Internet performance during COVID not as great as many say, study shows

Daniel Tkacik

Jun 10, 2021

In the Spring of 2020, after millions of Americans were ordered to stay home, many wondered:  will this massive uptick in online traffic break the Internet? “Internet providers are handling coronavirus demand just fine,” penned one of many in the news media who claimed—after months of Americans moving nearly all aspects of their lives online—that the pandemic was no match for the almighty Internet.

But Internet providers weren’t handling the increased demand just fine, according to a new study by researchers in Carnegie Mellon University published this week in the Journal of Information Policy.

While downstream Internet performance did not suffer much, upstream did,” says Jon Peha, a professor in Carnegie Mellon’s department of Engineering and Public Policy and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering who formerly served as the FCC’s Chief Technologist. “Our findings contradict what the industry is saying.”

Our findings contradict what the industry is saying.

Jon Peha, professor, Engineering and Public Policy

Downstream traffic refers to data that is received by an Internet user’s computer from the Internet, while upstream traffic is the opposite—data that is sent from a user’s computer into the Internet. Streaming Netflix? Thank downstream traffic speeds—the speeds most commonly advertised by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). If you’re playing video games online or video chatting with friends or co-workers, be sure to thank upstream traffic speeds.

Upstream traffic speeds are less-commonly advertised by ISPs, potentially because some ISPs provide much lower upstream speeds. For example, Comcast’s “Performance” Xfinity Internet package advertises up to 60 Megabits per second (Mbps) download speeds, paired with up to 5 Mbps upload speeds. Peha says highly asymmetric speeds can be a problem.

“With things like videoconferencing becoming more and more important in our lives, upstream speeds are essential,” Peha says. “If two Internet packages were advertised to me—one that was 200 downstream and 3 upstream and one that was 20 down and 20 up—I’d go for the latter, and I’m probably not alone. Our results show that people with highly asymmetric Internet services were less satisfied during the pandemic, whether they knew the rates they were getting or not.”

With things like videoconferencing becoming more and more important in our lives, upstream speeds are essential.

Jon Peha, professor, Engineering and Public Policy

The study found that when the pandemic began, speed complaints nearly quadrupled for cable Internet, which is highly asymmetric, whereas speed complaints about the more symmetric DSL Internet service barely changed.

Perhaps the most surprising result the researchers found, Peha says, relates to the usage of publicly-available wireless Internet.

“The neighborhoods whose residents had to resort the most to highly inconvenient outdoor wi-fi during the pandemic were neighborhoods with the most students, not neighborhoods with the fewest Internet subscribers,” Peha says. “Since the public libraries that supply this wi-fi have been closed, this means students are huddled up outside library windows just to access the Internet. This is important and concerning.” 

The results of this study yield a number of recommendations, Peha says. First, he says that the Federal Communications Commission should require ISPs to be more transparent about their upstream traffic speeds, so consumers can know which services meet their needs. Second, ISPs should offer less asymmetric speeds. In other words, the downstream and upstream speeds should be closer to each other than they currently are.

Peha also says that the definition of “broadband” as it relates to government subsidies needs to be revisited.

“We should not heavily subsidize services that are as asymmetric as they currently are,” Peha says. “The current definition of broadband is 25 downstream and 3 upstream, which is a ratio of 8:1. I think we need to reduce that ratio.” 

Lastly, the fact that neighborhoods with heavy student populations are resorting to wi-fi provided by public libraries is a wake-up call, Peha says, and it’s something education programs need to address.

“If distance education matters post-COVID, and I think it will, these programs need to make sure their students have access to good broadband, with adequate speeds in both directions,” he says.


Paper reference

Lessons from Internet Use and Performance During COVID-19

  • Shefali Dahiya, Carnegie Mellon University
  • Lila N. Rokanas, Carnegie Mellon University
  • Surabhi Singh, Carnegie Mellon University
  • Melissa Yang, Carnegie Mellon University
  • Jon M. Peha, Carnegie Mellon University