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Internet Speeds During the 2020 Quarantine
Is internet in 2020 really this bad? (Hint: It’s not just you.)
We’re a curious bunch, and we wanted to know if we’re the only ones threatening to flip a table because of our internet connections.
So we looked at speed test results for 2020 so far and surveyed our team to find out if everyone else’s experiences matched ours. Color us surprised when we found that, at least on paper, things aren’t so bad.
Here are some of the major things we found out about how our internet is holding up during the year of quarantine:
- Average download speeds rose by almost 20% nationwide from January to September 2020.
- Of the large internet service providers (ISPs), Windstream saw the biggest gain in average download speeds of 49.8%, while HughesNet saw the biggest decrease of -70.7%.
- Most states that saw a decrease in average speeds in September 2020 compared to January still saw 100 Mbps download speeds (except for West Virginia).
- Even in the top three states where average speeds skyrocketed (Montana, Nevada, and Nebraska), there’s still a critical need for rural internet access.
- The best time to get online and get work done is in the morning.
But if things look so rosy where internet performance is concerned, why do we still fight with our Wi-Fi as 2020 draws out? Let’s crunch some numbers and figure it out.
Average download speeds in the US rose
The average download speed in the US rose 18.23% from January to September 2020.
When looking at the nation’s home internet connections as a whole, here’s what we found:
- The average download speed rose 18.23% from 80.13 Mbps in January 2020 to 94.74 Mbps in September 2020.
- The peak average download speed across the US was 96.73 Mbps in June 2020.
This could mean that ISPs started making good on their word and delivering download speeds closer to what we pay for.
But more likely, it means that individual households upgraded their internet plans over the course of the year.
Why would you pay more for faster download speeds? Well, faster speeds mean a better connection for chatting with coworkers on Zoom, sending large files to your boss, and submitting your final paper before that imminent deadline.
We asked our coworkers to dish out the details on how many connected devices they have in their homes, and they told us everything.
On average, each person had seven devices using their Wi-Fi. The most? Our teammate Stephen in Canada had 31 devices using his home Wi-Fi. Wow.
Your actual download speed probably falls short of what’s promised
Faster download speeds can also get you closer to the actual speed you need to work from home efficiently. More than likely, most of us don’t get the download speeds we pay for—and if you pay for the bare minimum to get by on Zoom, that can spell trouble.
Just over half of our coworkers had download speeds that averaged less than 80% of the download speeds they paid for. Our buddy Scott had the slowest speeds, which hit 3% of the speeds he paid for. Granted, Scott admitted that issues with his laptop might have created a bottleneck in his Wi-Fi connection.
This isn’t just a 2020 trend, though. Download speeds generally fluctuate throughout the day and also dip or jump up due to other factors. But when your internet speeds can’t even get up to 80% of the speed you’re paying for, it’s no shock that you’re frustrated.
When you take a speed test, you may notice that your speeds are much lower than what you expect.
But don’t panic just yet. Download speeds may be slower due to a number of reasons: Using Wi-Fi, your router’s or modem’s firmware is out of date, or your ISP is on the fritz, to name a few.
Average download speeds by ISP mostly stayed the same
Most internet providers across the US saw an increase in their average download speed as 2020 trundled on. But some saw slight dips, and others plunged off a proverbial cliff.
Here’s what we saw after looking at large ISPs:
(Remember, these are average download speeds, and they don’t necessarily represent the speeds you might get from a particular ISP in your location.)
Windstream speeds finally zoomed past the baseline for high-speed internet
The top gainer out of the large ISPs we looked at was Windstream.
Over the course of 2020 so far, Windstream saw a boost in its average download speeds from 25.3 Mbps in January up to 37.9 Mbps in September. That’s a 49.8% increase.
HughesNet speeds got low, low, low, low
Satellite internet speeds aren’t spectacular to begin with, so we grimaced when we saw the speeds anyone surfing on HughesNet had to suffer through in 2020.
HughesNet started out with a fairly respectable average download speed of 22.5 Mbps in January 2020. That’s almost high-speed internet, at least by the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) definition of 25 Mbps.)
But by September 2020, HughesNet’s average download speeds fell 70.7% and hit a new low of 6.6 Mbps.
This incredibly slow average download speed may be related to HughesNet’s data cap: if you use up all your data for the month, the ISP slows your download speed down to 1 to 3 Mbps. And if you’re Zooming, downloading video games to pass the time, or streaming video, you’ll be sucking up all that data in a jiffy.
An average download speed of 6.6 Mbps is barely enough to check the latest forward your great aunt Shirley sent you. (“Fw: Scroll down and make a wish.”) But there are some things you can do to kick your download speeds into gear if you’re stuck with HughesNet (or any other slow ISP):
Our coworkers with Cox internet had the best experience
We were a little shocked when we found out that our coworkers with Cox internet saw the fastest average download speeds. We expected fiber internet, like Google Fiber and XMission, to outperform cable providers like Cox by a landslide.
But, of the 14 different internet providers our coworkers use, only Cox had an average download speed of way more than 80% of its advertised speed. The next highest includes Google Fiber, Xfinity, and Spectrum, which all delivered around 65% of their advertised speeds.
