Internet speeds across North Carolina have slowed down in the weeks since most workers and people began staying home because of the threat of the novel coronavirus.
However, broadband speeds in many cities are improving as internet service providers adapt to the surge in demand, according to data compiled by BroadbandNow, a company that tracks prices and speeds of internet service providers.
In a majority of America’s 200 biggest cities, there have been decreases in median download speeds in the past week, as students and workers tap into broadband intensive activities like videoconferencing on Zoom or watching television shows on Netflix.
For AT&T, one of the largest broadband providers in the country, its network traffic was up 24% on March 30 compared to the same day in the previous month. A spokesman for Google Fiber said it’s seen a 10% uptick in aggregate internet use from its customers in the Triangle and Charlotte.
Tyler Cooper, the editor-in-chief of BroadbandNow’s research arm, which advocates for broader internet access, said the coronavirus is providing a crucial test for the nation’s internet service providers.
Whether it is through fiber, cable or a DSL connection, millions of Americans are dependent on the internet right now to stay employed, educate their children, use telehealth services or order essential goods.
“We are participating in this grand experiment together, and we are realizing that the internet is no longer a luxury,” Cooper said in an interview. “It is pretty much a requirement for participating in modern life.”
How are North Carolina cities doing
BroadbandNow has now tracked two weeks of internet speeds across the U.S. — the week of March 15 and the week of March 22 —when people really began working at home in large numbers. In that first week, speeds fell across North Carolina when compared to the beginning of the year.
The state’s two biggest cities, Charlotte and Raleigh, saw their median download speeds drop at least 20% from their normal ranges. Winston-Salem had one of the biggest speed drops in the country, with its median speed dropping 41% below its normal range to 41.6 Mbps.
Durham did not drop out of its normal range of median speeds (39.3 Mbps to 81 Mbps), though its speed did sit at the lower end of its range at 41.5 Mbps.
In the past week, however, most cities in North Carolina are beginning to see their speeds rebound.
Raleigh returned to its normal range of speeds, with its median speed for downloads increasing from 42.9 Mbps to 54.7 Mbps, a 27.5% increase. Durham also saw its median speed increase.
Winston-Salem posted one of the largest improvements in the country, with its median speed jumping from 41.6 Mbps to 58 Mbps, a 39.4% increase.
Charlotte, however, continued to see a slow down, with its median download speeds falling from 54.3 Mbps to 50.2 Mbps, a 7.6% drop.
Upload speeds, which are important for activities like two-way videoconferencing, were down across all North Carolina cities in the study, except for Wilmington.
BroadbandNow’s data comes from M-Lab, an open source collection of internet performance data. M-lab relies on individual users testing their internet speeds on its site, and Cooper said the data could be affected by people using VPNs for work and a tendency for people to only check their internet speeds when they are having problems.
On a practical level, the decrease in speeds is causing headaches for people trying to handle large video conference calls for work.
About two weeks ago, Luke Zente, who lives in the Greensboro area, said he started experiencing lagging internet speeds.
The slow down was hitting him just as he needed it the most for work. His video conferences were lagging, he kept getting booted off his company’s VPN and load times for web pages were crawling.
Zente said he had to upgrade his service at Spectrum to get by, even though he was supposed to already be getting 100 Mbps in speed.
Cooper said that while internet providers can handle surges in traffic, the current situation is more difficult because the spike is now constant throughout the day.
“[Internet service providers] are able to handle massive spikes of traffic because that is what we do as Americans,” Cooper said. “We go home and we turn on Netflix. But now we have a peak usage time spread throughout the day.”
Right now, he said, a household might have two Zoom calls and a Netflix movie streaming all at once — a huge drag that is probably multiplied across a neighborhood. “I am not saying it’s leading to extreme slowdowns or network crashes,” Cooper said, “but we are seeing throughput problems.”
Local internet service providers, like Spectrum, Google and AT&T, all said their networks are handling the increase in demand well, and that they are constantly monitoring their networks for issues.
A spokesman for Spectrum said the company’s “networks are built to exceed maximum capacity during peak evening usage,” and that while it has seen an increase in daytime activity from areas with large COVID-19 closures, “levels remain well below capacity and typical peak evening usage in most markets.”
How to maximize your broadband connection
In the meantime, Cooper said a lot of speed problems can be traced back to issues with your home setup. Simple things like the placement of the router in your house can contribute to connection issues.
“But there’s only so much you can do to optimize your speed,” he said.
Cooper noted a low-quality router can cause issues and that some people have had success by switching to a mesh router. You might also need to disconnect some of your smart devices when not in use, as they can eat up some of the bandwidth.
And while it might not be possible with everyone stuck at home, he added, you should try not to have multiple video conferences overlapping at the same time.
This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate