The way we use the internet has changed—and fast. Before the pandemic, telecoms and internet service provider BT was handling five terabits of data every second from its UK customers during the day. When the pandemic hit and the world locked down, data volumes doubled. In Germany, DE-CIX Frankfurt, a major connection point for the global internet, broke multiple bandwidth records with 2020 peak volumes beating 2019 rates by 28 percent.
One week, the world’s offices were buzzing. The next, they were silent. In the new normal, office workers spend their days leaping from one video conferencing service to another, each one using up vital bandwidth. Workplace communications platforms like Slack constantly ping and buzz. And beneath them our home broadband connections are creaking.
If the world of work changed overnight, the infrastructure providing it has evolved at a more leisurely pace. But now lawmakers are trying to do something about it. Switzerland is the latest country to decide its internet infrastructure is too sluggish, suggesting it will require service providers to offer at least 80 Mbits/second download speeds and 8 Mbits/second upload speeds by 2024, up from 10 and 1 Mbits/second at present. The significant increase is necessary to ensure people have reliable, fast connections as standard in order to work from home and keep up with online education, the Swiss government says.
“With the pandemic, we’ve all become even more aware of the need to have fast and reliable connectivity,” says Paolo Gerli, a lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University who has studied the importance of broadband access and is a member of the International Telecommunications Society, an internet infrastructure industry body. “Both speed and reliability are very important, especially when you’re doing your business from home.”
The amount of data sent over internet connections has increased steadily over time: In 2013, the average UK household used around 1 GB a day, according to data compiled by UK media regulator Ofcom. In 2020, it was around 14.3 GB—a 1,330 percent increase. Over the same time period, the average residential download speed has risen from 17.8 Mbits/second to 80.2 Mbits/second—a 350 percent increase. Put another way: Data volumes have grown far slower than data speed.
That’s not just bad news for your Zoom calls, it’s also bad for the economy. A 2018 study of OECD countries by Pantelis Koutroumpis, lead economist at the University of Oxford’s Oxford Martin School, found that increasing broadband speeds from 2 Mbits/second to 8 Mbits/second adds nearly 1 percent to a country’s gross domestic product. In the UK and the US, increasing broadband speeds accounted for an annualized increase in GDP of around 0.12 percent between 2002 and 2016. That impact was measured before the great shift to working from home brought about by the pandemic, meaning any subsequent increase in productivity and economic growth is likely to be higher. A separate study by Deloitte found that a 10 percentage point increase in US broadband access in 2014 would have increased employment by 875,000, and added $186 billion in economic output, by 2019. “The economic impact of internet access has been on policymakers’ radars for almost two decades, but its significance has skyrocketed during the pandemic,” says Koutroumpis.