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A Look Back at the Pandemic and What Was Missed in the ISPs’ Broadband Performance Reports

Pandemic impact on the upstream: monthly upstream consumption in 2020 peaked at 31 GB per subscriber at the end of the year. This represented 63% growth over YE 2019 usage; moreover, usage grew 24% in Q4 2020 alone, a faster growth rate than the 18% growth rate for all of 2018 or 2019. (Source: OpenVault Broadband Insights, April 2021)

I was looking back at industry reporting a year ago after the impact of the pandemic first hit our broadband networks. Almost every big ISP issued press releases talking about how well it had weathered the pandemic and bragged about the resiliency of its networks.

It turns out that these ISP press releases largely missed the point. They are right that their networks didn’t crash, but once we understood the nature of the changes in broadband traffic due to the pandemic, that wasn’t a big surprise. The pandemic caused a huge upsurge in daytime broadband traffic. People who were normally at work or school were suddenly using the Internet from home on weekdays. ISP networks largely didn’t crash because the new daytime volumes were no larger than the evening peak usage that ISPs had been handling for years. ISPs have always engineered networks to handle the busy hour—that time of the day when networks are the busiest. In residential neighborhoods, that has always been sometime in the evening.

OpenVault documented the surge in Internet traffic volumes. At the end of the first quarter of 2020, the average home was using 403 gigabytes of broadband per month, up 47% over the average usage of 274 gigabytes a year earlier. But since the extra usage happened during the daytime, when networks had been typically quiet, the ISPs easily handled most of this surge. If this extra usage had come in the evenings, we would have seen some spectacular crashes.

It’s interesting to go back and read the press releases at the time when ISPs seemed downright giddy at having survived the storm. The network engineers at these ISPs fully understood that their networks were not in danger, but ISP management wanted to garner praise from regulators and politicians for having robust networks.

Interestingly, I can’t find a single early press release that talks about the growth in upload bandwidth. OpenVault recently released a special report about the surge in upload bandwidth during COVID. This is the area where many ISPs failed during the pandemic, but none of them mention the issue. The average home upload usage exploded from 19 gigabytes per month in January 2020 to 27 gigabytes by April—a growth of 42% in a short time. By the end of 2020, the average upload usage had grown to 31 gigabytes per month—a growth rate for the year of 63%.

Every technology other than fiber didn’t handle this upload surge well. The surge in upload demand was twice the growth in download demand. OpenVault says that upload demand in the daytime grew by 99% with the pandemic, with the overall growth of upload demand at 63% for the year.

I have yet to see a major cable company admit they had a problem with upload usage. My consulting firm did a lot of residential surveys during COVID, and we routinely saw about 30% of homes say that cable broadband was not adequate during the COVID. People said specifically that their broadband was inadequate for working or schooling from home. The 30% negative response represents a large portion of the homes that were trying to cope working and schooling from home.

It’s also worth remembering that homes use upload bandwidth for more than school and work connections. A lot of homes today automatically upload and store pictures and work files in the cloud. Microsoft and other mainstream software have pushed hard for people to use the cloud version of its software. Our IoT devices are often storing health and other data in the cloud. A lot of gaming has moved to the cloud. Our computers and other devices routinely communicate back and forth with the cloud to make sure our software is up to date. All of these uses grew during the pandemic year as people spent more time at home instead of at school or the office.

According to the OpenVault data, the growth in upload usage has not abated. It looks likely that our demand for upload demand isn’t going away. And yet, I still don’t hear a peep out of the cable companies about how they are going to deal with the new demand.

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting

Dawson has worked in the telecom industry since 1978 and has both a consulting and operational background. He and CCG specialize in helping clients launch new broadband markets, develop new products, and finance new ventures.

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