Lessons from Internet Use and Performance During Covid-19

When COVID-19 hit, many people began working, going to school, and living much of their lives from home. The Internet was a gateway to the world. This article uses data from Internet speed tests, consumer complaints, search engine optimization tools, and logs of Internet use from public libraries to understand the effects of the pandemic on Internet use and performance. Despite reports that the Internet handled the surge in traffic well, we find that complaints about Internet speed nearly tripled, and performance was degraded. Downstream data rates changed little, but median upstream data rates at midday dropped by about a third. When discussing Internet performance, people typically focus on downstream. This focus should shift. Internet service providers and policymakers should reduce the asymmetry by changing how infrastructure is designed, how Internet services are advertised, how regulators write transparency rules, and how government defines “broadband” in subsidy programs intended to reduce the digital divide. We also find significant increases in the use of many important categories of online content, including those used for work communications, education, grocery shopping, social media, news, and job searches. This shows the importance of the Internet during the crisis. Many people without Internet at home turned to public Wi-Fi hotspots during the pandemic. We find that this occurred disproportionately in neighborhoods with more students. Future distance learning initiatives should consider the challenges some students face in obtaining Internet access.

Lessons from Internet Use and Performance During Covid-19 Internet performance during COVID not as great as many say, study shows