Understanding Cellular Bandwidth and Why It Matters

As of January of this year, 4.66 billion people—more than half of the world’s population—were actively using the internet. Of this number, a whopping 92.6% access the internet using mobile devices. With such a vast number of people accessing massive data, today’s service providers are in need of network upgrades to increase bandwidth capacity.

Cellular Bandwidth in Layman’s Terms

Many consumers mistakenly think of cellular bandwidth as internet speed; but of course, these two are entirely different. A common metaphor used to make the distinction clear is to visualize water flowing through a pipe. Internet speed is how quickly a drop of water (data) flows through the pipe, while bandwidth capacity is the diameter of the pipe, and bandwidth is the total amount of water that flows through the pipe in a certain amount of time. So the larger the pipe, the more water can flow through it, and the faster its potential flow rate.

With the increasingly digital and mobile economy, people are consuming more and more cellular bandwidth, compelling service providers to increase their bandwidth capacity to meet subscriber demand. Over the years, bandwidths have increased from mere kHz to MHz, and speeds from Kbps to Mbps. 5G holds the promise of delivering data at Gigabit speeds, allowing subscribers to receive the maximum amount of data possible in the shortest amount of time.

How Is Cellular Bandwidth Consumed?

Every time consumers connect to the internet, they consume bandwidth. The more bandwidth a data connection has, the more data it can send and receive simultaneously. The more bandwidth a provider delivers, the faster consumers can transmit and receive data. However, the amount of bandwidth and data they can use monthly depends on their network plan with their service provider.

For instance, a consumer subscribed to a 10 Mbps plan could download 10 MB of data per second. If several users share the same connection, each can only download a portion of the limit, resulting in much slower download times.

When we apply these principles to a cell site we can see that the amount of spectrum deployed at the cell site (capacity) and the technologies in use, such as 3G, 4G, and 5G (flow rate), determine the capacity available to consumers.  If four or more connected devices all use cellular data, 10 Mbps is not enough to provide the speed and amount of data needed for seamless connectivity. The more users sharing the capacity, the worse the experience is for all of them.

How Much Cellular Bandwidth Do Consumers Need?

According to a January 2021 Statista report, video apps accounted for 66.2% of global mobile data usage every month. Meanwhile, social networking accounted for around 10.1% of global mobile data volume. Streaming a video in standard definition already requires 3 to 4 Mbps. In HD, it would require about 5 to 8 Mbps. Add to that all the other connected devices in a home, and a family of four would need much more than 25 Mbps.

The FCC provides a Broadband Speed Guide to give consumers an idea of the minimum download speed required for the adequate performance of various online activities. General browsing, checking emails, social media browsing, standard video conferencing, VoIP calls and streaming online radio require around 1 Mbps. Virtual classes, online learning platforms, telecommuting, downloading files and video teleconferencing would need anywhere from 5 to 25 Mbps.

Based on these data, an average American family would need to subscribe to a 25 Mbps plan to do basic activities like surfing, videoconferencing, and music streaming. But to enjoy streaming HD videos, playing multiplayer online games, and downloading large files, they would need plans with 100 Mbps and above.

The challenge facing service providers now is how to efficiently increase their capacity to provide the massive bandwidth that their customers require.

Where Do Users Consume a Lot of Cellular Bandwidth?

To enhance their services, providers must also determine where consumers use the bulk of bandwidth. This will enable them to identify in which areas to increase their capacity.

Indoors, consumers typically use Wi-Fi to connect devices to wireless routers. These routers connect to modems with fiber or broadband connections. However, Wi-Fi has a limited range, so consumers tend to use cellular data outdoors or in places with weak Wi-Fi.

In public places where Wi-Fi connections are not secure, most consumers also prefer using their cellular data. They either use portable Wi-Fi devices or turn their smartphones into mobile hotspots. Either way, this consumes cellular bandwidth as well. Because of security issues in public places, higher cellular traffic occurs in cafés, convention halls, hotels, sports arenas and similar venues.

What Devices Do Consumers Typically Use?

Smartphones are still the most popular devices for accessing the internet. According to Pew Research, 85% of Americans own a smartphone, while only 77% own desktops and laptops, and a mere 53% have tablets. However, many consumers today own more than one of these devices and use them concurrently.

New technologies also lead to increased use of smart monitors, digital devices with IoT applications, and products with machine-to-machine communication capabilities. In the coming years, most of the devices people use at home and work will connect to the internet, further reinforcing the need for higher bandwidth capacity and faster network speeds.

Meeting Bandwidth Demands with 5G mmWave

Over the years, there has been a steady increase in the number of internet users. The most recent Pew Research survey indicates that 93% of US adults actively use the internet. As full digitization continues to be implemented across all industries, we can expect this number to grow faster in the next couple of years.

Aside from this, IoT applications are also becoming a ubiquitous part of our lives, thanks to the convenience of ‘smart’ devices. We can now connect the objects we use every day to the internet, enabling seamless communication between people and things. Today, industrial machines, cars, kitchen appliances, office equipment, and many other connected devices can interact digitally.

As the number of devices we use that require access to cellular networks increases, service providers must find ways to meet our increasing bandwidth demands. Some of these providers have already started rolling out their 5G services to do so.

Major network operators now offer sub-6 GHz 5G, which is faster than 4G. However, to meet the demands of consumers for more data and faster connectivity, in areas with very dense capacity demands, mmWave spectrum is deployed to provide many hundreds of MHz of additional bandwidth.  However, mmWave is not economical for wide-area deployment because mmWave frequencies do not propagate over long distances and are blocked by most objects and materials, including energy-efficient glass.

To fully maximize the benefits of 5G, service providers must understand how and where consumers use data.  5G deployments use low, mid, and high-band spectrum to balance capacity demands with network costs.  The C-Band spectrum – or so-called mid-band – provides a good compromise between large channel bandwidth capability and reasonable propagation characteristics.  T-Mobile uses the 2500 MHz band for this purpose, while Verizon and AT&T purchased large portions of the C-Band in recent auctions.

To enable indoor and outdoor cellular communications, including at many of the world’s best-known and most challenging venues, SOLiD modular solutions scale to every challenge. The SOLiD ALLIANCE 5G DAS provides full band coverage for both 2500 MHz and C-Band.  The edgeROU Fiber2Antenna DAS provides up to eight commercial cellular and private networking frequency bands over a single fiber strand to a lightweight, low-power, aesthetically pleasing DAS remote with high-performance integrated antennas. Contact us to discuss your specific DAS needs to meet capacity requirements, today and tomorrow.