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Pandemic Silver Lining: Internet Speeds Have Spiked

Study Finds Missouri and Kansas Internet Speeds Increased About 30%

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Above image credit: A fiber optic cable used to provide broadband internet service. (Jens B'ttner | AP Images)

Wake up. Log on. Boot up Zoom. Check email. Google some data. Scan Twitter. More Zoom meetings. Facetime a co-worker. Log off. Activate Netflix. Binge your favorite show. 

Sound familiar? It’s everyday life for millions of people working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Life as we now know it has gone online. According to The Atlantic, one of the country’s largest internet providers, AT&T, saw traffic on its network increase 20% during the first month of the  pandemic shutdown. With all of that extra use, many were worried that America’s network infrastructure would not be able to handle the increase in traffic.

No worries, at least so far.  A new study by WhistleOut found that internet speeds have largely increased across the nation since March — and that speeds in these parts have increased more than most places.

Kansas and Missouri are two of the top five states in the country in internet speed increases. Kansas has seen speeds increase by 36%, and Missouri experienced a 31% increase. Wyoming was the number one state in the country, experiencing a 52% increase in internet speeds.

Map of internet speed changes across the country.
Average internet speeds across the United States have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic — from 84.9 Mbps to 94.6 Mbps — despite the surge in bandwidth demand. (Source | WhistleOut)

Making Improvements

To be sure, rural America is hardly an internet paradise.

Missouri and Kansas have long struggled with broadband access. In Missouri nearly 300,000 households are without access to reliable broadband internet. Kansas has a similar problem, with large portions of the state’s rural population going under-served. 

Broadband infrastructure projects can vary in cost depending on the size and density of the area they are serving, but prices range from expensive to more expensive. 

Both Missouri and Kansas have received $50 million in CARES Act funds to assist communities with their broadband needs.

“It definitely would not be fair to say that’s going to solve our problems,” Stanley Adams, director of broadband initiatives for the Kansas Chamber of Commerce said. “Because it turns out that’s not a lot of money.”

Missouri has faced a similar problem. Tim Arbeiter, Missouri director of broadband development, said that the first round of the CARES Act money will award $3 million to 16 projects that will connect approximately 2,000 households.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is a lot for those 2,000 households that are desperately needing that connection,” Arbeiter said.

As our lives become increasingly dependent on access to the internet, getting download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second to people is becoming immensely important. 

But if these two states are struggling so much with getting people that access, how are internet speeds going up?

“This is a credit to the service provider community. When the pandemic hit, they weren’t asleep at the switch either,” Adams said. “They realized that there was going to be a significant shift in demand at home.”

Adams said that providers have been upgrading speeds to homes voluntarily. Service providers opened up their networks to push faster speeds, due to the increased activity from home. Essentially they were upgrading customers’ access in the middle of the pandemic. According to the WhistleOut study, some internet providers such as Cox have increased speeds in their plans to help during the pandemic.

AT&T could not comment on the increase of speeds. However, the company has been building out its network in recent years. AT&T specifically has credited the virtualization of their network as a way they’ve adapted to and withstood the increase in traffic. That has been a huge help in keeping the internet afloat during the pandemic. 

“You don’t design a network for a pandemic,” said Molly Kocour Boyle, AT&T Kansas president of external affairs. “But it turns out that building your network on software and open hardware specifications can make it ready for just about anything.”

Arbeiter said that another possibility for the increase is users upgrading their internet plan to match the increased usage in their homes. Boyle said that AT&T has seen people increasing their speeds and purchasing faster packages with more bandwidth. 

AT&T invested $700 million in its Kansas networks during the 2017-2019 period. The company also committed to offering service to 35,000 rural homes and small businesses through the FCC’s Connect America Fund initiative by the end of 2020. In Missouri the company invested more than $1.9 billion in its wireless and wireline networks from 2017-2019.

It’s Not Over

Increased internet speeds are of course a good thing. But the fight to get broadband access to everyone in Missouri and Kansas is not over. 

“This is a significant issue, and the recent infusion of dollars is a welcomed thing,” Arbeiter said. “But there’s more to be done in this space in order to get just shy of 300,000 households in Missouri high speed access.”

Adams is optimistic about the future of broadband in Kansas, especially with this new round of funding. While it may not solve the problem, it will give the state a better idea of where more funding needs to go in the future.

He also believes that this uptick in internet speed is temporary, and is specifically increased to meet the demands during the pandemic.

Evening hours from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. are known as “rush hour” for the internet. More than 50 million people are typically streaming or playing video games online at this time. Now that the average internet speed in American households has increased by 10 megabits per second, maybe everyone can experience it with a little less buffering. 

Jacob Douglas covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.

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