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VOL. 40 | NO. 5 | Friday, January 29, 2016

How much bandwidth do you really need?

By Jeannie Naujeck

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As Americans move more of their life online, they’re also looking for higher Internet speeds that are best provided by the cable and fiber networks that cable companies like Comcast own – although most don’t need the much-hyped gigabit speed Internet service that Comcast currently offers in Tennessee and Google will offer in Nashville when it finishes building its Google Fiber network.

The vast majority of households need much less bandwidth. But how much bandwidth is enough?

While the FCC has adopted a new minimum standard for high-speed, or broadband Internet service of 25 Mbps (megabits per second) download speed, Nashville media analyst Robert Unmacht says 6 Mbps is sufficient for small households to stream Netflix and use their devices.

“As long as you’ve got 6 Mbps you can handle Netflix if you’re watching it on wifi,” he says. “Unless you have a lot of people in your house or are heavy gamers, you’re just wasting your money, but that doesn’t stop Comcast from saying you need it.”

Last year the Federal Communications Commission changed the minimum standard for high-speed, or broadband, service to 25 megabytes per second (Mbps) for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. The FCC said the former minimum standard of 4 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads was inadequate for the amount of Internet activity and streaming already going on in American households, let alone future needs.

Some commissioners wanted to raise the standard to 100 Mbps, noting that the United States, where the Internet was invented, doesn’t even rank in the top 10 globally when comparing countries’ average Internet speed (South Korea is first, followed by Sweden and Norway, according to Akamai Technologies).

Cable companies strongly opposed the higher standard, and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association has called the 25 Mbps benchmark “arbitrary” and politically-driven.

Not surprisingly, Netflix was on the other side of the debate, pushing for the higher broadband standards to support streaming of Ultra HD and 4K content, which requires 25 Mbps. Netflix has also used its considerable clout to argue against data caps and overage fees in countries like Canada.

The next frontier – at least in Tennessee – is gig-speed service.

Many residents already have access to it, thanks to a race to the top between the public and private sectors.

Chattanooga residents have had 1 Gbps fiber optic broadband since 2010. Developed and run by EPB, a publicly-owned utility, at a reported cost of $330 million, it is the largest gigabit fiber network in the nation, spanning 600 square miles and covering 170,000 people, who pay $69.99 a month. In October, EPB began offering a 10 Gbps service tier at a cost of $299 per month.

After suing unsuccessfully to stop EPB, citing unfair competition, Comcast rushed to offer Gigabit Pro, which delivers up to 2 Gbps speed, in Chattanooga, Nashville and Knoxville for about $300 a month.

AT&T’s U-verse with GigaPower 1 Gbps service is available in Nashville and some surrounding communities and is coming to Memphis. And Google Fiber will be available in Nashville at an undetermined time; the company is currently laying a fiber network around Middle Tennessee.

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