The COVID-19 pandemic has been like a mass house arrest for a good portion of the population, which put more eyeballs onto popular streaming services to stay entertained, as well as constant access for those still working from home.
As stay-at-home orders ensued throughout provinces in Canada in March, the resulting surge in usage pushed Canada’s Internet service providers (ISPs) to the limit. To mitigate the negative effects, services, like Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube and Crave lowered resolution to conserve bandwidth. This meant videos on YouTube were playing in standard definition, while content on Crave was reduced from 4K and 1080p down to 720p. Netflix and Prime Video rejigged their bitrates to cut down bandwidth by up to 25%. This didn’t just happen in Canada, it was all across the globe.
Not surprisingly, there were no rebates to make up for the quality control. Even if you were paying a subscription for a higher-quality stream that you were no longer getting, you still weren’t getting any money back. But that wasn’t the main issue this situation ultimately highlighted. It was the network infrastructure itself that showed its fragility.
The ‘last mile’
Since March 19, DownDetector reported a string of outages affecting ISPs from across the country. While outages do happen at the best of times, their frequency increased, and they occurred in both major cities and rural areas.
The Internet connection you subscribe to is called the “last mile,” which refers to how providers deliver these services to customers’ homes and offices. It’s an integral piece of the connectivity puzzle because it’s about the cabling that funnels bandwidth over to you. Some in larger cities can get fibre optic broadband capable of giving users Gigabit speeds (1Gbps or 1000Mbps) that can more than handle the highest-quality streams — on several devices at once.
Before the pandemic, weekends were often the busiest period for streaming. All those “Netflix and chill” nights and series bingefests were usually relegated to free time in the evenings and weekends. With so many people out at work on weekdays, there was no reason to worry about congestion during daytime hours.
Stay-at-home orders and the resulting lack of economic activity meant there wasn’t much to do but take in as much content as possible. Multiply that by users and devices throughout the day and night, depending on the size of the home, and you had bottlenecks just waiting to happen. Despite that, ISPs were calling their networks “resilient” under the strain, saying they were handling the up to 50% of increased traffic more than adequately.
Know what you’re buying
If you did suffer from any service disruption in that time (or before that), it’s time to look at the whole chain. Who is your ISP? What plan are you paying for? What kind of speed are you routinely getting? What router are you using for Ethernet and Wi-Fi access?
For starters, you will never truly get the full advertised speed you pay for. It’s just a numbers game with variables, like your neighbours and their usage, the equipment providing the connection and where you live, for instance. And that’s at any time — not just when there’s a global pandemic going on. The further you live from the infrastructure bringing you the connection, the harder it is to take advantage of the fastest speeds available. It’s among the major reasons why rural residents still get the shaft with barely broadband speeds in some places. Some other areas have to resort to getting Internet via satellite, which often won’t be higher than a paltry 10Mbps — a mere 1% of what Gigabit can do.
If you’re in an urban setting, be it a house, condo or apartment, you should assess your options. While major players, like Bell, Rogers, Telus, Shaw and Videotron, dominate the landscape, there are smaller brands that often have better bang for the buck. Teksavvy, Distributel, Start.ca, FibreStream, OneGigabit and others are resellers that basically buy bandwidth at wholesale rates from the big guys and offer their own services to consumers. Some will even do “last mile” connections with their own equipment, so while the feed is coming from one of the larger brands, the cabling going to your place is from the smaller one.
These smaller players are usually more generous with both terms and pricing, except their availability is more limited. For example, some of them might only be available in condo or apartment buildings, whereas others may not serve every neighbourhood in a certain town or city. If you live in one of the country’s largest cities, you should have the greatest level of choice. Use it if you can get a better deal with better service.
Better tech at home
But don’t forget the router. Most ISPs will set you up with a device that is both a modem and Wi-Fi router. My advice is to never use it that way. As a modem, it’s fine, but it’s second-rate as a router, and that may be one reason why your connection suffered from congestion. These built-in routers struggle with both throughput (how fat the data pipe is) and range (how far it penetrates at higher speeds). Turn off the router function on that device and go with a third-party router from a reputable brand. And if you live in a larger space, choose a Wi-Fi whole-home mesh system to boost the signal everywhere by strategically placing the extra nodes.
Gigabit providers may just have an Ethernet cable coming out of the wall. In those cases, you will need to buy a router anyway, so it’s a perfect opportunity. One thing that is important to remember: you will always get faster speed when you plug in your device (like a computer) directly from the router via an Ethernet cable. Wi-Fi has some degradation, so it won’t match a wired connection, but you can still get really fast service anyway. That’s why advertised speeds are based on wired, not wireless connections.
As things open up, Netflix and YouTube are lifting quality restrictions. YouTube was automatically streaming in 480p standard definition, yet still let users manually select HD if they wanted to. You can do that now if you like. Meanwhile, Netflix continues to roll out new shows and movies.
The pandemic may have brought additional scrutiny over how vulnerable Internet infrastructure can be, but it should also serve as a reminder that you should get the most for every dollar you spend to get online. Now is the time to do it.