Bull Session

The Need for Speed: Mobile vs. Broadband

January 7, 2016          

Episode Summary

This week on the podcast, we discuss accessing the digital life in 2016. How do you get online? A recent Pew Research Center study indicates that fewer Americans have high-speed Internet at home in 2015 than they did two years ago in 2013 — a drop from 70% to 67%. And while broadband use is declining (ever so slightly), people who access digital services solely via smartphones is actually up 5%. The competition between wireless high speed internet and broadband has clearly begun to heat up.

Is there an upper limit to high speed mobile internet growth?
Network saturation — too many consumers using too few towers — is one bounding constraint. And signal quality can be variable based on the weather. But high speed mobile access is less costly to roll out than broadband.

In this episode, we chat about the ever growing need for online speed and the battle between broadband and mobile.

Resources
Pew Research Center: Home Broadband 2015 Study
Broadband Use is on the Way Down

Jon:
Welcome to Episode 137 of the Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the the world of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Happy new year Jon.

Jon:
Happy new year to you. I hope you had a good time on New Year’s eve, is that so?

Dirk:
No, New Year’s that’s one of my least favorite holidays. It involves lots of strangers and parties, and parties for me is a dirty word. It’s the P word so no, I don’t … New Year’s I stay on my little computer and work away like it’s any other day and resist all invitations to Ps.

Jon:
I see. I’ve had a long history of attending New Year’s parties that I’ve enjoyed but since I’ve got the two kids now we keep it low key. Watched a little bit of the festivities on television and I think we maybe watched a movie or something like that. Not a lot of big excitement anymore but …

Dirk:
You sound like an old married couple over there buddy.

Jon:
I think that’s where we’re headed but I’ll chalk it up as being middle age which is a horrible thing to say but that’s what it is. Let’s embrace the middle age.

Dirk:
All right.

Jon:
For our first podcast topic of 2016 we’re going to talk about accessing our digital lives. How do we get online in 2016 and surprisingly I think this is going to be an area that’s going to go through a lot of change. There was a recent research study that you pointed me to from the Pew Research Center that basically showed that there was a little bit of a dip in Americans using broadband Internet. 67% of Americans have high speed Internet at home compared to 70% two years ago in 2013 and this is a notable decline because of course everybody is rolling out their broadband Internet services. You can’t go anywhere without seeing a Fios ad from Verizon, at least in New England.

Folks are finding that service to be very expensive and as an alternative as people adapt Smartphones they’re getting online via the high speed wireless providers which is this case Verizon has their finger in that pie as well. That was not something that I saw coming because I appreciate a good broadband connection for streaming movies as we did on New Year’s eve. I think this is indicative of another generation of the millennials coming up and being used to just accessing the Internet in a mobile fashion. Maybe as their households get started they’re so used to doing this that they’re just adopting the wireless plan as opposed to being the broadband consumer. What’s your experience been with broadband versus wireless Dirk?

Dirk:
Well I use all of it and that’s because I’m a geek but it really comes down to use cases. Mobile devices are the best device for low fidelity content creation and content consumption. The iPad, the tablet style format is the best format for high resolution content consumption. The notebook or the computer, the device that you would want connected to broadband is best for high resolution content creation. If you don’t need high resolution content creation at home you probably don’t need broadband. I think we’re seeing that play out as this computing devices ecosystem becomes more mature.

Jon:
Some of this is interesting because as more folks adopt the high speed wireless connections a couple of things are going to happen. First, as more people are accessing the Internet in that way you’re going to get the same kind of constraints that come with a lot of usage which as cable Internet users know once you have a bunch of people pinging the services then everything slows down to a crawl. Fios is much better that way, that’s the fiber optics service from Verizon. I think that there’s going to be an interesting competition here because I think it’s not all that easy to see where the limits are.

They’re both going to bump up against usage limits for sure. What is attractive with the mobile high speed Internet is that you can get it wherever and whenever you want and it moves with you. If you want to watch your HBO NOW while you’re waiting in line it’s there.

Dirk:
Jon, that’s going to get expensive.

Jon:
Yeah, for sure. Well, they’ve those data plans where they don’t count streaming services against your data plans. That’s where the wireless providers are really trying to stick it to broadband.

Dirk:
Great point.

Jon:
The thing is I don’t know if you’ve got a larger television and you want HD on it I don’t know that it’s going to be very easy for you to watch a movie via the mobile Internet. You’re going to need to surf down a lot more data than maybe it’s easy to access that way. There’s all sorts of quality and expense issues like T-Mobile can throw up more towers to increase their footprint and all the wireless providers can do that. It’s very expensive to roll our more fiber optic service across a location because you have to dig up the ground or you have to string wires along the telephone pole. There’s a lot more expense there.

Dirk:
That’s true.

Jon:
As companies are deciding where to invest their money for Internet access I imagine that the mobile providers are really going to try to take the hammer to pull up the landline or fiber or cable simply because they can. There is going to be that upper limit where service starts to degrade. Where I think this starts to get very interesting is you’re talking about the Internet of Things where you have a lot more devices connecting to the Internet. Some of those are going to be done vial cellular networks that are not typically accessible by some of the mobile products that we might carry around with us like Smartphones and/or your wearable.