(Our coworkers reported using 14 different ISPs, but only six had enough results for us to feel comfortable reporting on their actual versus advertised speeds.)
Not sure if you’re overpaying for internet? The price you pay depends on a lot of things: location, download speed, connection type, and more.
But if your monthly bill is around $65 (not including TV or phone service if you bundle), you’re sitting pretty.
Most states saw increases in average speeds, but a handful saw decreases up to 39%
When you look at state-by-state internet service for 2020 so far, a handful stand out with impressive performance, which is great news for anyone working from home in those areas.
But where there’s sunshine, there’s often rain. Several states also saw dramatic dips in their average internet speeds. Here’s a quick look at what we found when comparing each state’s average download speed in January 2020 to average download speed in September 2020.
If you live in a city, you’ve likely got a faster internet plan than someone in the country.
When we asked our coworkers what download speed they pay for, the average came out to 295 Mbps. (Wow, guys!) The fastest plan? More than a few teammates went all in for 1,000 Mbps speeds. And the slowest plans were 30 to 40 Mbps.
The best times to get online are between 4 a.m. and 10 a.m.
We hope you’re an early bird because you’ll get the fastest download speeds between 4 a.m. and 10 a.m.
This wasn’t necessarily true in January 2020, when download speeds didn’t change much over the course of the day. (Except for blips at 7 a.m. and 11 a.m.) We noticed a tiny bump up to an average speed of 90.75 Mbps at 7 a.m. during that month, but otherwise, speeds stayed between 72 and 86 Mbps.
Come March, though, we started to see the first big upticks and dips in download speeds—which makes sense because most of us started our new “normal” of working and learning from home that month. In March, 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. was the best time to get online.
The title for the month with the most consistently fast average download speeds belongs to July. Average speeds hit their lowest mark of 90.41 Mbps at 3 a.m. and peaked with speeds of 107.79 Mbps at 8 a.m.
Most recently in September, we found that speeds started ramping up at 3 a.m. with an average download speed of 93.2 Mbps, then maxed out with an average of 105.12 Mbps at 9 a.m. and dropped back down to 89.75 Mbps at 4 p.m. Talk about a rollercoaster.
And when we compare nationwide average speeds on April 21, 2020, to what our coworkers saw on the same day in April, things look pretty similar.
It’s almost like those two lines are dancing together. We were missing some data for certain times, including 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. for nationwide speeds and noon plus 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. for our coworkers’ speeds. But when you connect the dots, things still tend to line up.
How much download speeds fluctuated over the day was kind of a shock for some. A member of our video production team, Derek, said, “(I have mixed feelings), I didn't expect my internet speed to fluctuate so much throughout the day.”
We imagine those wavering speeds make it difficult to plan for a productive work-from-home day. Especially if you’re trying to download and upload large files, like the raw video footage Derek deals with on a day-to-day basis.
All signs point to our work-from-home internet life continuing to improve, at least where the numbers are concerned. ISPs are pumping out more download speed, upgrading plans, and raising the ceiling on data caps.
That said, we’ve also seen most ISPs withdraw the unlimited data caps they offered as a resource to customers in light of COVID-19. And we still find that many US ISPs are lacking when it comes to actually delivering the speeds they promise, especially ISPs that use older technology to deliver internet to rural areas. There’s a distinct lack of support and improvement despite a growing need for accessible, reliable, and fast internet.
And while we can hope the advent of 5G internet, the spread of fiber networks across the country, and new ISPs like Starlink will improve internet for all, that leaves us waiting for solutions. In the meantime, internet remains a pain point for anyone working or learning from home—especially for those living in rural areas.
States that saw improvements in internet speed were home to communities and local governments that took matters into their own hands to improve internet access for their neighbors. Perhaps that’s the route every town and city will have to take, seeing as major ISPs lack motivation to improve and expand access.
What you can do about your internet speeds
Don’t be surprised if you run into hiccups or full-on roadblocks when it comes to your internet connection. Our data shows that, even when download speeds look great, outside forces can negatively impact your online experience in a major way.
Luckily, there are some things you can do, like restarting your laptop, to kick those internet issues to the curb, including the following:
To narrow down our nationwide data, we looked at 1,722,056 speed test results taken from HighSpeedInternet.com for the dates January 1 to September 30, 2020.
When comparing internet providers, we used data for those that had 100 or more total speed test results for January through September and served more than 5% of US zip codes. We also removed data from business ISPs and mobile providers to focus solely on home internet connections. (There was no way to differentiate between a mobile hotspot used for home internet versus someone using their cellphone while surfing the internet away from home.)
Some of our state- and city-specific data is pulled from fewer than 100 speed test results. However, we focused on cities with the largest amounts of data possible to ensure results were as close to accurate as they could be.
To gather speed test data from our team, we asked each coworker to log speed test results in the morning, afternoon, and evening of April 21, 2020. Each one also provided us with data on which internet provider they used, the monthly cost of their internet plan, how much download speed they paid for, and how many devices were connected to their Wi-Fi.
To analyze actual average download speeds, we removed any speed test entries where the user did not enter the speed they paid for or an ISP. We also included ISP-specific data only when there were two or more speed test results for that ISP.