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29 August 2019

Bandwidth usage as low as 2% in rife broadband overselling scandal

US operators have been so pre-occupied tripping up each other’s misleading 5G marketing campaigns, that they have successfully tricked consumers into paying over the odds for broadband packages built on false promises of better video streaming experiences. AT&T, Comcast and Charter are all guilty of overselling, according to a Wall Street Journal exposé, leaving subscribers with mountains of unused bandwidth.

The findings are particularly poignant considering how just last week data was published confirming the pervasive video throttling practices of the tier 1 telcos. Of course, the likes of AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile will all claim throttling is a necessary evil in peak times but then why would they be so picky – with researchers finding that not all throttled video streaming services are treated equally. Now the cable giants have been found ironically selling broadband on the basis of better picture quality and reduced buffering when the opposite is true. The era of US connectivity under the current legislation does not look pretty.

The situation is startling. Subscribers to 100 Mbps internet services use on average less than 6% of their total broadband bandwidth, based on findings from 53 WSJ journalists in collaboration with Princeton University and the University of Chicago. The study stretched services to the max with up to seven streams on the go simultaneously, finding that for those with 100 Mbps packages or higher running multiple streams, only about 7.1 Mbps of capacity was used on average even with seven streams at once.

But surely there must have been an improvement in video quality and an overall smoother streaming experience for those paying for fatter packages? Apparently not. Testers who paid for even faster speeds still streamed video at about the same speeds as everyone else, resulting in using a smaller portion of available bandwidth. The study cites one person with a 300 Mbps connection who streamed at a median of 7.2 Mbps, using just 2% of the capacity being paid for.

All bases were covered, monitoring SVoD services like Netflix and live streaming offerings such as Sling TV, but it was streaming YouTube where users across the board experienced much less 1080p resolution than on other services. Yet the research appeared to point the finger at YouTube itself rather than the pipe. “Whereas Netflix tries to load nice high quality video, YouTube appears to want to start as fast as possible,” according to researcher Paul Schmitt.

A YouTube spokesperson responded by saying the service “chooses playback quality based on factors including type of device, network speed, user preferences and the resolution of the originally uploaded video.” A Netflix spokesperson said the company “aims to deliver quality video with the least possible bandwidth,” while Amazon refused to comment.

It would have been interesting to throw some 4K streaming into the mix, along with some bandwidth-intensive experiences likes virtual reality, to really push these broadband services to the limit. It says internet traffic from gaming and other sources like web cameras didn’t significantly increase bandwidth usage. But for context, Google’s cloud-gaming service Stadia recommends users have at least 10 Mbps, while Comcast says 3 Mbps to 6 Mbps is the minimum needed for online gaming, so not too intensive.

Netflix streamed at under 4 Mbps on average, with little difference in the experiences of someone paying for a 15 Mbps connection and someone with a 1 Gbps connection, and Netflix reached the highest max speeds of all the services tested, but even those were a fraction of the available bandwidth.

On the defensive, a Cox Communications spokesperson said the company’s subscribers want to be prepared for a future where emerging technologies will require even more bandwidth.

Faster tiers generally come at a premium. For example, Comcast’s “Blast!” 250 Mbps service costs $94.95 a month in Jersey City, N.J., compared with $49.95 a month for a 15 Mbps connection.

In summary, researchers advise that upgrading to premium packages isn’t always the answer when encountering buffering. The root cause is call centers, where operatives are trained to offer faster packages as the first port of call when responding to complaints – ultimately making the support call significantly shorter. Of course, blame can be placed at multiple points along the video delivery chain where bottlenecks can occur, but the surprise finding is the sheer scale of unused bandwidth which fundamentally does not improve the video streaming experience.