September 23, 2020

Data From Italy, China Suggests The US Internet Isn’t Likely To Choke On COVID-19 Broadband Usage Spike

As millions of Americans begin to work and learn from home in a bid to slow the spread of COVID-19, America’s patchy and expensive broadband networks are likely to get a workout. To be clear, the shift will certainly highlight the broken US telecom market, at least in terms of patchy availability, limited competition, and high prices. But most experts say US networks should be able to shoulder the load without too much difficulty.

As of last week, giants like AT&T and Verizon say they hadn’t seen a massive surge in internet usage yet, and insisted they’d be able to shoulder any load once usage ramps up further:

“Verizon, which runs both wired and wireless networks, said it had not seen a “measurable increase in data usage” since the outbreak but that it was prepared to handle potential increases. “Verizon operates its networks every day as though it’s a snow day,” Kyle Malady, Verizon’s chief technology officer, said in a statement. “While it is not clear yet how having millions of additional people working from home will impact usage patterns, we are ready to address changes in demand, if needed.”

Most ISPs have taken numerous measures to make sure users can remain online, such as waiving all late fees and promising not to kick people offline if they can’t pay their bill due to Coronavirus-related difficulty. They’ve also indicated they’re going to be eliminating all usage caps and overage fees, making it clear that such restrictions — as countless experts had long argued — didn’t actually help them manage congestion, and were little more than a tax on captive broadband customers in uncompetitive markets.

So far, data from the US, China, and Italy would seemingly suggest that while overall speeds may slow slightly, the internet itself should be able to handle the load:

“Ookla analyzed internet performance data in China, Italy, and the US over the past several weeks. In Hubei, China, the population was locked down on Jan. 22-23, but internet speeds began to decline the week of Jan. 13. In Italy, lockdowns started on March 9, and Ookla saw notable speed declines in both the province of Lombardy and in Italy as a whole that week.

These are speed declines, though, not crashes. The networks are holding up, they’re just under a bit of strain. That bodes well for US networks.

Granted, things could change substantially if supply chains and network engineer and support staffs become shorthanded. Satellite broadband (which is heavily capped and throttled) may be particularly susceptible to strain. But by and large by most indications the US internet should be able to handle the pandemic.

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