The March - April period marked a historic moment in time for the U.S. when the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread fast, and internet usage proved critical to our country's safety and wellbeing. As pointed out last week, NCTA's COVID-19 internet dashboard, which has been tracking cable broadband network performance across the country every week, measured the largest surge in late March when millions of people were working from home at the same time that students began distance learning in lieu of school closures. But with the economy slowly reopening over the past couple of months and students on summer break, internet traffic has gradually leveled off since that peak period. And while this is the last weekly update on the dashboard for the time being, NCTA will continue to gather network performance data and report the information through the dashboard on a biweekly basis.
The idea behind the dashboard, which came about in the early stages of the pandemic, was to be as transparent as possible about the network performance of cable broadband providers that were put to the test like never before when more people turned to internet and TV in their homes during state stay-at-home orders. Cable operators were more than prepared for the surge, thanks to decades of investment in the infrastructure and buildout of their networks in practically every corner of the U.S. map. "Our success is due to innovation in our networks, and the capital money we've put into over the years ($290 billion over 20 years) which has prepared us for events like this," said Bill Check, NCTA Chief Technology Officer and Senior Vice President of Technology.
Notably, cable's workforce, faced with increased consumer demand, also worked longer hours and in more challenging conditions to ensure that households were equipped with the proper connectivity to carry on. From manufacturing companies and factories in northwestern Minnesota that made many of their workers remote, to rural villagers in Arctic Alaska who needed to stay in touch with the rest of the world, broadband connectivity remained robust and strong, and ultimately, it is what allowed businesses, as well as schools, to move forward.
Cable broadband providers also showed their commitment to helping the U.S. get through some of its darkest hours of the pandemic when they signed on to the FCC's Keep Americans Connected Pledge, in which they promised to work with every customer who was having trouble making payments due to job loss or financial hardship and to waive fees to ensure that every person could get online. Cable operators opened up thousands of free Wi-Fi hot spots to help communities, and worked with schools to install free internet for eligible low-income families so that students could continue their schooling online at home through the end of the school year. The pledge officially ended on June 30, but ISPs continue to work with schools, communities, and low-income households through their broadband adoption programs to help more people access the internet, just as they did prior to the pandemic.
Although internet traffic has dropped since that peak period in March and April, traffic is still up 20-30% from last year since pre-pandemic times. "The question remains, will it stay elevated? Or will we see it return to the forecasted trend line as America continues to reopen? Or are we going to stay on an elevated curve," commented Matt Tooley, NCTA Vice President of Broadband Technology. "But even in this elevated state that we are in, the networks have plenty of capacity. We continue to add capacity as time goes on. We're all in this together to see what happens next," added Tooley.
News reports on COVID-19 continue to change as Americans learn more about the virus, which is why NCTA remains committed to reporting on cable network performance moving forward, especially as experts predict that the pandemic may not slow down for the foreseeable future. "Our dashboard has proven to be ground truth data for many," said Check. "And even globally, people are looking at it as the direction you want to go for an accurate report on network performance."
NCTA's next dashboard update will be out on July 22.