COVID-19 Highlights Robust U.S. Broadband Network Performance, But Also the Need to Tackle the Digital Divide and Invest in Rural Broadband Development

July 13, 2020

WASHINGTON—The COVID-19 pandemic did not break the Internet; instead, it highlighted the strong performance of U.S. broadband networks when facing up to a 40 percent increase in traffic. Yet the positive outcome shouldn’t be taken for granted, argues a new report released today by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the leading think tank for science and technology policy. Policymakers should focus on addressing gaps in rural infrastructure, affordability for low-income users, and at-home access for students.

“The facilities-based competition model the United States relies on to incentivize providers to invest in infrastructure passed the COVID-19 network stress test with flying colors,” said Doug Brake, director of broadband and spectrum policy at ITIF, who authored the report. “U.S. networks performed better than Internet infrastructure in many other countries. Current networks accommodating the jump in both download and upload traffic indicates there is no need to over-invest public resources to subsidize ultra-fast networks where broadband infrastructure already exists. Policymakers should focus on other, more immediate problems to close the digital divide in America.”

The ITIF report points to continuing challenges in U.S. broadband policy, as the country continues to see a persistent digital divide, wherein not everyone has access to the Internet, either due to a lack of infrastructure in less densely populated rural areas or adoption hurdles in other parts of the country.

The evidence from the pandemic should galvanize policymakers and civil society to shift the conversation toward measures that could fill in the gaps, rather than continuing old debates around issues such as net neutrality and municipal broadband. 

“The COVID crisis is also an opportunity to take action,” adds Brake. “An honest examination of the evidence shows the basic framework of broadband infrastructure is working well to drive investment in high-performing Internet infrastructure. Yet significant capital investment to bring robust broadband to unserved rural areas, programs to ensure broadband affordability, and capital infusions to bring government services into the 21st century would go a long way toward achieving a more just and effective broadband network for all Americans.”

Read the report.