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When it comes to internet speeds, is there such a thing as “too fast”?

How much bandwidth do we really need?

With the impending rollout of Jio GigaFibre and the ongoing price war in the 4G space, the question is more relevant now than ever. Our analysis showed us that even with the rise of ever-faster connections, there are other tech issues regarding data delivery that are at play and need to be solved first. Besides, as with any technology of the past – be it 3D or 4K for example – the content is important too. Have you wondered just what do you plan on doing with a gigabit connection in the first place? Do you really need a gigabit connection to do the things you’ve always done? Probably not. But the answer isn’t that simple. Read on…

India’s Digital Transformation

In the early 2000s, a digitally connected India would’ve been hard to conceive. Forget digital connectivity: providing reliable physical infrastructure—roads without the tar sliding off them and telephone networks that’d actually connect your calls—was often beyond the capacity of the state.

Village boy and family
Village boy with father, grandfather and brother using a laptop

According to the TRAI, there are nearly 462 million internet users in the country, as of January. With everything from governance mechanisms to consumer entertainment products going digital, it’s important to not just look into the figures: More Indians are online today than the population of the United States. But how fast is their internet access? How reliable is it? And, most importantly, does it enable people to do what needs doing? If we’re here to talk about speed, it won’t be a particularly interesting conversation: India continues to be ranked dead last in terms of average broadband speeds in the Asia-Pacific region. Going by an Akamai report, the average connection speed in India was 4.1 Mbps, as of Q3 last year. The year-on-year figures, however, paint a brighter picture: India registered among the highest rates of change. In 2014, average connections speeds were below 2 Mbps. Still, what does a 4.1 Mbps average actually mean in the here and now? Forget about latency, reliability, or even the fact that gentle wind can knock out your connection for hours in tier-II and tier-III cities (which has happened to us too many times to be dismissed as accidents). At the end of the day, you need at least a certain amount of bandwidth in order to even be able to do certain things. At all.

You need exactly this much bandwidth

Back in the day, a 56K dial-up connection was enough to take off your IM needs and to navigate many text-heavy websites. But you have 2017’s rich web content to contend with today: A 1 Mbps connection loads most modern websites at a tolerably fast rate. It’s enough to stream MP3-quality audio. It’s also the bare minimum to stream SD-quality videos. Go up a notch to 2 Mbps and you’re able to stream 720p videos. Considering the sizes of games these days, this is also the bare minimum if you expect to download anything off Steam before the end of the century. At 4 Mbps—the apparent national average—you can just about manage a 1080p stream. 4-5 Mbps is also the minimum for a decent experience with cloud gaming and desktop solutions like LiquidSky and GeForce Now. If your bandwidth-intensive use cases end with 1080p video streams, a 4 Mbps connection is more than enough to provide you with a good browsing experience. This is all assuming low latency and a connection that doesn’t conk off at the slightest excuse.

Check it out, something you’ll never be able to do!

Indian Internet Use Cases

Let’s put this another way: is a 4 Mbps connection enough to ensure a decent internet experience for an average Indian’s use cases? What do Indians actually use the internet for, anyways? As of last year close to 200 million Indians were on Facebook, the most from any country. The majority of these users accessed social media content from mobile devices. The main Indian use case, then, is mobile access to social media. If we take that into consideration, the connection speed question (and the reliability and latency questions) become a lot less clear: we’re not talking about users on 4 Mbps broadband connections here. We’re talking about people on 2G, 3G, and 4G connections.

internet subscribers Courtesy: DazeInfo
Internet adoption rates in India over time 
[Courtesy: DaseInfo]

Unfortunately, despite Jio’s efforts to offer 4G in exchange for your soul for kinda-sorta free, the majority of these mobile internet users are on the slower variety of connection. Fortunately, most social media use-cases, apart from live streaming and video uploads, don’t require much raw bandwidth. Also, “Lite” apps and sites like Facebook Lite ensure that you get a reasonable social media experience, even if you’re on a 2G connection. What else do Indians use the internet for? Under the aegis of the Digital India program, both state and central governments bodies are shifting documentation, registrations, and payments online. From sad experience, the majority of these portals look like they were designed before Y2K. Although, that means you don’t need much bandwidth to avail the government’s entire bouquet of digital offerings. So, social media consumption and filing government documents: The way things stand, a 4 Mbps connection is more than enough for an average Indian’s internet use cases, even if that’s a metered connection that’s less reliable than a Jio voice call. But, what about what, say, an average reader of Digit needs in terms of internet connectivity? Well, that changes things. A lot.

Speed can matter

YouTube has over 60 million unique users in India, 70 percent of whom are under the age of 35. For the upwardly mobile millennial crowd, internet use means a lot more than checking Facebook and paying your gas bill. We’re looking at fundamentally different use cases here, not just in the present, but in the immediate future. Do Indian internet connections have what it takes to cater to these requirements? What are they? If YouTube usage statistics are anything to go by, video streaming is one such use case. It’s here that connectivity starts meaning a lot more than peak bandwidth figures. Let’s frame this simply: for a video to stream, you not only need to have a connection with enough bandwidth to handle the stream without buffering, you need to have a stable connection that provides the necessary bandwidth for as long as your video’s being streamed.

