To say that the public health and economic crisis brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic is generation-defining would be a huge understatement. This type of event, and our corresponding response, is unprecedented in modern society. Our reaction to it will have a tremendous effect on society's well-being for many years to come.
In addition, this crisis has forced us to have to rethink how we do almost everything, not least of which is how we work. With offices and schools closing around the world, a great many of us have had to rely on our home internet networks to stay connected to the important things in our lives, as well as to remain close to those we hold dear.
At first glance, the ability to connect afforded to us by the internet has been a real lifesaver. But while we have depended on the internet for some time, we have never relied on it anywhere near as much as we do now. This begs the question: can the internet handle what's been happening?
Will the Internet Survive?
In the early days of the COVID crisis, with parents and children sent home to work and learn, there was great concern that we might "break" the internet. After all, even before the crisis, many people felt their home broadband network was not capable of handling all the demands they were putting on it.
But after the outbreak of the pandemic, there was a lot of concern about how all this added stress would affect networks around the country.
However, while the masses may have worried and even panicked, experts around the country assured us that the networks delivering broadband connections to our homes were more than capable of handling the expanded demands we would be putting on them while forced to work and learn from home.
But is this the reality being experienced by people around the country? Or is the internet becoming one more casualty in the fight against this terrible disease?
In an attempt to answer this question, we've been looking at internet performance during the few months of the coronavirus lockdowns and comparing them with the previous twelve-month period. First in the 100 most populated cities in the United States, and now across all 50 states.
Here's what we found:
Internet in the 50 States Before and During COVID: At a Glance
Before we dive into the details about our study to really unpack how the internet has been impacted by the COVID pandemic and all the lockdowns put in place, here's a quick summary of the most important things we learned while looking at network performance:
Based on these findings, we can pretty safely say that the internet is doing an excellent job handling the increased demand put on it thanks to the situation in which we now find ourselves. However, as is usually the case, there is more to the story.
Read on to dive deeper into how COVID is impacting internet speeds around the country.
Why Study Internet Speeds?
Before going too far into the details of our study, we wanted to take a moment to discuss why it is we spent so much time investigating this topic. Of course, curiosity played a role, but there's more involved.
The internet is undoubtedly one of the most important utilities we use in our lives, right up there next to electricity and water. It's how we work, study, communicate, and so much more. Our lives have become so digital that not having access to a reliable connection will leave a person at a significant disadvantage.
The COVID crisis has the potential to exacerbate this disparity by leaving those already underserved by internet providers in even more of a lurch. And if this turns out to be the case, then this will expose a dire need in this country, one that many activists and watchdogs have been discussing for some time: the need to upgrade and improve broadband connections and provide access to all.
Of course, no matter the results of this study, there is work to be done on this nation's digital connectivity, but we wanted to find out what was really going on.
How We Conducted Our Study
We made use of mLAB NDT Data for Internet Performance. The value of this database is that it collects the results produced by actual internet speed tests conducted around the country.
Data is available for the entire world, but we focused on the states. We chose to look at states as a complement to our study on the 100 largest cities in the US since we felt this gave a better snapshot of what was a typical experience for people living in different regions of the country.
We decided to look at actual median download speeds since this reflects the actual connection speeds around the country. ISPs are famous for advertising high speeds and then putting in the small print that actual speeds will vary (meaning they will be less). Looking at actual speeds gives us a much better picture of what's happening around the country in terms of internet speed.
Median Internet Speeds Before and During the COVID Quarantine Crisis: Complete Results
Further down, you will be able to access the full list of all 50 states to see where yours ranks and compare your experience with the data. To make the data easier to digest and make the trends pop out a bit more, we've taken small selections of the data and presented it below. Here's what we found:
Ten US States With the Fastest Median Download Speed 12 months before Covid-19 - (3/1/19-3/1/20)
All of these states experienced median download speeds before the COVID crisis that were well above the national median for this time, which was 19.81 Mbps. They also represent ten of the only eleven states that experienced median download speeds that exceeded the FCC's definition of broadband, which is 25 Mbps.
The only other state that didn't make it onto this list but that met this definition was Pennsylvania, which had a median download speed of 25.03 Mbps.
One thing to note is that all of these states, except New Hampshire, are among the most densely populated states in the country. This helps explain why these states are experiencing faster connections. Still, we hypothesized that because of this high density, median download speeds would probably drop considerably during the COVID lockdowns, which were strictest in these dense states, as people were forced to work, study, and socialize from home.
So, we tested this hypothesis, and here's what we found:
Ten US States With the Fastest Median Download Speed during Covid-19 lockdowns - (3/1/20-5/20/20)
Already well above the median before COVID, these ten states widened the gap even more. The median during this period was 29.61 Mbps
Interestingly, nine of the ten states with the fastest median download speeds before COVID also have them during COVID. The only state to leave the top ten ranking was Virginia, which dropped just one spot and has experienced download speeds of 39.48 Mbps during the COVID lockdowns.
