After surging last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, broadband data consumption appears to be coming in for a soft landing, albeit on much higher ground than before the pandemic hit, according to a new study.
In its latest quarterly Broadband Insights report, OpenVault found that overall broadband data usage actually slipped slightly in Q1 2021 from Q4 2020 levels as many people returned to their old work and school environments. But data consumption remained well above pre-pandemic levels, with monthly weighted average usage by US broadband households reaching 461.7 GB in Q1, up nearly 15% from 402.5 GB in the year-ago period even while down 4.3% from 482.6 GB in Q4 2020.
Seasonal usage patterns returning
Analyzing the latest results, OpenVault executives point to the return of pre-pandemic seasonal patterns of broadband usage, with the first quarter typically one of the weaker ones of the year. "What's happening is we're seeing more normal seasonality," said OpenVault CEO Mark Trudeau. "We won't see a repeat of April 2020 numbers."
At the same time, the Q1 figures indicate that broadband data usage will likely not return to the lower pre-pandemic levels seen before mid-March 2020, when the pandemic forced many to work and school from home. Instead, a new normal level of significantly higher broadband consumption appears to be settling into place.
"I do expect to see the higher levels remain," Trudeau said. "Levels of usage have forever risen."
OpenVault's data is based on anonymized, aggregated traffic generated by the company's ISP customer base, with results largely focused on the company's US customers. Most of the data comes from smaller Tier I and larger Tier II operators like Mediacom, CableOne and WideOpenWest.
OpenVault blamed most of the Q1 slowdown in data usage on a more dramatic drop in usage among heavy users, perhaps due to some percentage of people returning to offices and classrooms. The percentage of power users (defined as those using more than 1 terabyte of data each month) dropped 12% from 14.1% in Q4 to 12.4% in Q1, while the percentage of extreme power users (those chewing up more than 2 TB per month) declined 14% from 2.2% in Q4 to 1.8% in Q1.
Downstream usage dips but upstream stays high
In another notable finding, nearly all the decline in monthly average data usage occurred in the downstream direction, not the upstream. Monthly average upstream usage by US broadband households remained almost flat at 30 GB in Q1, down just a touch from 31 GB in Q4. In contrast, monthly average downstream usage fell to 432 GB in Q1, down from about 451 GB in Q4.
"There's been a change in usage behavior," Trudeau said, noting, for example, that family Zoom calls have become a mainstay of American life. "I expect to see upstream levels stay high and continue to grow."
OpenVault's latest report also found that gigabit speeds are continuing to spread and gain in popularity. In Q1, almost one-tenth (9.8%) of all broadband subscribers were provisioned for gigabit speeds, nearly triple the figure of 3.8% a year ago and up 15% from the 8.5% adoption rate in Q4. Over the past two quarters, the percentage of subscribers provisioned for gigabit-speed service has jumped 75%, from 5.6% in Q3 2020.
In addition, the report indicates that slightly more than 80% of broadband subscribers are now provisioned for 100 Mbit/s speeds or higher, On the opposite end of the spectrum, fewer than 5% of subs now opt for 20 Mbit/s or slower speeds.
"They (operators) are really pushing people to take 100 Mbit/s tiers and higher," Trudeau said, noting that the median broadband speed level taken is now between 200 Mbit/s and 300 Mbit/s. "The operators are really focusing ahead of the needs of subscribers."
Finally, subscribers on usage-based billing (UBB) plans are adopting higher-speed packages faster than subs on flat-rate billing (FBB) plans. The percentage of UBB subscribers on 100 Mbit/s tiers in Q1 grew 35% year-over-year, more than double the 17% growth rate for FRB subscribers over the same period.
— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading
A version of this story first appeared on Light Reading.