How Broadband Networks Fared During the Internet's Biggest Stress Test Ever

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As America (hopefully) begins its climb out of the COVID-19 pandemic and many offices and schools are reopening, it's worth reflecting over the past 17 months how broadband networks performed and enabled our country to stay engaged and productive during this unprecedented public health crisis. After all, considering how quickly stay-at-home orders forced tens of millions of workers and students home, COVID-19 was undoubtedly the biggest stress test that the internet has ever faced.

When the outbreak of COVID-19 caused states to issue stay-at-home orders across the country in March 2020, NCTA started tracking the performance of cable broadband networks and reporting this data via the NCTA Covid-19 Internet Dashboard. The dashboard tool was created to be a method of transparent communication to the public about the ability of internet service providers to handle an unprecedented internet usage surge like no other point in time. While a lot has changed over the past year and a half with the pandemic, cable operators continued to report their data to NCTA to provide a snapshot of how broadband networks were coping with the added strain of people working from home and kids completing their classroom instruction online. 

"The dashboard tool was a significant achievement for the industry during COVID," said William Check, NCTA's Senior Vice President, Technology and Chief Technology Officer. "Cable ISPs came together and voluntarily reported their data on network performance, which really helped so many stakeholders, including government leaders and the general public, in order to show just how well broadband was running."

The data on network performance indicated that the pandemic overall saw downstream traffic reach 34.7% peak utilization, while upstream traffic experienced its largest change at 57.9%. The pandemic also caused a step function in internet traffic. This means, as explained by Matt Tooley, NCTA's Vice President of Broadband Technology, that “instead of an accelerated linear growth, traffic has continued to grow at the yearly rate on its natural trend line, but from the new base.”

With the majority of schools operating remotely and businesses having their employees telework throughout the past year and a half, cable's broadband networks proved to be a critical lifeline for many Americans who were only able to continue a semblance of their lives because of a broadband connection. As multiple people per household used the internet to either connect with their doctor online, stream movies or play video games, host virtual reunions with friends and family, or attend a class or a work meeting over a videoconferencing application, broadband networks met the challenge.

This success can be attributed to the cable industry's two decades of investing in and consistently building, upgrading, and expanding broadband networks all over the country. The cable industry alone pours nearly $20 billion of private capital every year into improving the speeds and capacity of broadband networks; the number for all American broadband providers is $80 billion annually. This constant flow of capital has built a robust and reliable digital infrastructure that kept our economy moving, students learning, and people connecting from the safety of their homes.

But even beyond the pandemic, broadband providers are prepared for the unknown by continuing their efforts to bring next-generation speeds, including the cable industry's 10G initiative, to meet America's digital demands of tomorrow. 

All of these investment efforts have and continue to pay off. Provider backbone networks have not shown signs of congestion during the pandemic, and ISPs continue to work around the clock to add capacity and maintain robust and fast service. Studies, including the BITAG report on “2020 Pandemic Network Performance,” have also uncovered how broadband networks passed the biggest stress test ever imagined with flying colors. Additionally, the NCTA paper, 'Tele-Everything and Its Impact to the Network," which was prepared for the Cable-Tec Expo 2020 Technical Forum, revealed that the surge in internet traffic during lockdown periods had no measurable impact on download or upload speeds. 

The NCTA COVID-19 Internet Dashboard and the data collected during this difficult time period in the United States will continue to serve as a reminder of how the cable industry stepped up to do its part to bring Americans together. Because even as schools and businesses open up, hybrid work and school models are just getting started. The need for high-quality broadband will only increase from here. More importantly, Americans can rest assured that cable's broadband networks are ready for anything the future has in store.