Why American Networks Were Better Prepared for Internet Traffic Surge

Randy Sukow


Broadband networks in the United States have gotten high marks for maintaining performance during the COVID-19 crisis. Even as millions worked from home, relying on broadband networks to keep them connected to the world, fiber-based networks did especially well and met the challenge. In an interview the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, posted today, Professor Christopher Yoo of the University of Pennsylvania, said today’s broadband success is traceable policy decisions from 20 years ago.

COVID “was an interesting stress test to put on the network,” said Yoo, pictured left in the interview with former FCC Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth, a Hudson senior fellow. “There was a quick spike in demand. Some estimate as much as an 80 percent increase in upload bandwidth and 40 percent increase in download bandwidth. It’s a good chance to ask, ‘How did the networks handle this?’”

Networks in Europe, he said, sometimes ask streaming video providers including Netflix and YouTube “to throttle their traffic” by, in some cases, converting high-definition content into standard-definition, he said. American networks continued to provide full-definition video service at increased volume for both work and entertainment purposes with few problems.

Yoo, who is a professor of law, specializing in communications, as well as computer science, said that American networks have benefited from policies promoting fiber investments. In the 1990s, early broadband networks ran economically over existing telephone and cable TV networks. Providers could establish broadband service at a cost of a few hundred dollars per home and expect a quick return on investment.

“That was fit for a world that was dominated by email and web browsing. The world we live in today is radically different,” Yoo said. Even before recent COVID-related spikes, the demand for streaming video and mobile video has been increasing traffic on the network by 100 percent a year in recent years. The current drive is to “put in new money for the networks of the future,” he said.

He credited the U.S. government in the early 2000s for abandoning policies that encouraged repurposing networks.  “Europe has never left that strategy and consequently, the work I’ve done shows the European providers have invested about two-and-a-half less times less per household than American providers have,” Yoo said. “That’s not because they are irrational. It’s because they were responding to the incentives given to them by their regulatory system.”

The goal of European regulators, he said, has not been to drive investment in new networks, but to control prices. U.S. policy “has been focusing on providing strong incentives for network providers to invest in higher-quality, higher-bandwidth, lower-latency, more reliable networks,” he said.

But what of U.S. rural areas that do not yet have fiber infrastructure? NRTC Broadband Solutions has been showing its members how to take advantage of the current business environment and developing affordable plans to build fiber and fixed wireless networks.

A replay of the Hudson Institute interview is available on YouTube

More Topics
+ See 102 More
More resources

Subscribe for more insights from NRTC