Did COVID-19 Break The Internet?

The pandemic that defined all of 2020 and that continues to define 2021 has changed our lives in many ways. It's been so disruptive that we will likely be talking about it for decades, analyzing the many different ways it reshaped our society.

However, one impact of the pandemic that's not hard to see is our increased dependence on the internet. To help keep people safe, schools, offices, and meeting places have closed their doors, and people have turned to digital technologies to do the things they once did in person.

All of this added stress on the internet had people concerned about how well our networks would hold up. There was concern in the pandemic's early days that all that extra demand would "break" the internet.

However, while there were some dips in the early days of lockdowns, the internet has performed quite well overall. In fact, performance has even improved in many places around the country and world.

To figure out exactly what's happening, we've looked into the data to see how well the internet has performed over the past year. So, the question we need to answer is: did COVID-19 break the internet?

How the Internet Has Handled COVID-19

Before we go into the details of our study, here is a summary of some of the most important points:

This shows us that the internet was clearly not broken as a result of the pandemic. The evidence suggests that the internet has actually made some pretty significant strides forward during this time. Surprising? Yes! Encouraging? Also yes!

Why Study Internet Speeds?

The internet had become an integral part of our daily lives long before anyone ever 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). Still, 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 a critical area of concern.

However, we didn't want to make a decision based merely on a hunch. Instead, 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. It's a good thing we did.

How We Conducted Our Study

mLAB NDT data for Internet Performance collects the results of internet speed tests conducted worldwide and compiles them by country, region/state, and then city/town. Using this data, 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 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 and 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

 Across the United States, cities improved their internet speeds by an average of 35 percent. All of the cities on this list, however, made much bigger jumps.

In general, many of these cities already had some of the country's slowest internet speeds before the pandemic. Therefore, it's not surprising that they were the ones to make the most significant jumps; they had the most to gain. Anchorage and Honolulu are two great examples. If we go back just two years, median speeds in these cities were 4 and 7 Mbps, respectively. Now, both cities are well within the speed range the FCC defines as broadband, which is good news for everyone.

The most considerable improvements in internet speeds in the 100 cities studied took place during June and August when internet speeds improved by 16 and 14 percent, respectively. This is likely due to first kids going out of school in June (reducing demand) and then people going on vacation in August (which would also reduce demand).

Nine of the ten cities on this list saw a decrease in their internet speeds over the last year, meaning 91 out of the 100 included in this study all saw an improvement. This is a somewhat surprising number, especially since most of us thought the internet was sure to slow down, thanks to all this added demand.

It's difficult to find many commonalities on this list. As you will see when we look at state-level data, population density does seem to impact the quality of internet service in an area. With both large and small cities on this list, it is tough to draw a similar conclusion.

However, despite not being able to identify precisely why these cities saw a decrease or a much smaller increase than what was experienced in other parts of the country, it is definitive proof that the pandemic not only hasn't broken the internet but instead made it stronger.

Below is a complete list of the 100 cities included in our study. You can see how the internet in your city has performed during the past year or so of the pandemic:  

US States

Here is a breakdown of what's been happening in the United States at the state level:

 The ten states that saw the most considerable improvement in internet speeds saw some truly massive jumps. Alaska, for example, jumped more than 800 percent.

A big reason for this is that internet connections in these states were slowest in the US before the pandemic.

However, one thing to consider is that these improvements may have come about because of the relatively small amount of increased demand placed on networks in these areas. As largely rural states, they are bound to have fewer workers who need the internet, and so the natural gains being made were not interrupted by increased stress.

Knowing this, these numbers make a little more sense. Yet, the scale of the improvement is still shocking. Further research is needed to determine how typical these speeds and improvements are and how people's experience on the ground has changed.

When we look at the states with the smallest improvements in internet speed during the pandemic, the opposite story appears. These states, which include five with decreases in internet speed, are much more densely populated and urban. Therefore, when offices and schools in these states were closed, there was much more demand.

Plus, many of these states, particularly New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, had some of the strictest COVID restrictions in the nation, increasing demand on the network.

Nevertheless, all of these states, except Wisconsin, still have median speeds well above those outlined by the FCC as the minimum for broadband in today's world. This data just confirms the conclusion that COVID has not broken the internet. It's helped it get stronger.

Here's the complete list of all 50 states so you can see how things are going in your area: 

Around the World

In the United States, not only did the pandemic not break the internet, but it has helped it improve. This is not to say the internet has improved because of the pandemic. Instead, it just means that things have improved during this time. But what about in the rest of the world? Is this a global phenomenon or just something happening in the US?

Here's a look at what has happened to fixed broadband speeds in the G20 countries throughout the pandemic:  

 As you can see, once again, the trend is that the internet has improved over this time. Almost all nations experienced some sort of dip at the beginning, back in March/April 2020, but then rebounded strongly.

However, one thing that you must keep in mind is that not all of these nations experienced an improvement. The countries on this list still considered emerging or developing, such as Indonesia, Mexico, India, Argentina, South Africa, and Turkey, all saw little to no improvement or, as is the case with Turkey, a slight decrease.

This suggests that the improvements in internet speeds experienced during the pandemic may be impacted more by the economic standing of people in that area. Again, more research is needed to figure out if this is true, but it does seem that a trend is emerging,

If we look beyond the G20 and expand our sample to include all the countries in the world where data is available, we find a similar story. Only about 30 countries are currently experiencing speeds above 25 Mbps (the minimum for broadband defined by the FCC). If they aren't one of the ones in the G20, then they are small, wealthy nations, such as Lichtenstein, Denmark, and Switzerland.

Around 150 nations have internet speeds less than 10 Mbps, and the coronavirus pandemic has not changed this very much. Most of these nations rely less on the internet for work and therefore didn't have much-added demand when the pandemic hit.

Still, these discrepancies speak to a growing issue in our society: unequal access to high-speed internet.

During the pandemic, those with money and resources experienced considerably improved internet speeds despite the added demand. Yet those without those resources didn't experience much change at all. As we move forward into the digital era, this is something that we must address.

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. 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 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 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 need to dig deeper. This study looked only at the top 100 cities in terms of population, which means this is a study of the state of things among the most densely populated cities in the US.

Yet, 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 the incredibly useful tool we've always thought it was. 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.