While both mobile and broadband users might experience good peak broadband speeds, load variations mean that your streaming experience can differ significantly at different points in time. Personally, this writer remembers spending good money on a BSNL EVDO connection to avail their promised FUP-free connection at “up to 3.5 Mbps.” That “up to” is important: in practice, we never experienced speeds that were significantly higher than EDGE during the day, with occasional peaks around 1 Mbps. The situation might not be quite as extreme with most broadband or mobile connections, but your actual connection speed at a given point of time is often just a fraction of peak throughput. With that in mind, a 4 Mbps connection may or may not be enough to take care of your basic streaming needs. If reliability was the only issue, we’d still be quite happy. It isn’t, however

trade network
Internet connectivity has radically transformed communication in India

Bandwidth Capping: The Real Problem.

Bandwidth capping is the Indian internet’s worst bugbear. This, more than anything else, shapes people’s usage patterns. It only takes a 2 Mbps downlink to stream a YouTube video in 720p. The flipside to this is that you use up over 100 MB to stream just ten minutes of video content. If you limit yourself to the occasional Cyanide & Happiness short, you’re unlikely to run into your data cap. However, change in the very nature of content delivery creates problems. With the rise of Netflix and Amazon Prime, millions of people are watching feature-length content in HD, streamed over their internet connections. How many episodes of The Man in the High Castle can you watch until the bandwidth Gestapo throttle your connection to 512 Kbps? People are increasingly ditching TV to watch “TV shows” online, and TV channels themselves are available for streaming. 4G vendors promote their video and music streaming services as value adds to utilize 4G connections. But how can you possibly use Airtel Movies, for instance, if you have a 10 GB monthly data cap? So long as you stick to relatively low resolutions (and if you’re frugal with what you stream), a 20-50 GB cap can take you a long way. The arrival of HEVC-encoded content has brought down the bandwidth and data thresholds for streaming good quality video.

But 4K’s where it’s at, going by media reports. And you’re going to run through any data cap in a few days if you try to stream 4K content. One thing we often overlook is that digital TV set-top boxes are piped data, essentially unlimited quantities of it—enough to deliver a 1080p stream of reasonable quality at all times of day, for a fixed price. In that sense, FUP-free data connections do exist. They’re just not for services you want to use. FUP limits are fundamentally incompatible with the idea of streaming services, and if the likes of Netflix are to make inroads here in India, more than upping bandwidth on connections, FUP limits need to either be relaxed or eliminated. The rumour mill suggests that Jio GigaFiber will feature a 10 Mbps FUP-free plan. That is precisely what’s needed for a solid streaming experience.

The Indian Gaming Experience: Drop in, Drop out

We haven’t even touched on gaming yet. There are roughly 1 million active Steam users in India, comprising approximately 0.5 percent of the global Steam user base, and a paltry 0.25 percent of the total number of internet users in India. While gaming’s huge for us personally, it’s most definitely not the average Indian use-case, even by factoring in internet-cafe CS gamers. That being said, the nature of Indian internet connectivity has a significant impact on your gaming experience: Average bandwidth is enough to get the job done with regards to Steam downloads…to an extent. Games frequently exceed 50 GB in size. At 4 Mbps, you’re looking at leaving your system on for at least 24 hours. Mandatory updates can leave your games in an effectively unplayable state for quite a bit of time, and that’s just the single-player experience.

Low ping
They’ve got horrible ping and they’re losing. Trust us, we just know

While e-Sports titles like DotA 2 have Indian servers, you’ll often have to connect to Asia-Pacific or European servers to play multiplayer in many AAA titles. Here, latency becomes incredibly important. Ping, of course, scales with your distance to the server. Ideal servers are within 1,000 kilometres of your location. When looking at connecting to a European or Australian server, that increases by a factor of ten. When you’re looking at a ping in the 300 ms range, instead of competing based on your skill, you’re actively fighting latency. With many AAA games blurring the lines between MMOs and single player experiences, this can turn games like Destiny into nightmares. Latency has absolutely nothing to do with your bandwidth, but it can make or break your multiplayer experience. Cloud game streaming solutions are even more of a reach. For starters, neither GeForce Now nor LiquidSky servers are anywhere near India. When you’re streaming the actual gaming experience, latency becomes even more important—anything higher than 100 ms and the illusion that you’re playing on local hardware is completely shattered. At present, it’s physically impossible to have a decent cloud-streamed gaming experience in India, regardless of bandwidth availability—the servers are just too far away.

How fast, really, is too fast?

There is, indeed a point where fast becomes too fast. Typical Indian use cases don’t actually need more bandwidth than a bog-standard 4 Mbps connection. In more niche areas like gaming and HD streaming, you run into regulatory issues like the FUP, and reliability issues long before bandwidth becomes a constraint. Fiber providers increasingly try to sell us high-bandwidth connections. But when your 100 Mbps fiber connection can only stream a few Netflix episodes before throttling, when you’re on the phone with customer service every time there’s so much as a strong wind; when you struggle to play multiplayer because of impossible latency, ask yourself: is investing in speed really worth it?

This article was first published in March 2017 issue of Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit e-magazine app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.

Arjun Krishna Lal

Arjun Krishna Lal