The only newcomer to this top ten is California, which has experienced at 61 percent increase during COVID compared to the year before, bringing its median speed up to 40.32 Mbps and allowing it to move up from its previous position of 12.
Clearly, our hypothesis that these densely populated states which experienced good internet before the crisis would see their median download speeds suffer during these lockdowns has been disproven. And what's more, all of these states, except Maryland, which saw an increase of just 29 percent, have experienced at least a 40 percent increase, which is anything but minor.
This gives us reason to think that our initial belief that the internet is slowing down as a result of all of this added demand is, in fact, false. It pushes us towards the conclusion that internet performance is actually increasing, something very few people expected to happen.
Ten US States With the Slowest Median Download Speed Before Covid-19 lockdowns - (3/1/20-5/20/20)
Clearly, in the states with access to quality internet connections before the COVID crisis, things have improved considerably even though there has been a good deal of extra stress placed on our networks.
However, to get a more complete picture, it's necessary to look at how those who didn't have the same access before the crisis have fared.
In the year before the COVID lockdowns, these ten states had the slowest median download speeds:
Not only are all ten of these states well below the national median for this period - 19.81 Mbps - but their download speeds are also considerably lower than those defined as minimum broadband coverage by the FCC (at least 25 Mbps). In Alaska, the median download speed of 3.55 Mbps is barely adequate for most people to do basic things online.
Of course, there is an explanation for these numbers. Alaska is the least densely populated state in the US, and this is naturally going to lead to less connectivity and slower connections. However, that Alaska is still effectively stuck in the digital dark ages hints at a more significant problem within the United States when it comes to the variation of internet speeds - the digital divide between urban and rural populations.
In general, these states are considerably less densely populated than those that made it into the top ten, but things don't line up quite that nicely. For example, Hawaii is the 13th most densely populated state in the Union, Kentucky is 22, Mississippi is 32, Vermont is 33, and Iowa is 36. The rest, however, are on-trend.
We hypothesized that given these states already have a less capable internet infrastructure; internet speeds would remain unchanged or reduce only slightly. This is because these smaller states, theoretically, have fewer people in them, and that means less stress on the networks, which had us all concerned during this difficult time.
However, after seeing what happened with the states where the internet is fastest, we could expect internet speeds to increase even more than in other areas, mainly because these lagging networks have more ground to make up, which could contribute to dramatic improvements.
Let's look at the data.
Ten US States With the Slowest Median Download Speed During COVID-19 lockdowns - (3/1/20-5/20/20)
Once again, there was little change in which states made this list. The only state to leave the list was Maine, which experienced an 86 percent increase in speeds and moved from 44th on the list to 39th. Wyoming replaced it, the second to least densely populated state in the US, which saw just a 33 percent increase in median download speeds and dropped from 37th on the list to 43rd.
However, one thing we did learn that we may have been right about is that this group saw more substantial improvements as a whole than those that were already experiencing faster internet speeds. The two states to see the biggest improvements - Alaska and Hawaii - are the only two states to see their median download speeds double during COVID.
In addition, the median improvement of this group was 58 percent, compared to just 48 percent for the top group. If we switch for a second and look at averages, this group does even better - these ten improved, on average, 72 percent, compared to 50 percent for the states with faster internet.
Yet despite these improvements, all ten of these states are still experiencing speeds below the threshold defined by the FCC as broadband. While many more states have made it past this lower limit during COVID (33 as compared to just 11), many still remain without access to this basic service, and they tend to be in states that are more rural and less dense.
Ten US States With the Biggest Improvement in Median Download Speed during Covid-19 lockdowns - (3/1/20-5/20/20)
Since the ten states that had the slowest internet before COVID were not the ones to experience the biggest improvements, we wanted to see which ones were. And here's what we found:
This table does, in fact, seem to indicate that there is a trend between the population density of a state and its improvement during COVID. All of the states on this list, except Hawaii, fall in the bottom half of the list of states in terms of population density.
It's reasonable to believe that this has occurred because these smaller states, which naturally have fewer people connecting to their networks, were better positioned than larger states to take advantage of what seems to be a nationwide improvement in internet connectivity. This allowed them to make significant strides in terms of median download speed despite the increase in traffic resulting from COVID.
To confirm this, we took a look at the states that saw the smallest improvements in median download speed during COVID. Here are the results:
Ten US States With the Smallest Improvement in Median Download Speed during Covid-19 lockdowns - (3/1/20-5/20/20)
Unfortunately, this table more or less blows up our theory. Only Maryland (5th) and Indiana (16th), are in the top half of the list in terms of density. It's possible the ability for underperforming states to improve depends on the existing infrastructure in the state, but testing to see how this impacted the changes a state experienced falls outside the scope of this study.
