Does Broadband really lag applications?

AJ Contributor
Font Size:

Google is certainly getting a lot of media attention over their plans for an experimental gigabit broadband network.  The main argument for this type of a network is to give high bandwidth applications a home to be tested because the theory was that broadband networks in the US were constricting applications to very low bandwidth.  But does broadband really lag applications, or is it really the other way around?

Based on the latest Broadband data from the FCC, there were 86 million broadband customers by the end of 2008 in the United States.  Of those customers:

56.67 million had more than 3 Mbps

40.49 million had more than 6 Mbps

13.59 million had more than 10 Mbps

86 thousand had above 25 Mbps service

This data is more than a year old so we’re probably much faster now especially with free speed doubling upgrades from companies like Comcast.  But we’ll work with this data and compare it to application performance.

At the very end of 2008, YouTube was just barely bringing on 2.25 Mbps 720P video due to competitive pressures from Vimeo.  Even at the beginning of 2008, Google was still limping along at 0.32 Mbps content for YouTube and they soon upgraded to 0.64 Mbps content.  Broadband speeds had been more or less like this all of 2008 and not much slower on average in the previous two years.  The most popular content on the other hand was dramatically lower most of 2008 and a lot slower in the years prior.

By the end of 2009, YouTube had gone up to 3.75 Mbps 1080P content.  Other popular video sites like Hulu run at barely over 1 Mbps.  Only Pay content sites like Apple iTunes offer 4 Mbps content while Microsoft offers 6.9 Mbps content for their Xbox Live Marketplaces, but those aren’t used by the majority of users because the content is cost prohibitive.  Japanese content sites apparently use even lower bitrates due to the high cost of server hosting bandwidth in Japan, so all those fast broadband connections in Japan largely sit idle because the constraining factor is on the content side.

So YouTube is essentially ignoring the needs of more than 40 million American broadband users who have 6 or more Mbps of broadband performance.  Google only recently bumped up to 3.75 Mbps for their 1080P content which at times looks worse than standard definition DVD content for fast moving high complexity content because of the over compression.  If Google is so concerned about driving high performance broadband adoption, why don’t they offer 6, 8, 12, 20 Mbps content on a popular site like YouTube?

Many broadband customers can boost up from 1.5 to 6 Mbps broadband service for as little as $10/month extra, yet choose to remain on the 1.5 Mbps service for minor monthly savings.  But how can we blame them when the content has been lagging in performance?  I’ve known people who have upgraded their broadband plans once they have a favorite website that requires more bandwidth.  If Google wants to take a lead in driving higher speed broadband adoption, then why aren’t they bumping up the quality of YouTube?  What is the point of an experimental network with 20,000 homes when we already have over 40 million homes that aren’t getting the rich content that their connections are capable of?