A third of broadband switchers want symmetrical speeds

A debate has been raging between cable and fiber players over whether symmetrical speeds are a must-have or merely a marketing campaign. But the question of whether consumers need symmetrical speeds is very different from asking whether they want such capabilities. Fresh data from Recon Analytics indicates that for a significant portion of consumers the answer to the latter is a resounding “yes.”

Charter CEO Tom Rutledge has notably argued the position that the answer to the first question – do customers need symmetrical speeds – is no, and that all the hype around such capabilities is just marketing buzz. And usage data appears to back him up. OpenVault’s most recent report showed that while uplink usage is growing, it remains a fraction of downstream consumption.  

AT&T, meanwhile, has been one of the most vocal proponents of symmetrical speeds, particularly in the multi-gig realm. Shortly after the rollout of its 2-gig and 5-gig plans, AT&T VP of Broadband Technology Management Josh Goodell noted uplink usage had jumped 3x among multi-gig subscribers.

Recon Analytics founder Roger Entner told Fierce that a recent survey it conducted found more than a third of likely internet switchers “consider symmetrical speed important when they plan their decision” and that they’re willing to “pay more for it.”

To Rutledge’s point, it appears marketing does play a role in how much consumers value symmetrical speeds. AT&T has heavily advertised its symmetrical capabilities – an effort which was reflected in the survey.

“AT&T, with its Fiber offer has been a lot better able to communicate the advantage of symmetric speeds. And 60% of their customers find value in it whereas Verizon, which does not advertise it, only 31% find value in it,” Entner told Fierce.

The finding is notable given maps from BroadbandNow show Charter competes with AT&T in Ohio, North Carolina, southern California and parts of Texas and Georgia, among other markets.

Despite Rutledge’s insistence that symmetrical speeds are not necessary, the operator is nonetheless preparing to offer them. At an investor conference in May, Charter CFO Jessica Fischer said its rollout of high-splits will enable it to offer multi-gig symmetrical speeds in the near future. And fellow cable player Comcast is similarly pushing to offer “multi-gig symmetrical at scale” using mid-splits, CEO Dave Watson said in May.

But it is unclear how long these updates or even upgrades to DOCSIS 4.0 will be able to fend off advances from fiber. Many fiber players are using 10-gig capable XGS-PON technology, with the likes of AT&T already trialing 25-gig tech. Last month, an AT&T executive told Fierce mainstream 25G rollouts will likely ramp in 2024.

In the cable world, most large operators are currently running DOCSIS 3.1, which enables downstream speeds of up to 10 Gbps and upstream speeds of 1-2 Gbps. A shift to DOCSIS 4.0 will bump the upstream number to 6 Gbps, but the timeline for deployment of the technology is unclear.