Sturdy U.S. Broadband System Has Survived COVID-19 Usage Bump Thanks to Federal Policy, ITIF Report Concludes

Although U.S. broadband networks have weathered the COVID-19 traffic surge better than most technically advanced nations, the "shortcomings of competitive networks [that] don't adequately" serve customers "should galvanize policymakers to ensure broadband can serve as an essential lifeline for everyone, including low-income and rural residents," according to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. ITIF issued its "Lessons From the Pandemic" report on Monday (July 13), showing that home broadband traffic is up by between 20% and 40%, compared to a year ago. It concludes that, "reliance on facility-based competition and light-touch regulation set the stage for the consistent, above-average private investment that sustained U.S. broadband networks through this crisis."

But the U.S. needs "a more robust subsidy program for low-income broadband users that can swell with crises like this one," said the report's author Doug Brake, who directs the Washington think tank's broadband and spectrum policy program. "Most households with school-aged children have broadband available to them, but some lack the resources to subscribe or purchase computers."

"Congress should support, through general funds, a program whereby schools are able to purchase computing devices," the report suggested. "At the same time, tools within the FCC’s E-Rate program could be expanded to reimburse schools for Wi-Fi hotspots or wired broadband installation kits to provide connectivity for students in their homes." ITIF says that that the FCC has such authority today, "but Congress should clarify and put the funding source on surer footing."

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"Despite the increased importance of broadband during the COVID pandemic, many still have not adopted a fixed broadband network in their home. This is for a variety of reasons, but usually stems from a combination of affordability, lack of perceived relevance, and the option for close substitutes such as mobile broadband through smartphones."

ITIF's study endorses plans at the FCC and in Congress to meet the "urgent, short-term need for a subsidy that helps Americans pay their broadband bills including the commitment by hundreds of broadband providers not to disconnect consumers when they are unable to pay.

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"That current networks so well accommodated the jump in both download and upload traffic indicates there is no need to over-invest public resources to subsidize ultra-fast networks where broadband infrastructure already exists," ITIF said. "The remarkable resiliency of U.S. broadband networks during the pandemic should give us confidence that the basic regulatory framework is sound."

Critique of Capacity Measurements

Unsurprisingly, the ITIF report noted that COVID-19 broadband traffic increases are largely due to more streaming, pointing to studies showing that video constitutes more than 60% of internet traffic, with video game downloads consuming another major chunk of capacity.

COVID-19 impact on fixed download speed, select countries.  Source: ITIF

COVID-19 impact on fixed download speed, select countries.  Source: ITIF

At the heart of the capacity evaluation is the data collected from various analytical sources such as the Ookla Speedtest, SamKnows and a BroadbandNow gauge. The Ookla and SamKnows tests show about a 1% drop in U.S. broadband speeds compared with speeds before the stay-at-home orders. It also cited M-Lab’s Network Diagnostic Tool (NDT), calling it "not a reliable measure of network speed" because it is based on a measurement that uses a single TCP connection, which cannot reliably saturate an entire ISP access link.

IITF contended that a variety of factors, such as poor Wi-Fi performance and complaints when viewers sense a slowdown, may contribute to the appearance of network latency. But it dismisses the slight drop as negligible and says they are far lower than the speed declines in most other countries, according to an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report. In particular, ITIF noted that the speed drops in many countries stemmed from peering arrangements that were difficult to change on the fly - which is not a factor in most U.S. network architecture.

Citing an array of sources, ITIF acknowledged that "the United States has relatively affordable broadband," but that "the relatively strong price discrimination of U.S. broadband" means that "low-end slower broadband is cheap while high-end faster options are relatively more expensive." The study pointed to "specialized low-cost products tailored to qualifying low-income users," such as Comcast’s Internet Essentials and Charter’s Spectrum Internet Assist, but recommended that because of extensive poverty pockets in the U.S., "the federal government must ensure everyone who wants a broadband connection is able to afford one."

But much work remains to be done to fill in the gaps such a system does not address," ITIF said.

The report characterized COVID-19 as "a cautionary tale highlighting the need to strengthen our public health-care system" and also as "a warning to strengthen and make more resilient a variety of sectors through better use of technology." It cited the value of "investments in technology and digital transformation would ...[create] better and more-efficient education, health care, manufacturing, transportation ... while making the economy and society more resilient should we face another similar crisis."

1918 Bell Telephone ad               Source: ITIF

1918 Bell Telephone ad               Source: ITIF

The ITIF report also cited the absence of messages to reduce internet usage as evidence of the current U.S. broadband strength. Pointing out that politicians in other countries have asked their citizens to cut broadband usage, ITIF humorously included in its report a 1918 advertisement during the Spanish Flu era in which the Bell Telephone company, "the nation’s predominant telephone provider at the time," encouraged customers not to use the telephone. 

Gary Arlen

Contributor Gary Arlen is known for his insights into the convergence of media, telecom, content and technology. Gary was founder/editor/publisher of Interactivity Report, TeleServices Report and other influential newsletters; he was the longtime “curmudgeon” columnist for Multichannel News as well as a regular contributor to AdMap, Washington Technology and Telecommunications Reports. He writes regularly about trends and media/marketing for the Consumer Technology Association's i3 magazine plus several blogs. Gary has taught media-focused courses on the adjunct faculties at George Mason University and American University and has guest-lectured at MIT, Harvard, UCLA, University of Southern California and Northwestern University and at countless media, marketing and technology industry events. As President of Arlen Communications LLC, he has provided analyses about the development of applications and services for entertainment, marketing and e-commerce.