Interestingly, Maryland's poor improvement did not knock it out of the top ten in terms of median speeds; it moved from 2nd to 6th. It's unclear exactly why this one state, and none of the other top performers from pre-COVID times, experienced such a small decline.
In general, though, the improvements these states experienced are considerable, with most enjoying at least a 30 percent bump.
Ten US States With Biggest Slowdown In First Two Weeks of COVID Lockdowns - (3/16/20-3/31/20)
All of the evidence points to the internet being faster across the board during the first three months of COVID lockdowns. In many ways, it goes against everything we might expect; more people working from home, learning from home, watching movies, videoconferencing, and more, should lead to slower speeds. But the data simply doesn't tell this story.
We wanted to know if any states experienced a downturn in median download speeds during the first few weeks of the COVID crisis. When everyone was sent home almost overnight, networks were put under unexpected strain.
To do this, we simply looked at the median download speeds from March 16-March 31 for the fifty states and compared them to the previous year. Here's what we found:
As you can see, eight out of the ten states on this list experienced slower download speeds in the first two weeks of COVID compared to the previous year. And some of those - New York, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Illinois - are among the most densely populated and are some of the states that had been enjoying faster internet speeds than most before the crisis.
However, when we pause to think, this makes sense. All of these states are home to some of the nation's largest cities - NYC, DC, Chicago, Boston - many of whom put their stay-at-home orders into effect during these two weeks, suddenly forcing millions of people to work and study from home.
It appears that these states initially struggled but then bounced back after the sudden increase, which is right in line with what we would expect.
However, these eight states (nine if we include Arizona) do not represent the norm during this period. The median download speed was 28.25 Mbps, less than 1 Mbps slower than the median during the entire COVID crisis.
Also, the median improvement was 43 percent, and the average improvement was 64 percent. Both are more or less in line with what has been happening during the rest of the COVID crisis. This helps us more firmly conclude that the internet is not only surviving this crisis but thriving (comparatively) as it unfolds.
The Full Lists
To find out how your state is doing during this crisis, and to look for any trends yourself, here's the full list of all 50 states along with their median download speeds before and during COVID:
Some Limitations to Our Study
The data we have collected has shown us that although we may have expected internet speeds to slow down during COVID, this has not been the case across the board. However, there are some limitations to our study that should be taken into account:
- Internet infrastructures vary widely within a state. So, while a state may have experienced an improvement, this could be led by one high-performing city or area, and the rest of the state could be experiencing something entirely different. A state-by-state analysis would be needed to figure out what is happening here.
- More users in the home could be effecting actual speeds. With so many families now all living, working, and studying under one roof, it's possible that while your connection is faster overall, you're not experiencing it because you are using up your bandwidth (the total amount of data that can travel over your network at any one time.) If this is the case, you may need to upgrade your bandwidth so that everyone in the home can experience these improved download speeds.
- The time of day you access the internet matters. If our data says your state is experiencing an increase in speeds, but you aren't witnessing this, consider when you use the internet. Peak hours - which used to be defined as 7pm -12 midnight - have been extended to include the workday (when people used to rely on the internet at their workplaces). As a result, while speeds may be higher, you may not be experiencing them because of when you're trying to access the internet.
This study has helped us answer the question: will the internet survive COVID? And the answer, at least according to our data, is a resounding yes.
However, we shouldn't take this as a victory. During COVID, seventeen (17) states still don't have median download speeds that qualify as broadband, and that's assuming we all agree 25 Mbps is the correct threshold for this definition. There are many people out there who say it should be 50 or even 100 Mbps, as these are the speeds truly needed to manage the digital tasks of today.
Although there have been improvements, there is much more that needs to be done, and this is even truer when we think about the different aspects of digital inequality (urban vs. rural, rich vs. poor, etc.).
There is also the question of accountability. We should be grateful that the internet has been able to handle all of this added stress, and that ISPs have been able to respond with improved performance, but the question remains: where was all of this before the crisis?
Americans pay top dollar for their internet connections, yet it appears that ISPs have, in fact, been holding back network capabilities. There may be a perfectly good reason for this. For example, ISPs could be investing more in infrastructure and development than network performance - but this question needs to be answered if ISPs expect people to continue to pay the prices set by internet providers.
Time will tell what will happen next. The COVID crisis appears to be far from over, but schools will soon be out for summer. Perhaps this will have an even bigger impact on download speeds, or perhaps things will remain the same. In the end, we simply don't know. But the one thing we can say is that it's unlikely COVID lockdowns will destroy the internet, and we can all be thankful for that.