Will COVID-19 Break The Internet?

Posted under: Internet and Wi-Fi

The crisis brought on by the emergence of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 has touched our lives in so many ways.

However, this crisis is unique in that to emerge from it with the minimum of human cost; the vast majority of us can do nothing more except stay at home. At the same time, public health professionals do the difficult yet heroic work of treating those infected while also seeking out a long-term solution that will eliminate the term "new" when we talk about going back to normal.

Next to the loss of human lives, the global economic loss is also unprecedented. The impact of shuttering businesses around the world has been nothing short of immense, but it would be even more significant if it were not for the internet. Think of how much of our lives we can continue with during this crisis thanks to the existence of the world wide web - productivity, learning, socializing, entertainment, and much more.

Of course, relying solely on the internet for these things does leave a hole, but it's certainly better than nothing and makes it much easier to live with the restrictions needed to limit the spread of the virus and save lives.

Can The Internet Cope?

We have always depended on the internet for so much, but never to this extent. Concerns have been raised about how our current infrastructure can hold up to the added stress put on it by these times. In other words, are we going to put so much stress on the internet that we might "break" it?

To figure out what's going on, we wanted to see if median download speeds in the 100 largest cities in the United States had been impacted as a result of all of this added demand.

Below, we've outlined the approach we took to understand how the internet has handled this crisis, presented the data we've uncovered and offered our own analysis to help you better understand what we learned plus answer the question: is the internet in danger?

But before we go in-depth, here's a summary of what we found:

How the Internet Has Handled COVID-19

Here is a quick summary of the most important information we gleaned from our study:

Internet Speed During COVID

These conclusions can help us say fairly definitely that this crisis is not going to break the internet. Now, let's dig a bit deeper and see what else is going on.

Why Study Internet Speeds?

The internet had become an integral part of our daily lives long before anyone ever even heard of the coronavirus. The demands we put on our home and office networks are ever-increasing, and this has placed continuous pressure on ISPs to deliver faster and more reliable internet connections.

In general, the corporations in charge of delivering high-speed internet to our homes have managed to considerably improve available connection speeds as a whole (more than 10 Mbps was considered quite fast just ten years ago). But it remains that some areas are better served than others.

Nevertheless, how these improvements affect our networks' ability to adjust to the increased demand put on them during this crisis is an important question.

Our hunch was that internet speeds around the nation would be negatively impacted by the increased stress placed on them. If this had turned out to be accurate, it would point to a flaw in our network capacity and expose an important area of concern.

However, we didn't want to make a decision based merely on a hunch, so we set out to collect data and find a definitive answer to the question of how the COVID-19 crisis has impacted internet speeds around the nation. And it's a good thing we did.

How We Conducted Our Study

Using the mLAB NDT data for Internet Performance, which collects the results of internet speed tests conducted worldwide and compiles them by country, region/state, and then city/town, we could study internet speeds in the one hundred largest cities in the United States.

We based our measurements on the median download speeds for a given city, and we compared two different time periods - the first three and a half months of the coronavirus crisis (March 1- May 20, 2020) with the twelve months before it (March 1, 2019 - March 1, 2020).

In separate studies, we also looked at the median download speeds for the 50 states, as well as the many different aspects of the digital divide, such as urban vs. rural and rich vs. poor, to gain a better understanding of how the pandemic has impacted internet connections.

Read on to learn more about how things went for the 100 largest cities in the United States.

Median Internet Speeds During the COVID-19 Quarantine Crisis: Complete Results

To make sense of the whole list, we pulled out the top and bottom ten cities on the list for each period. Here is a breakdown of the results, followed by the complete list.

US Cities With The Fastest Median Download Speed

All ten of these cities that were considerably higher than the median across the nation during this period, which was 21.6 Mbps. Scottsdale, Ariz. is the standout, having by far the fastest internet connection of any city in the United States.

Now let's see how these cities have fared since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis.

Median Download Speeds In 100 Cities During Lockdowns

Once again, all of the cities in the top ten dramatically beat the median for the nation, which was 32.95 during this period. Scottsdale, with far and away the fastest median download speeds in the United States, retained its number one ranking.

Just one city that had been in the top ten before left the group - Virginia Beach, Va. - which fell to 14th on the list. It was replaced by Irving, Texas, which had been just outside the top ten - at number 12 - in the year before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Interestingly, only one of the states in which these cities are located - Virginia (9th) were in the top ten as compared against all fifty. California (11th) and Texas (13th) came the closest. Still, the rest, Nevada (19th), Arizona (23rd), and North Carolina (26th), which are characterized much more as rural states, fell further behind, hinting at the significance of population density as it relates to the quality of the internet connection available in an area.

US Cities With The Slowest Median Internet Speed Before COVID-19

With the national median for this period at 21.6 Mbps, all ten of these cities were lagging considerably behind the rest of the nation in the twelve months before the beginning of the coronavirus lockdowns, especially the four cities that didn't even break a median of 10 Mbps. This suggests they truly are underperformers as compared to other cities of similar size.

According to the FCC definition of types of broadband internet services available on the market, those living in these cities mainly experienced a "basic" service, with only Toledo, Albuquerque, New Orleans, and Dallas regularly offering medium level service. No city on this list comes close to offering advanced service.

However, all of the cities on this list except Anchorage, if experiencing these median speeds, would have been able to perform all but the most taxing internet tasks, such as streaming Ultra HD 4k videos.

Interestingly, the cities that appear at the top of this list (meaning they have slower median download speeds) are either remote, hard-to-reach locations - Anchorage, Honolulu, Boise - or experiencing high levels of urban poverty - Detroit, Cleveland, Toledo, Albuquerque, and New Orleans. Dallas and Santa Ana, however, are outliers.

