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How the internet kept India moving despite the pandemic

When the global lockdowns first began in March and April, there was a spike in data usage across the world. But despite the challenges, the networks managed a solid recovery in terms of speeds in the second half of 2020.

Written by Shruti Dhapola | Chandigarh | Updated: December 31, 2020 5:49:40 pm
In 2020, the networks managed to come out stronger despite the massive changes in user behaviour. (Image source: Pixabay)

2020 is almost over and by all definitions it was an unprecedented year, forcing changes one would never have imagined. It was also the year when we were more dependent than ever on our internet connections, be it for our daily jobs or education or entertainment or to even attend weddings. And despite the challenges, the outages, the network speeds managed to stay resilient in the new normal.

When the pandemic first began in March and April, the stress on the networks was evident. In April, trends observed by Ookla, known for its SpeedTest, showed that across the world fixed broadband and mobile broadband networks were seeing a decline. But by the second half of the year, the networks had made a solid recovery, and in many cases doing even better, despite the changes.

Internet speeds: The numbers in India

Ookla’s data showed that India’s fixed broadband and mobile broadband download speeds had a dip around the week of March 23. This is also the time when the lockdown had begun for many cities, though by March 25 all of India was in a lockdown.

For the week of March 23 to 29, average download speeds stood at 8.57 Mbps for mobile broadband. Fixed download average speeds in the same week stood at 32.88 Mbps. In fact, the concern over speeds was very real during the period of lockdowns for many consumers.

Ookla saw a large spike in the number of tests taken during the March-April period globally, including in India. According to Adriane Blum, VP of Communications at Ookla, people were very interested in the performance of their internet connection in a manner not seen before. “This increase in tests was particularly high during the early days of the stay at home orders,” she added.

Internet speeds, Internet speeds 2020, How to check internet speeds, COVID-19 impact on internet, Internet speeds decline, Internet usage in India, India internet usage Speedtest volumes went up during the lockdown period in India. (Image source: Ookla)

But by mid-July, the recovery had begun. By the week of July 13, mobile broadband average download speeds were up to 12.15 Mbps. India’s fixed broadband download averages speeds were up to 40 Mbps, according to Ookla.

“In India, we saw mobile and fixed average download speeds decline slightly starting around the week of March 9, but that dip began to recover in early April and had returned to pre-pandemic levels by mid summer,” she said.

The latest data shows that in November 2020, India’s average download speeds on fixed broadband are at 52.02 Mbps, while mobile broadband is at 13.15 Mbps. Both improvements on earlier numbers.

Data usage rises

When the global lockdowns first began in March and April, there was a spike in data usage across the world. In fact, most major streaming and video websites such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube announced plans to reduce their streaming rates in order to ease some of the pressure on the networks. The players said they would limit streaming to SD content at bitrates no higher than 480p on cellular networks in India.

Also read: The best gear and gadgets of 2020

There’s no doubt that internet consumption, especially on mobiles, grew exponentially in India in 2020. As per the latest Ericsson Mobility Report, India remains the region with the highest monthly usage per smartphone. The average traffic per smartphone user increased from 13.5GB per month in 2019 to 15.7GB per month in 2020. The global average in comparison is around 9.4GB, according to the Ericsson report. Further video traffic continues to be the dominant mobile data traffic driver.

But it wasn’t just about more data consumption, the year saw a marked change in user behaviour for which network operators were not prepared initially.

Internet speeds, Internet speeds 2020, How to check internet speeds, COVID-19 impact on internet, Internet speeds decline, Internet usage in India, India internet usage People were more dependent on their smartphones in 2020. (Representational image of an iPhone 12 Pro Max. Image source: Bloomberg)

According to Nitin Bansal, Head of Ericsson India and Head of Network Solutions, South-East Asia, Oceania & India, the shift in user behaviour in India is evident.

“Traffic is shifting from downtown to residential and suburban areas. There is an increase in VoLTE and voice over Wi-Fi traffic as well. In overall terms, one can observe more Mbytes per user usage – that is, higher data volume transmission with more bandwidth allocated per user,” he pointed out in an email response to indianexpress.com.

The sudden change in user behaviour also caught operators unprepared in India and in other countries. “What happened was a very sudden change in mobile user behaviour. And it took a little while for the operators to adapt to it. Then as the year went on, operators kind of got used to the new normal of how people were using their networks and adapted to it, ” Ian Fogg, VP Analysis at OpenSignal explained to indianexpress.com.

Also read: The year of Zoom: How teams across world collaborated to ensure everyone meets requirements of WFH

In Fogg’s view, the pandemic marked a big change in the way data consumption took place. “People were connecting during daylight hours from locations they wouldn’t normally be connecting from in pre-COVID times,” he explained. Further some users were probably using a fixed network more, and subsequently a lot less of their mobile connection, while there were others who were now more dependent on their mobile connection, “more than before.”

The logo for the Zoom Video Communications Inc. application is displayed on an Apple Inc. laptop computer in an arranged photograph. (Image source: Gabby Jones/Bloomberg)

“The locations that people were spending time in were different as well. That’s the kind of thing that it took a little while for the operators to adjust to, because they were set up for the normal pattern of where people were spending time at, what hour of the day, what data volume,” he added.

Video was the big driver

One big change was the increase in dependency on video, be it video being used for streaming or entertainment purposes or video being used for real-time communications. The latter saw a big jump as more users now needed to rely on video for their daily office meetings, for education and even to stay in touch with loved ones.

The impacted speeds also meant that video experience was often far from optimal, but according to Fogg, things are looking up in India.

“I think in the second half we’ve seen gradual improvements in the video experience nationally in India. Obviously there’s differences by regions, but broadly the video quality experience has been moving upwards, which is really good,” he added.

He also pointed out that 2020 changed the notion of group video communication as being a very “business thing” as it moved into “consumer space for keeping in touch with friends, family and relatives.” The trend is likely to continue beyond 2020, in his view. “People have gotten used to video calling, much more than they had before,” he added.

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