connectivity survey, which was completed before Covid-19 really hit hard, that ISP prices have continued to spiral upward. HowMuch.net has determined that the average US Internet cost is $66.20 per month.

Cable.co.uk noted that, thanks to a "lack of competition in the marketplace … Americans pay far more than they should compared to much of the rest of the world."  It's no surprise that Pew Research worked out that half of those who don't have broadband say it's because it is too expensive. Prices have only shot up since then. 

Now, things are getting even worse. Data-cap programs for fixed ISPs are now becoming commonplace. Comcast, for instance, will now put a 1.2Terabyte monthly data cap on all its customers in early 2021. 

That may sound like a lot, but let's look at our family home with four people. With an eight hour day, they'll use an average of 648 Gigabytes a day, or 1.9 TB a month. Ow. You can pay $10 for every additional 50GB block to a maximum of $100 each month. Our hypothetical family will hit that mark every month. They'd be smarter to avoid the overage charges by spending an extra $30 a month for an unlimited data plan.

Comcast isn't the only one. AT&T's millions of DSL subscribers also now must deal with monthly data caps. AT&T intends to kill off its legacy DSL business. This will leave millions of rural users with no broadband at all. Charter/Spectrum is denying that it'll ask for data caps, but the company has asked the FCC to let it place caps starting in May 2021. Currently, Charter as part of its Time Warner Cable acquisition isn't allowed to place data caps. 

What can we do? Tom Wheeler, former FCC chairman and visiting fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution, thinks we need to finally recognize that the "internet is no longer 'nice to have,' it is critical."

Therefore, Wheeler continued, "The solution to universal broadband in America is not to patch the old program, but to throw it out." It will cost tens of billions of dollars, but Wheeler wants to see fiber optic everywhere it can be laid. Such projects already exist. The Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) gave $4 billion directly to broadband construction of 233 projects across the nation and these projects revitalized dying towns. 

If the major ISPs won't step up to do the job, Wheeler said, turn to any company or state or local government willing to lay the fiber cable. "The FCC," he added, "should be their ally, not their opponent." With this foundation, it will be easier and cheaper to bring broadband to almost every household in the country.