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Study: Pandemic Teaches Government a Lesson on Upload Speeds

A new study rejects the idea that provider networks held up quite well for Americans during the pandemic. This research, as well as state broadband leaders, think upload speeds must be better for America’s future.

Blue lights whizzing by to indicate Internet speeds.
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 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.”

Jon Peha, coauthor of the study and an electrical engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, told Government Technology that the “standard of 25 down and 3 up is outdated” when it comes to the type of projects that should be funded by government.

Peha also explained how different technologies impacted the level of consumer complaints.

“With cable, Internet speed complaints roughly quadrupled,” Peha said. “Whereas with DSL, it didn’t increase much … it seems that the complaints increased primarily with the very asymmetric services.”

Peha’s conclusion for policymakers? Upload speeds are far more important than is generally understood.

Anecdotal evidence from state broadband leaders appears to confirm some of Peha’s findings. Crystal Ivey, broadband director for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, said her agency received a higher volume of phone calls and emails about Internet problems after the pandemic started. While many of these citizens lacked broadband altogether, the voices of another type of constituent grew louder with the rise of COVID-19.

“I also saw an increase in people who had some access to broadband that was maybe OK prior to the pandemic, but during the pandemic, when you had multiple devices online in the house during the day … the Internet that they were subscribing to was no longer adequate,” said Ivey, who has held her position since 2019.

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.

Ivey also pointed out that all 52 broadband grants given out by Tennessee’s program have involved “gig-capable projects.” Meanwhile, Dickison explained that Minnesota’s grant program requires projects to be scalable to symmetrical speeds of 100 Mbps. Both leaders said grant awardees tend to use fiber or a fiber-coaxial hybrid.

From Peha’s perspective, another upload speed problem lies in the lack of transparency from providers about their service’s upload capabilities. The study by Peha and his colleagues suggests customers don’t know what they’re buying in many cases, particularly when it comes to cable Internet.

“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,” the study said. “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.”

Neither Ivey nor Dickison have seen much of this sort of vague advertising in their states, but Peha thinks companies should be compelled by a government regulator to provide “complete and useful and accurate information.”

One of the main conclusions of Peha’s research is a counter to the message that provider networks did what they were supposed to during the pandemic. Dickison, on the other hand, believes providers in Minnesota did a great job on the whole. She praised the expanded role of electric and telephone cooperatives and noted that a number of cable providers offered low-cost service.

“I was impressed with how some of these folks went above and beyond when the need was the greatest,” Dickison said.
Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.