Pandemic hasn’t crushed broadband networks—even rural areas are doing OK
The sharp growth in residential-broadband traffic seen during the pandemic is starting to level off, new data shows. While Internet speeds have slowed somewhat in many parts of the United States, it turns out that even rural-broadband networks are holding up pretty well.
Speeds have dropped in rural areas but are stabilizing, BroadbandNow reported today. Median download speeds in rural areas ranged from 16Mbps to 19.9Mbps in each of the first 11 weeks of 2020. Speeds then fell to 15.5Mbps in March 22 to 28, the lowest recorded all year. But rural speeds went back up to 16.2Mbps in the week of March 29 to April 4.
Median upload speeds in rural areas ranged from 5.5Mbps to 6.3Mbps in the first 11 weeks of 2020 but have been just 5.1Mbps the last two weeks, the same report found:
To determine rural performance, BroadbandNow said it “aggregated speed-test results [from M-Lab] across all US ZIP codes in counties marked as non-metropolitan (Micropolitan and Noncore) under the CDC’s Urban–Rural Classification Scheme.”
This isn’t a definitive measure of how rural-broadband networks are handling increased residential usage by people losing jobs or working at home. For one thing, there is “limited availability of speed-test data in rural communities,” BroadbandNow said.
The group also hasn’t been able to provide separate results by technology. DSL-only or satellite-only measurements would offer more insight into broadband performance in areas without modern networks like cable and fiber that have more capacity to handle surges. Using DSL or satellite is often a bad experience even in normal times, and the networks are likely under more strain than usual right now.
Still, the BroadbandNow results seem like good news. Rural areas obviously have a higher proportion of DSL and satellite than urban ones, and yet median speed-test results are stabilizing in both rural and urban parts of the country.
BroadbandNow is a company that provides an online tool for checking broadband availability. Two weeks ago, the company found that download speeds fell in 88 of the 200 most populous US cities, compared to the range seen in the 10 weeks before Americans started sheltering in place en masse. Even then, typical download speeds in big cities remained high enough to support normal broadband-usage patterns.
The number of top cities suffering decreases in median download speeds rose to 117 last week. But the BroadbandNow report released today said things are turning around:
Internet performance in the US improved overall, with 97 cities (48.5 percent) recording download speed degradations this week (down from 117, or 59 percent last week). 139 cities (69 percent) have reported upload speed disruptions, which is also down from last week’s 144, or 72 percent.
Problem areas include Baltimore, Maryland; Los Angeles, California; and Flushing, New York, where upload speeds were more than 40 percent lower than the range seen in the 10 pre-pandemic weeks.
Industry data shows usage-growth slowing
Other data also suggests that broadband-network usage is hitting a plateau. Cable-industry lobby group NCTA said yesterday that while peak downstream usage is up 19 percent since March 1, peak usage actually went down about 1 percent last week. “This could indicate that consumer usage and demand is leveling off, but we will want to see more than one week of data before making any conclusions,” NCTA said. (Peak usage data is a measure of the busiest times of day.)
Peak upstream usage is still rising, but the rate of increase is slowing. Peak upload usage has gone up 33 percent since March 1, including a 7.3 percent increase between March 21 and 28. But the rate of growth slowed to 4.1 percent in the week that ended April 4, the NCTA’s broadband-usage dashboard says. The dashboard is based on data from Comcast, Charter, Cox, and several other cable companies.
Increased use of video conferencing by people suddenly working from home is likely causing part of the rise in upstream traffic. Cable networks generally offer much faster download speeds than upload speeds. NCTA said that “Upstream peak hours in many regions have shifted from late evening towards afternoon.”
NCTA also said that “backbone networks have significant capacity and show no signs of congestion.” This suggests that any slowdowns noticed by consumers are more likely caused by congestion in last-mile networks that lead into people’s homes.
Increases in residential-broadband usage are apparently being matched by decreases in usage at office buildings and other facilities. During the pandemic, there’s been a 35 to 40 percent drop in fiber-bandwidth usage at businesses, schools, hospitals, government agencies, and cell towers, according to trade group Incompas.
There will always be occasional outages, and it might be tempting to blame them on pandemic-related congestion. But outages can also be caused by mundane and easily fixable problems like a severed fiber cable. Ultimately, we’d need more extensive data to determine how well broadband networks are holding up, particularly in areas that lack cable or fiber.
The FCC’s nine-year-old Measuring Broadband America program could help in this regard, but the commission under Chairman Ajit Pai has rarely provided updated data from the in-home tests conducted by the program. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat on the Republican-majority agency, has been pushing for the commission to research broadband performance and provide public updates every day. Pai hasn’t taken up her suggestion.
In a statement last week, Rosenworcel said:
As more Americans are told to stay home, the FCC should study how broadband networks are faring under the stress of more intensive use and publish these findings daily… The changes in broadband consumption may reveal weak points in the complex ecosystem of companies, services and products that make up the Internet. The FCC should use this opportunity to understand how our networks are performing and stay ahead of potential problems—because if we wait for those problems to be reported to us, it is already too late.