You’re going to have a lot more objects competing for bandwidth regardless. There’s going to be business critical services that are being relayed that way so that creates additional tension over assigning of bandwidth. I fully expect the mobile wireless to explode over the next couple of years because of that consideration. Dirk, when you think about all of the Internet on Things objects that are coming, how does that affect your considerations of Internet access?

Dirk:
In terms of the Internet of Things we can see today and those in the near future frankly their requirements for bandwidth are very limited. They tend to be sending very small data packets and not even necessarily constantly but just on a routine or semi-basis. In the short term I don’t think Internet of Things is a big consideration. The question is in 20 years what will be the relationship of the Internet of Things in this ecosystem? Then it could be much more dramatic so I think you’re right that that’s a key trend to put your finger on. There’s a lot going for mobile connection as the primary connection. The last time that my cell phone didn’t work in a place or … cell phone I guess is an adequate way of putting it.

Jon:
Sure.

Dirk:
The last time …

Jon:
You’re showing your age too.

Dirk:
I am showing my game. The last time that the iPhone didn’t work in a place I know I get good coverage and it works I can’t even remember, probably years ago that it didn’t work. With the broadband connection there’s always some problem. You have to reset your router or you have to unplug the box from the provider and wait 10 seconds and plug it, all this bullshit. That’s never the case with the mobile connection. It’s always there, it’s always on and for people who aren’t workaholics or Uber geeks like me and maybe you you just don’t need the width of that broadband pipe.

You would rather just make sure that when you want to tweet your cat picture or text your boyfriend that you can just do it and not have to reset some goofy hardware that you don’t understand. I think there’s just a lot of good reasons why people would gravitate to preferring their mobile connection.

Jon:
One thing that’s quite interesting about this corollary trend of cord cutting is that you’re able to get so much content now online whether it’s via Netflix or HBO NOW or Amazon Prime that consuming that content on your mobile phone no longer seems quite as limited as it did a couple of years ago. You can watch a lot of movies, a lot of great shows. Additionally when you’re holding the phone in front of you sorry but you have the same ratios because it’s closer to your face. It’s not as immersive as maybe your larger TV is but the experience is okay especially if you’re in a family where everybody wants to watch something different.

Which is an interesting time at my house where we’re on our phones and all watching different shows or movies or whatever. I see that as a possible way of consuming content in the future, everybody is just on their own private wavelength and checking out shows on their own

Dirk:
Living in the midst of that now it sure is nice to look at the big screen, right?

Jon:
It is.

Dirk:
When I’m home I’m often relegated to watching something on my phone or my laptop screen. My iPad is now broken but previously my iPad screen would have been a common one. Now during this break I had some times when the family was gone, I could stream on Chromecast to the giant TV, work and have it on the giant TV. I was happy. It was a much richer and more enjoyable experience than trying to work on my laptop with my iPhone with this tiny screen with the movie going or something. It was much more humane, it just felt good instead of feeling forced and broken. There’s that balance.

The realities of how our homes are designed today, the realities of how our computer ecosystems are designed today are such that in order to satisfy out different content desirements we’re locked into the small screens and these hobbled experiential moments. Those aren’t the best ways for consuming that content. I expect as more time goes on we’ll gravitate away from the strictly utilitarian personal desires being met to something that’s far more experientially rich even while leveraging on allowing us to see what we want to see as opposed to the whole family watching some compromised thing that no one wants to watch.

Jon:
Right. There are a host of design considerations that come along with the way we access the Internet. We’re just talking about a few of them here but you’ve got a design for multiple types of devices. You start watching on one device and finish up on another. Additionally once you’re talking about a device that’s moving with you as you’re going through life the quality of the connection there matters an awful a lot and you’ve noted that your connection has been pretty good. I’ve had the opposite experience at my house.

Dirk:
On your phone.

Jon:
Yeah.

Dirk:
That might be by your house’s location, right?

Jon:
It could be, yeah. It just makes this cord cutting mobile paradigm impossible for me whereas the fiber feels great. All of these real world considerations coupled with the user experience of the software I think it’s going to continue to be an area where designers are going to be focusing because the quality of a network as we noted is no longer in particular guaranteed. At the same time there are all sorts of different options for accessing the network. I’ve seen a number of designers talk about incorporating those considerations into their general design practice like how are you accessing the network and what’s the quality of the connection?

There are designers who are exploring that area and I think it’s going to become increasingly important because it says we’ve got this life online now so we expect it to be like water. You turn on a tap and it flows but we’re not quite there yet. It’ll be interesting to see how these competing areas for Internet access play out in 2016.

Dirk:
Interesting indeed.

Jon:
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show you can follow along the things we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one L in thedigitalife and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included resources and links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody so you can check that out while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T and off course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios which you can check out at goinvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?

Dirk:
You can follow me on Twitter and @dknemeyer that’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R or email me dirk@goinvo.com.

Jon:
That’s it for Episode 137 of the Digital Life for Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, happy new year and we’ll see you next time.

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