Internet in the Age of COVID — Is your service enough?

From working and studying at home to an increase in online shopping, we, as a global community, have never used the internet more. Unfortunately, this has exposed some serious weaknesses in the strength of our networks.  

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, internet inequity was a pressing issue in North America. Connection to high speed broadband internet has been tied to better health, education, and financial prosperity. In a global crisis where isolation is part of the solution, this is more relevant than ever.  

In the past year, some analytics report a 50 percent increase in internet usage, just in the United States. For many families with two adults working from home, the home internet that had been working fine before COVID-19 is no longer sufficient. Especially if they also have children doing virtual schooling, streaming content, or gaming. The strain of the past year to networks’ infrastructure has meant that providers are having to come up with new solutions.  

Before lockdowns, networks were accustomed to peak activity times, as well as down times, based on typical consumer habits. Your office or institution’s peak times would be the inverse. Offices and institutions, such as universities, can typically support these heavier peak times, because they pay for “enterprise grade” internet broadband service, which utilize higher quality cables and piping than your typical neighborhood.  

As The New York Times explained it in an article last year, “many offices and schools essentially have the equivalent of a big pipe to carry internet traffic, compared with a garden hose for most homes. 

This has created an obvious difficulty for business owners with employees working from home, as well as for employees already struggling with pandemic-related stress.  

In the United States, big carriers like Verizon, Cox, and Charter, among others, have taken measures to meet the increase in demand over the past year. The carriers’ challenge was to make home internet fit the expectations of business services. From upgrading plans, forgiving overages, and promising to improve infrastructure, measures have been taken by all major carriers to adjust to the new reality.  

In Canada, the situation has been similar, impacting rural Canadians most severely. Those working or running businesses out of small towns found they were out of options when it came to trying to adjust virtually. One study done in collaboration with the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) and Maclean’s found that “estimates just 46 per cent of rural Canadians have access to internet that meets that minimum standard, compared to 80 per cent for the country as a whole” and “in each of Canada’s 417 municipalities with more than 9,000 people–including the biggest cities, like Toronto–many people live with web connections that aren’t sufficient to work or study from home.” 

This is not just a Canadian problem. In Wisconsin alone, there are roughly 411,000 households without access to broadband speeds.  

Across North America, the answer to the dilemma posed by work from home seems to be improved infrastructure. This infrastructure is already implemented in downtown cores of cities, where multiple people on one residential network can be working or studying simultaneously. Outside of these cores, the current infrastructure can often only support one heavy user.  

The problem has been, as always with connectivity inequity, is that carriers only profit off investing in better infrastructure when there are enough residents in the area to purchase the service. This creates a problem for residents and business owners with employees working from home alike. The pandemic has seen an increasing urgency in adopting internet connectivity into the realm of public infrastructure.