So, while this small sample doesn't tell us everything that is going on, it provides us with ample direction for where to dive deeper into internet speeds in different parts of the country.

US Cities With The Slowest Median Internet Speed During COVID-19

The first thing to notice is the general rise in network performance amongst this group. The city with the slowest internet out of the 100 largest in the US - Albuquerque - saw median download speeds that were 10 Mbps faster than the city that previously ranked 100th on this list - Anchorage.

The newcomers to the group were Anaheim, which was 89th in the year before the crisis, Atlanta, which was 86th, Des Moines, which was 85th, and Stockton, which was 30th in the ranking.

Stockton's epic collapse from having the 30th fastest median download speed in the country to having the fifth slowest was due to it being the only city of the top 100 to be actually experiencing slower internet speeds during the COVID-19 crisis than it had been during the previous year.

Being the sole city to experience degradation, it was passed over by many other places in the country. Further research is needed to figure out why this happened in Stockton and nowhere else (or if it indeed only happened here).

Ten US Cities With the Biggest Improvement in Median Download Speed During COVID-19 Lockdowns (3/1/20-5/20/20)

In addition to looking at the top and bottom of this list, we also wanted to look at the cities that experienced the most and least amount of change. Here's what we found:

US Cities With The Biggest Improvement In Download Speeds

Somewhat surprisingly, two of the cities with the slowest connections in the year before coronavirus - Anchorage and Honolulu - experienced some of the biggest change, with both more than tripling their median download speed.

In addition to these two cities, Santa Ana, Sacramento, and Detroit were also amongst the bottom ten in terms of median download speed in the year before coronavirus. Still, speeds have more than doubled since the crisis began.

However, except for Sacramento, these improvements didn't take any of these cities out of the bottom ten spots of the top 100.

Of the other cities, here's how their impressive improvements affected their spot in the rankings:

  • Tampa went from 78th to 20th
  • Wichita went from 65th 34th
  • Norfolk went from 62nd to 37th
  • Oakland went from 52nd to 31st
  • Reno went from 41st to 17th

These numbers point to the potentially promising trend that previously under-served areas are now receiving more attention during this crisis, which is important since now is when this is needed most.

We've already discussed Stockton being the only city to experience a real degradation in median download speeds during this COVID-19 crisis, a feat which saw the city plummet from 30th before the crisis to 95th in the midst of it.

Albuquerque, Anaheim, Des Moines, Atlanta, and Plano all appear on one of the top ten lists for the bottom ten of the top 100, either in the year before or during the crisis. Still, Fremont, Miami, Saint Paul, and Madison are all new to the group. Here's how their mere-marginal improvements impacted their positions in the rankings:

  • Fremont moved from 12th to 51st
  • Miami moved from 25th to 59th
  • Saint Paul moved from 29th to 57th
  • Madison moved from 36th to 63rd

Interestingly, the cities that had the fastest internet during and after the crisis experienced modest gains compared to other cities, but these improvements are still considerable. Here's how some of these cities did:

  • Scottsdale improved by 32 percent
  • Garland improved by 61 percent
  • Chesapeake improved by 54 percent
  • North Las Vegas improved by 63 percent

These numbers suggest that instead of underserved areas getting more attention, perhaps their already less powerful networks are receiving a more substantial boost during this period than other areas where speeds were already high. The result was intentional as ISPs seek to adjust to the increased demand brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent measures to mitigate it.

The Full Lists

If you're interested in learning about how connection speeds have changed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, then you can find the full list here, complete with its change rate for the two periods measured. Find your city and compare it to your actual experience.

Median Download Speeds In 100 Cities

Why is My Internet Still Slow?

After reading this, it should be clear that, across the country, internet speeds are on the rise, even as we put more stress on them while working, learning, and socializing from home 24/7. But this empirical truth may not match up with your lived experience. You may live in one of these cities and be thinking, "I never get that kind of speed." If this is the case, know that there are several reasons why this might occur, such as:

  • mLAB's data is taken from internet speed tests conducted in a particular area. Those experiencing really slow internet or really fast internet may be testing less often, which would impact the median and could inflate or deflate the data.
  • Network strength can vary from street to street and is impacted by how the people sharing bandwidth are using their connection. A group of heavy users is likely to experience slower speeds than others sharing their connection with fewer people.
  • Connection speed fluctuates wildly depending on the time of day. If you're experiencing a slow connection, it could be because you're connecting when many others nearby are doing the same. Your connection may be much faster at a different time of the day when demand is less. This doesn't make the hold up less frustrating, but it could help explain why you're not experiencing what the data is saying.

This study only hoped to get a snapshot of what is going on in the 100 largest cities in the United States. While there is sure to be variation, what we've seen indicates that internet performance is up in cities around the country.

Moving Forward

Somewhat surprisingly, instead of buckling under the increased demand, internet providers around the country seem to be rising to the challenge and providing users with even better experiences than they were getting before the crisis.

However, before we close the book on this research and declare the ISPs our saviors, we do need to dig deeper. This study looked only at the top 100 cities in the countries in terms of population, which means this is really a study of the state of things among the most densely populated cities in the U.S.

But the city with the fastest internet in the country - Scottsdale - ranks as the 84th largest city in the country, whereas the city with the slowest internet during the crisis - Albuquerque - ranks 32nd, suggesting something else is at play other than just population and density.

Nevertheless, this study has demonstrated that America's digital infrastructure, at least on the surface level, has held up and is proving to be every bit as useful the tool we've always thought it to be. While this is a small victory, it is a positive takeaway we can use to continue to fight this virus and one day return the world to its normal state.