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Third of UK internet users report worse service since lockdown

Even though operators assured at beginning of lockdowns that their infrastructures could cope with the extra strain on home networks, UK internet users say the quality of their online experiences has demonstrably worsened

As the UK entered lockdown on 23 March, one of the biggest fears of firms was that home networks could not cope with the new demands. But even if the worst fears have not been realised, a significant minority of UK internet users believe the quality of their online experiences has diminished since lockdown, according to research from YouGov.

The survey of 2,301 UK adults on 18 and 19 May found that a third of Brits (35%) believe that, contrary to assurances given by from UK network providers, they are experiencing worse internet performance than they did pre-lockdown, with 7% saying their household connection is “much worse” than before.

One thing that everyone can agree on is that Covid-19 outbreak has seen much greater use of home networks, and the survey asked to what extent – if at all – have users generally been using the household internet since the pandemic outbreak.

It found that almost three-quarters (73%) said they’ve been using their household connection more heavily, with 44% saying they use it “much more than usual” and 29% “slightly more than usual”.

It would appear that with more usage by more people, perceived quality of experience has decreased, making it harder for people use the internet as they needed.

Among those who told YouGov that they had noticed a decline in their internet performance, 69% reported difficulty with general internet activity such as browsing and online shopping, while two-thirds (67%) said they’ve experienced disruption while streaming video and audio content.

In March 2020, services such as Netflix reported that they were reducing image quality across Europe for 30 days to reduce the pandemic’s strain on internet service providers.

Worryingly for those who work at home, the YouGov data showed that just over half (52%) of those who’ve had a worse internet connection have had difficulty doing work activity. Some 15% said they had experienced “a lot”of disruption.

Just under three-fifths said they had trouble with video and audio calls, the modes of communication that have become central to the workplace experience during this crisis – in particular Zoom conferencing.

With the pandemic forcing a plurality (46%) of employees to do their jobs from home at least some of the time, unstable internet connections could potentially be having knock-on effects on the country’s overall productivity.

The evidence suggests that internet performance gets worse as the number of people – and therefore the number of people accessing the internet – in a given household rises. Just more than two-fifths of those living in homes with three or more people said their connection has deteriorated during the pandemic, increasing to 43% for those in households of four or more, with 11% saying performance is “much worse”, and 32% reporting that it’s “slightly worse”.

While only 40% of those in households that host five people or more say their home connection has deteriorated, 15% said their connection is “much worse” than before.

Yet despite these findings, the operator community has always assured that their infrastructures could cope with the strain on home networks.

On 20 March, BT was forced to rebut media stories suggesting that its networks would be unable to cope with the extra traffic of millions of home workers. As it announced that it was ready for the flock of users to home networks, BT released details showing that it had overbuilt its network to compensate for domestic high-definition streaming content, video gaming and other bandwidth-hungry applications.

It noted that online conferencing services and video-calling applications that teleworkers were likely to be using consumed far less bandwidth. Even though it had seen weekday daytime traffic increase by 35-60% compared with similar days on the fixed network, peaking at 7.5Tbs, that is still only around half the average evening peak, and nowhere near the 17.5Tbs it had once had to handle.

The operators’ resilience was also stressed by Dan Howdle, consumer telecoms analyst at UK broadband and mobile comparison site Cable.co.uk,who gave his take on the data from YouGov.

“While it’s easy to take such results on face value and assume that connectivity has been measurably worse while we’re all locked indoors, both Openreach and Virgin Media have stated that there have been no network capacity issues to report. In fact, our broadband networks have remained robust and reliable during this crisis,” he said.

“With many of us spending a great deal more time online, it’s easy to see why we might encounter more problems than at other times. YouGov’s report, while an excellent measure of public opinion, has no way to factor an increase in issues due to increased exposure to online activity.

“You’re more likely to encounter a problem after 10 hours on the internet than after one hour on the internet, and this would be the case lockdown or not – what is certain is that UK broadband infrastructure can, and has, coped extremely well in this crisis.”

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