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How the Pandemic Changed Broadband

The Washington Post recently published an article with a series of graphs that shows the impact of the pandemic on a number of economic indicators that range from unemployment, wages, air travel, grocery prices, home prices, and consumer sentiment.

The article got me thinking about the impact of the pandemic on the broadband industry—and there are several important changes that came out of our collective pandemic experience.

Upload Speeds. Probably the biggest change for the industry was that many millions of people suddenly cared about upload speeds as people tried to work from home and students tried to attend class from home. There have always been people who complained about the ability to join a Zoom call, but before the pandemic, ISPs largely ignored them.

The pandemic turned the lack of upload speeds into a crisis. It turns out that upload speeds weren’t just a problem for slow technologies like DSL and hotspots. Cable companies suddenly had a lot of irate customers who were furious that they couldn’t maintain upload connections from home. Cable companies had put a lot of effort over the previous decade into staying ahead of download speed demand. Before customers began complaining about download speeds, cable companies had regularly made unilateral upgrades to download speeds. Every few years, customers would wake up to suddenly faster speeds, and surveys showed that most cable broadband customers were happy with download speeds from cable companies.

But the pandemic suddenly meant that cable technology was seen as inadequate. It was the collective experience of customers during the pandemic that led to the public becoming convinced that fiber is a better technology and that their cable company was behind the times. This prompted the cable companies to scramble to find a faster upload solution, and we’re just now seeing them implement faster upload speeds four years after the start of the pandemic. Only time will tell if current upload speed upgrades will be good enough to turn around the public sentiment that now favors fiber over coax.

Working at Home. The pandemic sent a huge number of people home to work, and many of them have never gone back to the office. My consulting firm does surveys, and before the pandemic, we rarely saw more than 10% of homes that had somebody working from home, even part-time. Today, we routinely find communities where 15% or more of homes have somebody working at home full-time, and 50% of homes have somebody working from home part-time.

The main impact for ISPs of having customers working from home is that it created a lot of customers who are intolerant of broadband outages. People who work from home typically lose the ability to work during the outage, and ISPs get instant feedback about outages through complaints and negative online reviews. Our surveys show that intolerance from outages has climbed significantly since before the pandemic. Many customers believe broadband should always work.

Outrage over Lack of Rural Broadband. I’ve been working with rural communities that have been yelling for more than a decade about the problems caused by poor broadband. The pandemic brought this issue to national attention when employers and schools in cities and county seats couldn’t send people home for school or work. There was so much press about the issue that I think this was the first time that a lot of urban and suburban people realized that rural folks don’t have the same broadband.

I firmly believe that the outcry about the impact of the pandemic is what got the BEAD grants put into the IIJA legislation at such a high level of funding. Before the pandemic, the federal government and states would throw a billion dollars or so each year at fixing rural broadband—I used to call this the hundred-year plan to solve rural broadband. It took the pandemic to get bigger dollars thrown at the rural broadband gap. I don’t know if anybody has added up all of the funding, but between state, federal, and local grants, we must be spending nearly $100 billion for new rural broadband networks.

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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rural broadband history Larry Seltzer  –  Apr 30, 2024 11:33 AM

I haven’t collected any data, but I remember earlier rural broadband initiatives, going back at least to the 2009 stimulus act. Honestly, I expect this one to be as productively spent as that on public toilets in the Bay Area, but I hope I’m proved wrong.

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