The way we use the internet has changed—and fast. Before the pandemic, telecoms and internet service provider BT was handling five terabits of data every second from its UK customers during the day. When the pandemic hit and the world locked down, data volumes doubled. In Germany, DE-CIX Frankfurt, a major connection point for the global internet, broke multiple bandwidth records with 2020 peak volumes beating 2019 rates by 28 percent.
One week, the world’s offices were buzzing. The next, they were silent. In the new normal, office workers spend their days leaping from one video conferencing service to another, each one using up vital bandwidth. Workplace communications platforms like Slack constantly ping and buzz. And beneath them our home broadband connections are creaking.
If the world of work changed overnight, the infrastructure providing it has evolved at a more leisurely pace. But now lawmakers are trying to do something about it. Switzerland is the latest country to decide its internet infrastructure is too sluggish, suggesting it will require service providers to offer at least 80 Mbits/second download speeds and 8 Mbits/second upload speeds by 2024, up from 10 and 1 Mbits/second at present. The significant increase is necessary to ensure people have reliable, fast connections as standard in order to work from home and keep up with online education, the Swiss government says.
“With the pandemic, we’ve all become even more aware of the need to have fast and reliable connectivity,” says Paolo Gerli, a lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University who has studied the importance of broadband access and is a member of the International Telecommunications Society, an internet infrastructure industry body. “Both speed and reliability are very important, especially when you’re doing your business from home.”
The amount of data sent over internet connections has increased steadily over time: In 2013, the average UK household used around 1 GB a day, according to data compiled by UK media regulator Ofcom. In 2020, it was around 14.3 GB—a 1,330 percent increase. Over the same time period, the average residential download speed has risen from 17.8 Mbits/second to 80.2 Mbits/second—a 350 percent increase. Put another way: Data volumes have grown far slower than data speed.
That’s not just bad news for your Zoom calls, it’s also bad for the economy. A 2018 study of OECD countries by Pantelis Koutroumpis, lead economist at the University of Oxford’s Oxford Martin School, found that increasing broadband speeds from 2 Mbits/second to 8 Mbits/second adds nearly 1 percent to a country’s gross domestic product. In the UK and the US, increasing broadband speeds accounted for an annualized increase in GDP of around 0.12 percent between 2002 and 2016. That impact was measured before the great shift to working from home brought about by the pandemic, meaning any subsequent increase in productivity and economic growth is likely to be higher. A separate study by Deloitte found that a 10 percentage point increase in US broadband access in 2014 would have increased employment by 875,000, and added $186 billion in economic output, by 2019. “The economic impact of internet access has been on policymakers’ radars for almost two decades, but its significance has skyrocketed during the pandemic,” says Koutroumpis.
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Legally mandated minimum speeds aren’t a new idea—but they are based on old maths. The UK’s average broadband download speed of 80.2 Mbits/second is eight times higher than the legally mandated minimum of 10 Mbits/second—also called the Universal Service Obligation (USO)—that was enacted in 2020. But those who’ve struggled with laggy video calls over the last two years will know all too well that even an average internet connection sometimes isn’t enough. The UK’s USO is “set very low,” says Gerli. It certainly pales in comparison to the European Union’s goal of universal broadband coverage of at least 100 Mbits/second by 2025, which was set in 2016.
At present 85 percent of EU households have access to at least a single fixed broadband service offering at least 30 Mbits/second. Three-quarters have access to services that can download at 100 Mbits/second or more. But reaching that 100 Mbits/second goal by 2025 will be a challenge—mainly because there’s so much variation amongst member states. In Bulgaria, for example, just one in three homes have access to such speeds. In Malta, by comparison, such speeds are already available in every single home. It’s a similar mixed picture in the United States, where 7.2 million Americans currently don’t have 10 Mbit/second download speeds, while 27.3 million don’t have 100 Mbit/second internet connections. “The further expansion of secure and resilient digital infrastructure must be rapidly pushed forward,” says Harald A. Summa, CEO of DE-CIX Group, a networking company that runs some of the world’s busiest interconnection points. “The lowest possible latencies for data traffic will play a dominant role here.”
But a fixation on download speeds only deals with part of the problem. “Upload speed is becoming more and more important,” says Gerli. “We need to make sure we can’t just quickly download stuff, but that we can quickly upload stuff, too.” The transfer of data packets works in both directions—and it’s no good for a video editor working from home to be able to quickly download 4K video onto their computer to edit if it then takes them an age to reupload the finished work. Likewise, a group video call—common nowadays in the home workplace—requires more bandwidth (3.8 Mbits/second at 1080p HD) on the upload side than the download side (3 Mbits/second). “As the economies depend more on the quality of internet connections, the role of governments and operators in this upgrade process will become more prominent than ever before,” says Koutroumpis. According to Deloitte’s analysis, any household on a 10 Mbits/second internet connection cannot comfortably have more than one person on a video call at the same time. Even at the Federal Communications Commission’s minimum benchmark speeds of 25 Mbits/second download and 3 Mbits/second upload, it’s likely a connection would struggle if three people were online at once.
It’s for that reason that the US Government Accountability Office called for the FCC to revisit its minimum broadband speed requirements in July 2021. It follows a bipartisan group of senators who wrote to the FCC in March 2021 to increase the minimum standard to 100Mbits/second. “The pandemic has reinforced the importance of high-speed broadband and underscored the cost of the persistent digital divide in our country,” the senators wrote, pointing to issues with seniors accessing telemedicine and children learning online. “They will tell you that many networks fail to come close to ‘high-speed’ in the year 2021.”
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Yet actually increasing broadband speeds isn’t as simple as flicking a switch. Every promise of a USO is just that: A promise. They almost never materialize in practice, because more traditional infrastructure like roads are seen as more important than internet speeds, says Koutroumpis. Huge changes in infrastructure are needed, including the removal of copper cabling that can only handle comparatively small amounts of data, and the laying of fiber optic cabling as close as possible to the point of use to reduce any loss in efficiency. That costs money—£33.4 billion ($44 billion) in the UK alone, according to official analyses. And the bigger the country, the bigger the challenge and cost involved—which is perhaps why the nation-states with the world’s fastest internet are all tiny. UK crown dependency Jersey boasts average internet speeds of 274 Mbits/second, thanks to full fiber to the premises connections for every one of its residents. All 97,000 of them: Roughly the same number as Albany, New York. Liechtenstein, Iceland, Andorra and Gibraltar all have average internet speeds of more than 150 Mbits/second—and combined have a population smaller than Detroit.
Still, change is needed—and fast. “Where you still don’t have a good core network connection, you can’t work from home,” says Gerli. The shift towards cloud computing, with companies asking staff to access servers run by their company from home, increases the demand on bandwidth. And if companies decide that working from home is here to stay then we need the home broadband infrastructure to support that change. “It’s a matter of inequality,” says Gerli.
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