REGIONAL—Internet data usage nearly doubled in the last 12 months as the coronavirus pandemic led more users than ever to log onto streaming services and start working and attending school from home.
The lockdowns led to an immediate change in business, according to Doug Boone, CEO of Premier Communications in Sioux Center. He said that while some of the increase was from watching video, internet providers’ role as an essential service also expanded.
“What we saw right after the pandemic began was obviously a big uptick especially as it related to a lot of kids being home,” Boone said. “A lot of it was Netflix, but there was an awful lot with online learning, virtual learning, people working from home. So we saw an immediate bump from that point in time and it’s just been steadily increasing all the way through.”
Even as the world begins to slowly reopen and COVID-19 cases continue to decrease, the executive said customers have embraced the new normal of online entertainment, business and education.
Evertek CEO Roxanne White had a similar experience with her Everly-based internet company.
“We always knew that before, that people really relied on our services, and it wasn’t just for entertainment,” White said. “We’ve seen that switch. Customers do use it for critical things.”
An online connection has long been crucial, she said, using the August derecho in central and eastern Iowa as an example.
“For many customers, that was the first thing they wanted to get back up along with electricity,” she said.
The pandemic exacerbated trends that existed before the pandemic, including working from home, digital classrooms and online video.
White said a surprising development to her was the rise in virtual private networks, commonly known as VPNs, which are more secure than regular connections.
The trends still are dwarfed by the popularity of online video, which makes up the majority of data internet providers carry to consumers.
Increased usage put a strain on many providers nationally and globally, but Premier and Evertek have managed to keep pace. The two CEOs said their companies have bolstered their speeds and reliability over the past year.
“It can be taken for granted when things are working, but when there’s a disruption, it isn’t just about Netflix and I can’t check my e-mail,” Boone said. “It is about people working from home. It is about people trying to do telehealth. It is about kids trying to do virtual learning. There’s a lot more necessity with a high-quality broadband network than just a convenience.”
White also mentioned shrinkage in live television audiences. She pointed to most major media conglomerates launching their own services, another trend hastened by COVID-19.
What’s next for internet providers — as it was before the pandemic — is securing better service for consumers. For rural companies, that means funding more connections in sparsely populated places.
“It’s become as essential as electricity,” White said.
“The pandemic really brought that forward,” Boone added. “When people are underserved and can’t get the broadband they need, there’s a lot of frustration. We’re happy to help overcome that for many people.”