How Internet Traffic Changed During the Pandemic

internet usage during stay-at-home orders

It's been three months since NCTA launched the industry's COVID-19 internet dashboard, which tracks cable broadband network performance every week. As America slowly reopens and many people are returning to work sites, after a huge surge in late March, internet traffic has levelled off in the last several weeks. But the tool continues to provide critical snapshots of how broadband is faring for millions of people across all 50 states during this unprecedented time. 

With no end in sight yet to the pandemic and as Americans learn to navigate the COVID-19 environment, it's worth looking back at some of the interesting patterns during peak periods of internet traffic, when state stay-at-home orders went into effect and millions of Americans hunkered down in their homes. NCTA started collecting and monitoring the data from cable broadband providers in early March, anticipating the need to be transparent about the performance of networks that millions of consumers were going to be relying on for working and learning from home.  

"Major use of the internet came from streaming video from home, much larger than anything else," said Bill Check, NCTA Chief Technology Officer & Senior Vice President of Technology. And even though video conference usage certainly went up, videoconferencing actually uses a much smaller amount of capacity than video streaming, added Check. Wi-Fi data traffic and calling also increased, and the number of Wi-Fi connected devices supported on networks saw spikes as people stayed home for longer periods of time. 

Another trend that emerged was the time of day during which internet traffic typically saw peak usage. "Traditionally, this takes place in the evening. However, we saw some increases during the daytime hours in March and April when people were staying at home," said Check. 

A few other interesting patterns that stood out included internet usage according to weather conditions in particular regions. "Bad weather usually meant high usage," said Matt Tooley, NCTA Vice President of Broadband Technology. Tooley also added that a loose correlation could be made between traffic jumps in certain areas when people began migrating to their vacation homes to quarantine there. "Large surges in internet traffic in pockets of the northeast seemed to coincide with news reports in NYC and Boston as people moved out of the cities to socially distance," added Tooley.    

Fortunately, cable's broadband networks have been more than adequately prepared to handle the sudden surges and new patterns in internet traffic that the last few months have seen. "The internet and our networks have been designed with resiliency and redundancy from day one," said Tooley. "The networks practice something called 'routing diversity' to ensure there are multiple routes to internet endpoints that help when there are sudden changes in the traffic patterns." 

Not to mention, cable operators have invested more than $290 billion in infrastructure and technology over the past 20 years, and never before have the benefits of this investment been more apparent than during COVID-19. And of course, the cable employees on the front lines — from field technicians to engineers to customer care agents — who have worked longer hours and tackled various challenges during this time, have been there all along to ensure that millions of Americans are able to connect online and carry on.

As the global health crisis evolves over the coming months, the cable industry will continue to monitor data and capacity, and upgrade networks as necessary. "There's talk of a second wave. We'll be on the lookout to make sure our networks are performing the way they need to," said Check.