"New normal" for Internet users —
Terabyte-using customers doubled from 7% to 14% as pandemic wore on.
Large numbers of US Internet subscribers are using over 1TB a month for the first time as the pandemic continues to boost home-Internet usage, according to research released today by the vendor OpenVault.
"The power user category continue[d] to accelerate [in Q4 2020], with 14.1 percent of weighted average subscribers now consuming over 1TB of data per month, up 94 percent from 2019," OpenVault's report said. In Q4 2019, 7.3 percent of US-based subscribers used over 1TB. (The weighted figures include both users with data caps and users with unlimited plans.)
The 14.1 percent figure is also a big jump from Q3 2020, when OpenVault research found that 8.8 percent of broadband subscribers used at least 1TB per month. The 1TB figure is significant because AT&T and other ISPs impose monthly data caps of 1TB or less. Comcast raised its cap to 1.2TB starting in mid-2020, while Cox's is now up to 1.25TB. People using 1TB on a capped service are at risk of paying overage fees, which generally cost $10 for each additional block of 50GB.
"With an entire year's worth of data, the [Q4 2020 report] puts the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on broadband providers into proper context," OpenVault wrote. "The explosion in data consumption during 2020 has established a new normal of bandwidth usage that is especially visible when compared with pre-pandemic time periods."
What OpenVault calls "extreme power users"—subscribers using over 2TB per month—accounted for 2.2 percent of US-based Internet customers in Q4 2020. That's a 120 percent jump over the 1 percent of customers who passed that mark in Q3 2020.
Data caps push usage down
OpenVault is a vendor that sells a data-usage tracking platform to cable, fiber, and wireless ISPs. Its customers include 150 service providers worldwide. The company says its products have been used by Internet providers to impose data caps via "usage-based billing" schemes since 2012, helping those ISPs generate "over $150 million in incremental revenue annually." While Internet subscribers aren't happy about those data caps and overage fees, OpenVault's research on broadband usage may be interesting to both ISPs and users.
As usual, customers with unlimited data plans go through more data than those who are capped. On broadband networks with unlimited data, there are "30 percent more 2TB power users" than on networks that charge data overage fees, the report said. Specifically, 2.5 percent of users on unlimited networks hit the 2TB mark in Q4 2020, compared to 1.9 percent on capped networks.
This statistic, among others, shows that data caps and overage fees prevent broadband subscribers from using as much as they'd like. OpenVault phrases this in a different way, saying that "[m]oving to a UBB [usage-based billing] approach has proven to curtail extreme power users and the network management challenge they create."
Median usage on unlimited networks was 300.5GB in Q4 2020, compared to 289GB on capped networks. Meanwhile, average usage on unlimited services was 496.6GB, compared to 472.3GB on capped services. Many people got a break from data caps in the early stages of the pandemic, but ISPs that temporarily lifted their caps started putting them back into place in mid-2020.
Data growth seen for all types of subscribers
Usage growth isn't just from power users, as seen elsewhere in OpenVault's report. The median monthly usage in Q4 2020 was 293.8GB, up from 190.7GB in Q4 2019 and 229GB in Q3 2020.
"This growth in median usage demonstrates that bandwidth usage growth defined by the pandemic is distributed evenly across most users and not driven by outliers or extreme users," OpenVault said.
Average usage in Q4 2020 was 482.6GB, up from 344GB in Q4 2019 and 383.8GB in Q3 2020. From 2018 to 2019, Q4 usage grew 27 percent. In 2020, with the pandemic in full swing, the average Q4 usage grew 40 percent year over year, OpenVault said.
The report also detailed the nominal download speeds customers are paying for, finding that 50.6 percent subscribe to 100Mbps to 200Mbps speeds. A further 15.8 percent subscribe to 200 to 400Mbps, 3.7 percent pay for 500 to 900Mbps, and 8.5 percent subscribe to gigabit plans. On the lower end, 9.1 percent pay for 50 to 75Mbps, 6 percent have 20 to 40Mbps plans, 2 percent have 10 to 20Mbps, and 4.4 percent have plans with download speeds under 10Mbps.
Some ISPs “challenged” by upload growth
During the pandemic, we've seen cable companies Cox and Mediacom impose harsh limits on uploads. This has coincided with a large increase in people working and taking classes at home and using more upload-heavy applications. The 482.6GB in average usage measured by OpenVault includes about 31GB worth of uploads.
"Average upstream bandwidth usage in December 2020 reached 31GB, representing 63 percent growth over 2019," OpenVault said. The growth in upstream usage is "particularly noteworthy for network operators who are challenged with managing upstream bandwidth on their network."