Coronavirus Lockdown Tested Internet's Backbone
By Lillian Rizzo and Sawyer Click
Internet usage soared 25% within a few days in mid-March as the
coronavirus pandemic started forcing Americans to stay home, a Wall
Street Journal analysis found, and is bound to remain substantially
higher than before the pandemic.
The shelter-at-home orders that followed President Trump's March
13 emergency declaration meant that millions of Americans had to
rely on their home internet to work, learn, communicate and
entertain themselves -- from video streaming to gaming.
The increased internet usage has pushed broadband providers to
perform round-the-clock enhancements on their networks, in hopes of
minimizing hiccups to connection and speed. Quarterly broadband
subscribership and revenue for these companies have shot up,
boosted by crisis-related relief pledges as well as more people in
need of at-home internet service and signing up for faster, and
more costly, speeds.
Internet usage gradually slowed after the end of March, and fell
more rapidly as some states began reopening in May, only to rise
again in June as coronavirus infections rebounded.
Many states were affected differently -- and their internet
usage reflects that. Heavily urbanized regions such as the New York
City tri-state area and California were among the first to go into
lockdown, during which their internet usage remained relatively
Rural states in the Northeast such as Maine saw an influx of
urban residents in the early days of confinement, which may explain
a bigger relative surge in internet usage -- only to drop faster as
restrictions in urban states were lifted.
"There were some places, especially vacation-home places like in
New England, that initially started rising really quick," said Matt
Tooley, vice president of broadband technology at the Internet
& Television Association, also known as the NCTA. The
organization has been tracking geographical internet trends since
mid-March from cable broadband providers including Comcast Corp.,
Charter Communications Inc., Cox Communications Inc. and Altice USA
The use of upstream broadband -- used for video conferencing and
calling -- increased at a faster clip overall than the more
traditional internet activities such as streaming and gaming, which
are known as downstream internet usage.
Despite the suddenness of the usage surge, the internet has
performed with few major problems, as internet providers worked to
add capacity to the network and prevent congestion that could cause
"A happy surprise was that the data [usage] didn't just continue
to rise forever," Mr. Tooley said.
Executives and analysts have said the rapidly increasing
broadband usage didn't come anywhere near the overall capacity,
leaving plenty of bandwidth. An NCTA spokesman said it is hard to
measure how much bandwidth remained despite the usage surge, which
would vary with each provider.
Tony Werner, president of technology at Comcast Cable, said only
"a tenth of a percent" of Comcast's network needed immediate
attention early on in the pandemic, with a good portion of that
being in Silicon Valley. As overall usage decreased, providers
including Comcast had time to perform more network upgrades.
Most providers usually have a year or more of additional
capacity built into the network to ensure there won't be major
slowdowns. Since the beginning of the pandemic, that cushion shrank
considerably, but the relative slowdown in internet usage over the
summer allowed for some providers to regain some of that
"Yes, overall usage eased in the second quarter, but nothing is
forever in this pandemic," said Mark Trudeau, chief executive of
the broadband data firm OpenVault. He said the rest of the year
might look different, citing the increase in upstream usage, a
consumer shift to higher speeds and other question marks such as
distance learning, continued work from home and the growing number
of Covid-19 cases in some U.S. states.
"These are all flashing signals that higher consumption levels
lie ahead, " Mr. Trudeau said.
Write to Lillian Rizzo at Lillian.Rizzo@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
August 15, 2020 11:14 ET (15:14 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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