By Michelle Ricker February 23, 2021
Summary: It’s difficult to fully appreciate just how much the last year has changed how we use the internet. From school to work to connecting with loved ones, the demands on and access to high-speed internet were challenged. Here’s what we learned, and how we can make our home internet connections stronger.
There are few aspects of life that COVID-19 didn’t change. Perhaps one of the most significant was the way we used the internet to connect to the outside world. While the internet has become more and more enmeshed in our lives over the years, this was the year we asked what more high-speed internet could do for us.
In fact, adults 18 and older were spending more than 11 hours with media every day according to Nielsen.
To more fully understand the rapid changes that took place over the last year, we took a deeper look at four main categories: school, work, leisure, and infrastructure.
Most classrooms shifted to remote learning in spring 2020, and many schools implemented a hybrid learning system thereafter. However, these shifts served to highlight the areas where access to the internet falls short.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, roughly 94 percent of students ages three to eighteen years had access to home internet in 2018. But having access doesn’t necessarily mean it’s reliable or even always available. For example, the FCC defines broadband internet as 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload or higher. Households with multiple members working or schooling from home have found that the connection becomes bottlenecked at those speeds — especially when video meetings and classes have to happen at once.
A survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau explained that “73% of households with children always had access to the internet for online learning and 17% had access most of the time.” For the remaining 10% that don’t have internet readily available, it can be nearly impossible to fully participate in video meetings or other activities happening in real time. If a student has class at 10 a.m., but the internet isn’t accessible then, they simply can’t attend remotely.
While the internet has become more and more enmeshed in our lives over the years, this was the year we asked what more high-speed internet could do for us.
The same year, 4.4 million households with students didn’t have reliable access to a computer and 3.7 million households were unable to connect to the internet. More than 50% of families had school-issued computers provided, but only a small portion were given a way to access the internet with them. And, as we have all been reminded, a working device is essentially useless for classroom participation without connectivity.
Because people are participating in more data-heavy activities, service providers with no internet data caps have become increasingly important. Some internet providers and non-profits are working to help bridge these divides, but it’s thrown reliable high-speed internet access back into the headlines. Rural areas are typically the last to receive new infrastructure, but options are beginning to expand. For homes with more internet service options, fiber internet is preferable to cable, offering the highest speeds and most reliable connection.
One of the most discussed aspects of COVID-19’s impacts is the way it affects where we do our work. According to a Stanford University Economics newsletter, 42 percent of U.S. employees were working remotely during the summer. That means there were still plenty of people unable to do their job from home. Those able to work remotely were likely to be more highly educated and higher earning. Employees unable to work from home — because of their job type or lack of access to an internet connection and equipment — were still working in-person or adapting to a more flexible work style.
Still, with the sheer increase in the number of people working remotely, certain apps and sites were strained. The videoconferencing platform Zoom welcomed more new users in the first few months of 2020 alone than it did in all of 2019.
Businesses that brought in employees — whether with a rotating schedule or a full staff with precautions — may have also realized their internet plan needs updating to adapt to changes in demand or use. For employers with employees able to WFH, security and access have become increasingly important. One way to bolster security for employees at home or in the office is to install a VPN (virtual private network). VPNs allow employees to remotely access shared files while also encrypting the data they’re sending. There are many VPN providers, but you want to make sure you’re going with a trusted, reputable company.
If you’re a cable internet user, you may have noticed that your internet seemed suddenly slower around 7:30 p.m. in the past. This is because cable uses a shared connection, meaning that as more people access the internet simultaneously, the connections can slow down. Now, there’s also peak internet use right around lunchtime. As internet activities continue to use higher amounts of data and require us to be connected more frequently, cable internet users will see their speed continue to be impacted.
The bottom line is, the more live (even though they’re not in-person) activities you do, the more your internet speed matters.
While work from home has offered more flexibility for employees, there are also signs of burnout, especially in workers who have to learn new technology as they go. Since it’s a trend that’s likely to stay — 36.2 million Americans are predicted to be working remotely by 2025, an 87 percent increase from before the pandemic — having reliable internet is a must.
Apart from the professional demands on the internet, we’re also using it more for leisure. As more people are staying at home, and traditional entertainment options like movie theaters remain closed or restricted, streaming has increased by 60 to 100 percent. Online gaming grew 12 percent.
It’s easy to think of the internet’s leisure side as being more sedentary — binging Netflix on your couch, fossil hunting on Animal Crossing — but online fitness classes took off as well. According to a report by Fortune, nine in ten Americans who regularly exercise have said they’ll continue working out at home even when they feel comfortable returning to a gym. For those who enjoy classes where you can interact with other participants, high-speed internet is even more important. Live video conferencing uses more bandwidth than streaming a pre-recorded YouTube class, for example. The bottom line is, the more live (even though they’re not in-person) activities you do, the more your internet speed matters.
Amid concerns of the demands of COVID-19 breaking the internet, many companies have used this time to bolster existing infrastructure, and make way for new ones. Many of the challenges come from what’s known as the last-mile services. That’s the final end of the connection that gets the internet into your home. This is also one of the biggest differences between your internet at home and at work. School or business internet typically have more reliable “enterprise-grade” services. Enterprise-grade internet has a higher capacity for the number of users, which is why you might experience bottlenecks at home more often than at work.
Even if your internet is working just fine, you might have experienced throttling or added fees because you’ve hit your data caps. You’re not alone. Data usage has increased by 38 percent since COVID-19 lockdowns began. Data caps limit how much information you can send and receive over your internet connection. Activities such as video conferencing and classes require more data than scrolling through social media or checking your email. This prompted many internet service providers to temporarily remove their data caps over the summer. For the most part, though, those data caps are back in force.
As high data-consuming activities continue to have their place in our lives, even when we’re back at school and in the office, finding a service provider with no internet data caps will always be important. Whether you’re looking for the fastest high-speed internet available at home or the office, EarthLink can help.
Michelle Ricker is a Copywriter for EarthLink. She graduated from the University of Cincinnati with an M.A. in Communication and has more than 5 years of writing experience. She thrives on storytelling and well-placed punctuation. She currently lives and works in Atlanta.
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