As Broadband Growth Slows, Expect Speed Boosts

The demand for broadband in the U.S., after growing at an explosive rate for almost two years, has started to slow, largely due to high market penetration rates and a struggling economy. UBS Research forecasts that the number of U.S. broadband connections will grow 11 percent in 2008, down from growth of 16 percent in 2007. The carriers — the cable operators and phone companies — are beginning to feel the impact, and are subsequently looking for ways to squeeze more dollars out of the broadband business. [digg=]

Verizon, for example, is pushing people to sign up for its more expensive FiOS service. Others are looking to use “speed boosts” as a way to lift their ARPU. This is not a new strategy: BellSouth, before it was acquired by AT&T, made good money by selling higher-speed tiers at a premium.

The latest company to follow this path is Windstream, a Little Rock, Ark.-based RLEC. The company said recently that it’s offering 12 Mbps ADSL2 service in some parts of its 16-state network. More importantly, it has increased its lowest-speed tier to 3 Megabits per second. Our good friends at DSLReports add that Windstream is offering the 12Mbps/1Mbps tier for $19.99 for the first six months, and $45 per month after that.

In recent months, Comcast started experimenting with 50 Mbps service (in Minneapolis), while Qwest said it it will start offering two new, higher-tier services — Qwest Connect Quantum (20 Mbps) and Qwest Connect Titanium (12 Mbps) — in certain cities. Broadband providers will have to convince consumers that they need the speed boost, however — that speed can improve their online experience.

It should come as no surprise that the carriers have let go of incremental speed upgrades and have gone ahead and doubled or tripled the speeds of their offerings. Why? Because bumping speed to 2 Mbps from 1 Mbps doesn’t really feel like a big boost. A 6X speed bump, on the other hand, makes the Internet much faster — and worth paying for. Suddenly, Hulu and YouTube become much more fun to watch. If a subscriber believes that he or she can download music, stream videos and connect to their favorite social networks faster, they will pay a premium price for that speed.

Never mind the fact that how fast content gets delivered to our computers is mandated by not just access speeds but several factors, such as congestion on the backbone networks and servers’ ability to dish out data. As our accompanying chart shows, the downstream speeds might be going up, but the carriers are stifling innovation by controlling the upstream speeds.

Broadband 2.0 is all about collaboration and sharing, and that requires just as much upstream bandwidth as it does downstream speeds. Regardless, this coming year is going to be fun as the cable companies and phone operators will do unnatural things to entice new subscribers, starting with offering faster connections at lower prices. Nothing wrong with that.