Generally speaking, experts believe the U.S. internet should hold up pretty well under the significant new strain created by COVID-19. Italy and China’s networks have generally weathered the added load, and most major U.S. ISPs say congestion shouldn’t be a problem. Streaming providers have been reducing their overall bandwidth consumption as a precautionary measure, though generally many providers say they’ve seen greater impact from events like the Superbowl.
That’s not to say there won’t be a few hiccups. A new report by broadband availability tracking firm BroadbandNow indicates that a number of cities are seeing slowdowns under the weight of millions of additional telecommuters and videoconferencing students. That said, most cities aren’t seeing any sort of devastating slowdowns as of yet:
“Eighty eight (44%) of the 200 cities we analyzed have experienced some degree of network degradation over the past week compared to the 10 weeks prior. However, only 27 (13.5%) cities are experiencing dips of 20% below range or greater.”
The real problem, of course, is that many U.S. consumers don’t have particularly great broadband speeds to begin with, especially on the upstream side. In many areas the best users can get is crappy DSL from an apathetic, government-pampered telco that has neglected upgrades and repairs for years. It’s not surprising that many of these connections, which often have upstream speeds as slow as 1-3 Mbps (and don’t even meet the FCC’s standard broadband definition of 25 Mbps) are struggling under the load:
“It is important to note that though speeds may be holding relatively steady across the nation, many areas do not have robust connections to begin with. For instance, though Anchorage, Alaska is holding within range, its median download speed of 17.77 Mbps is well below the FCC’s current definition of broadband, which is 25 Mbps. The state itself currently ranks 51st in our list of best and worst states for internet coverage, pricing, and speeds.”
The other obvious problem highlighted by COVID-19 is a lack of access in general.
One recent study estimated that 42 million Americans lack access to broadband of any kind, nearly double FCC estimates. And with broadband now effectively an essential utility for those under lockdown, the fact that tens of millions more Americans often can’t afford service is also likely to cause problems. This digital divide, which receives ample lip service from regulators and politicians but little in the way of substantive action, is more glaring than ever now that broadband has become an essential lifeline for home bound Americans trying to slow the spread of the pandemic.