Home & Office

Internet 2021: Here's what the year will (and won't) bring

Now more than ever we depend on the internet for work, school, and fun. Will the internet providers rise to the challenge? Probably not.

I'm lucky. I have decent cable internet to my home office. It's not cable gigabit, which is not the same thing as real fiber gigabit, but at 300Mbps, it's more than good enough. But, most people aren't so lucky. 

The FCC official broadband definition is a mere 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. Soon to be out of office FCC chairman Ajit Pai would like to have reduced that number to 10 Mbps in 2018. That's not enough speed for the 2010s, never mind the 2020s. 

Today, and well into 2021, many of us will still work from home, go to school virtually, and the only movies we'll be watching will be the ones we're streaming. That takes up a lot of bandwidth.

How much bandwidth? Take an ordinary household of four. Everyone owns a smartphone, a PC, and a smart speaker. In addition, everyone 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. 

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 Spectrum, 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." 

If you live out in the country, on the wrong side of the digital divide, life is even worse: BroadbandNow Research using the FCC's data found 42 million don't even have broadband access by its inadequate standard.  

In my case, I'm one of the few people with real choices. I could use AT&T, except although the company claims it can bring fiber to my house, it really can't. I could, in theory, get AT&T DSL. Except, whoops, AT&T is phasing out DSL. If you live out in the country, where DSL was often the only broadband you could get, you're screwed. 

I'm lucky enough to have one real alternative: Skyrunner, a local western North Carolina wireless ISP (WISP). If I were living beyond where cable could reach, I'd use it. But, with maximum speeds of 25Mbps, it's not fast enough for the overloads I put on my internet connection. Once upon a time, there were lots of local ISPs, but those days are long gone. 

Most of them were squeezed out by the major ISPs. They're not coming back. Neither in many places are local government ISPs. The big providers, with the support of Pai's FCC, successfully lobbied 22 state legislatures to outlaw community government ISPs

It's no wonder that millions of people want the Starlink satellite internet so badly. But, bad news folks, even when Starlink has 12,000 satellites in the sky in 2025, Cowen Research analysts figure Starlink will only support up to 485,000 simultaneous users at 100Mbps. That will help many rural users who will otherwise never see broadband, but it's no replacement for suburban or urban internet.

No matter where you live more internet misery is coming. The big-time ISPs such as AT&T, Charter/Spectrum, and Comcast are introducing data-cap. Comcast, for instance, will now put a 1.2Terabyte (TB) monthly data cap on all its customers in early 2021. 

Who could ever use that much data you ask? You could. 

Remember our family home with four people? In an eight hour day, they'd use an average of 648 Gigabytes a day, or 1.9TB a month. Internet bills are infamous for varying wildly and often come with extra, hidden charges. But, as I write this in late December 2020, you can get that family's 200Mbps connection for $40 a month. That's not bad. 

But, to cover your data overages, you'd need to pay Comcast an additional $10 for every 50GB block overage until you max out your overage fees at $100 per month. That's $140 and that's serious money. They'd be better off avoiding the overage charges by subscribing to an unlimited data plan for $30 a month. That's $70, which is still not unreasonable, but with so many of us unemployed these days, it's not nothing either. 

Or, you could look to 5G. Excuse me as I snicker. There are many different kinds of 5G, and the ones that sound the best, like Verizon's 5G Ultra-Wideband, are little more than marketing hype. Yes, you can get great speeds if you're standing next to one of their transmitters, but 99% of its users for 99% of the time will only see 4G speeds with its Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) 5G.

As for AT&T 5G, it's not good. To quote my friends over at PC Magazine in their latest mobile network benchmarks, "AT&T 5G right now appears to be essentially worthless." I don't expect that to change anytime soon in 2021. 

The only 5G to get if you want to use it for broadband in the home in 2021 will be T-Mobile's Home Internet. For now, it's still using 4G LTE, but it will soon be deploying low-band 5G in the 600 MHz spectrum to home users. This will give you download speeds around 150Mbps 

No, that's not Verizon's over-promised, under-delivered 5G mmWave gigabit speeds. But, with a range in tens of miles, it's just what rural users need. This T-Mobile plan will cost $50 a month without an annual contract and no data caps. 

So, yes, 5G will be changing how we consume broadband in our home offices. But it won't be doing it in the way all those glossy television ads are leading to expect. Instead of giving us faster internet, it will give many people who currently can't get any broadband access to real internet speed. 

As for the rest of the internet in 2021. I can only hope that under President Joe Biden, instead of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) helping out the big ISPs, they'll help users out instead with a block on fixed lines data caps and real incentives to expand serious broadband to more underserved users. After all, as Tom Wheeler, former FCC chairman and a visiting fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution, said, we must recognize that the "internet is no longer 'nice to have,' it is critical."

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