The voices of Americans seem to make this clear: If government is going to fund broadband infrastructure, it should invest in solutions with higher maximum speeds, particularly upload speeds that have become so critical in the wake of COVID-19.
A recent study, published in the Journal of Information Policy, pushes back against the perspective that the Internet, for the most part, held up “just fine” during the pandemic. Looking at consumer complaints directed to the Federal Communications Commission during the first few months of the pandemic, the study found that Internet complaints jumped up significantly after COVID-19 shut down most of the country.
The study also examines speed data showing that upload speeds in particular suffered until the last quarter of 2020, perhaps due to the increase in use of videoconferencing tools among families working and learning from home.
The track three types of users…
The researchers suggest there are three types of Internet users in America.
“The Internet made it easy for some people to work, go to school, and interact with loved ones safely without leaving their homes,” the article reads. “Those lucky individuals maintained an extraordinary degree of normalcy and safety despite a pandemic that in some regions disrupted nearly every aspect of daily life. At the other extreme were those who normally used the Internet outside the home. Their access to the Internet was severed just when they needed it most … In between were households that did have Internet access, but not at the quality of service that would make all of these activities easy.”
They take a look at what’s happening in Minnesota…
Angie Dickison, executive director of broadband development for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, said inquiries from citizens without broadband at all have remained constant since the onset of the pandemic, but more people than usual have contacted the state about “access to better upload speeds.”
Dickison also noted that the Internet needs of senior citizens have become quite apparent over the last year and a half. She recalled a letter that her office received from an elderly woman.
“Through the pandemic, she was diagnosed with cancer and talked about how important it was for her to have broadband, not just to have access to health care but to stay connected with family and friends,” Dickison said.
To further illustrate the newfound importance of upload speeds, both Ivey and Dickison mentioned the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s interim final rule for spending American Rescue Plan dollars on broadband. The rule states that broadband projects should result in “symmetrical upload and download speeds of 100 Mbps.” If that standard can’t be met immediately, the download speed must still be at least 100 Mbps, and the upload speed must hit 20 Mbps and be scalable to 100 Mbps.
The report itself goes into greater detail and recommendation for policymakers…
These changes also substantially increased Internet traffic. The Internet remained usable under this load, but performance was degraded, primarily for upstream traffic. ISPs were accustomed to carrying streaming video to tens of millions of homes every evening, so there was already capacity to handle much of the downstream traffic for videoconferencing, but not the upstream. That is presumably why upstream data rates at midday fell by roughly a third during the pandemic, and why complaints about speed increased by 176%. These increases were much greater in services that offer highly asymmetric service, for example, 291% for cable and 213% for satellite, whereas the increase for slow but symmetric DSL was just 15%. Today, people tend to focus primarily on the downstream capabilities of Internet services, as if the upstream did not matter. The implications for ISPs are obvious. Even after COVID-19 has been tamed, we will probably see more people working and going to school from home than before the pandemic. To prepare for that possibility, ISPs that offer asymmetric services should reevaluate their plans for upstream capacity, or risk becoming less competitive. The implications for policymakers are at least as important. When upstream is poor, some of the Internet uses that should be priorities for policymakers are especially impaired. As too many students and parents learned the hard way during the pandemic, upstream capacity is often required for effective distance learning. It is also critical for many telehealth applications. For example, the pandemic forced policymakers and insurance companies to allow and pay for mental health services delivered over the Internet. As a result, some rural areas that have been chronically underserved by mental health providers for decades could finally access these services, but effective interactions with a psychologist often require enough upstream capacity for two-way video. Policymakers can help. The FCC defines a service as “broadband” if the downstream is at least 25 Mb/s and the upstream is at least 3 Mb/s. The majority of households that contain people working from home are far better off with a service that is 20 Mb/s down and 20 Mb/s up than a service that is 100 Mb/s down and 3 Mb/s up, but only the latter would meet the FCC’s current definition of broadband. As a result, a company building out infrastructure that can offer the service with just 3 Mb/s up is far more likely to obtain government subsidies. If people continue to work from home in significant numbers, as seems likely, the FCC should reduce the down/up ratio in its broadband definition from the current value of 8 to 1. The focus on downstream at the expense of upstream is even more apparent in how Internet services are marketed, especially from ISPs that offer asymmetric services, such as cable companies. If the largest cable providers (Comcast, Charter, and Cox) put any information whatsoever about upstream data rates on their websites, we could not find it. Moreover, the customer service representative we spoke to on the phone was happy to tell us the downstream rate of each Internet service his company offered, but was similarly unable to provide any information about upstream. This lack of information has two unfortunate consequences. First, many consumers will unknowingly choose a service that is inferior for their purposes, even when that inferior service costs more. Second, ISPs have far less incentive to improve their upstream capabilities, because doing so will do little to lure customers away from competitors. Competition drives quality improvement, but only when customers know what they are buying. The FCC could solve this problem simply by changing transparency rules to require ISPs to provide meaningful information about upstream capabilities.