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Imagine the Covid-19 Pandemic Without Broadband

Politicians often talk about the “crisis” of America’s “crumbling infrastructure” as an excuse to pass huge spending programs that just might result in their name on a bridge or a building somewhere.

But there’s actually very little evidence that America’s infrastructure is in poor shape.

In fact, one key piece of U.S. infrastructure—the broadband network—has come through with flying colors during the Covid-19 pandemic. While airport traffic is way down, broadband traffic is way up.

According to OpenVault, broadband consumption increased by 47 percent in the first quarter of 2020, due largely to self-quarantine and work-at-home policies. Other sources have reported a downstream traffic increase of more than 16 percent and an upstream increase of more than 34 percent, with the upstream increase most likely due to meetings and conferencing from home using platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

America’s broadband networks have handled this dramatic increase in usage during a crisis without a hitch, but not without effort. For the past several years broadband companies have topped the list of “investment heroes,” as characterized by the Progressive Policy Institute in its annual report of companies ranked by capital investment.

Once again in 2019, the communications/broadband sector was the top investing sector of the U.S. economy, with four out of the top 10 companies being “pure” broadband companies and a further three having significant investments in broadband infrastructure.

But networks also require active management to handle this increase in usage and shifts in traffic patterns, such as an increase in daytime traffic. Hopefully, we have now seen the last of the “dumb pipes” version of net neutrality, which argued that network operators should be legally prohibited from managing their networks.

While the remote learning that was forced upon many households may have been erratic and a less-desirable option for many, at least it was possible. Broadband prevented a lost semester for millions of students.

Many workers have been able to maintain their jobs and productivity from home. Indeed, it has worked so well that major employers are planning to continue remote work as part of their employment mix going forward. While some workers are not quite as productive from home, others are actually more productive. And again, broadband makes that possible.

Telemedicine has finally come into its own during the pandemic, facilitated by wide availability of broadband. Social media has also seen an increase in traffic, as an unparalleled way for people to stay in touch and maintain relationships while social distancing.

And of course organizations like IPI have been able to continue our program of policy briefings and events because of broadband and the availability of web conferencing tools.

While the pandemic has imposed significant costs and losses on the economy, our broadband infrastructure is likely the single biggest factor reducing the economic—not to mention the physical—harm imposed by the pandemic, making it possible to work, shop, learn and be entertained while also maintaining social distancing. How much worse off would we have been without it!