The COVID-19 pandemic has put virtually every segment of the economy through a critical moment of reckoning. According to J.D. Power pulse surveys fielded in March and May of 2020, most wireless and internet service providers (ISPs) in the United States have met the moment to the satisfaction of those that matter most: their customers.
As the pandemic unfolded, wireless and other ISPs managed to actually improve their position with consumers, achieving higher levels of satisfaction in the May survey than they did six weeks earlier in March. On average, 20% of respondents rated ISPs as providing an “excellent” or “perfect” service, up from 14% in the March survey. Most respondents (55%) rated ISPs as being “average” or “good.” It is an enviable -- and even commendable -- performance when you consider the amount of stress that has been placed on wireless and ISP infrastructures.
There were dramatic shifts in network utilization patterns as workloads that typically run on enterprise infrastructures and computing environments were put to work on residential networks. Adding more pressure to the equation was the nationwide move to distance learning for students in primary and secondary schools as well as college and beyond.
Infrastructures that had been designed to support personal and leisure-oriented connectivity requirements were essentially conscripted to carry entirely new workloads, including corporate collaboration, endless hours of professional videoconferencing, large file transfers and more. Those who used to commute to the office added an additional 5.7 hours of work-related traffic to their household networks. This is on top of increases in online gaming, streaming and general web browsing activities that increased during the height of the pandemic.
For 28%of those surveyed, existing plans were not sufficient to support the new work-from-home (WFH) and shelter-in-place requirements, causing customers to upgrade their service levels. Some customers (13%) leveled up their internet speed subscriptions, while others (11%) also signed up for better internet and Wi-Fi equipment.
In retrospect, the industry absorbed the new workloads adroitly. Most survey respondents indicated that performance levels have stayed the course during the pandemic. While there was an increase among consumers who at times experience degraded reliability and speed, it is also interesting to note that more consumers cited better performance on both counts in May vs. March.
As the pandemic pushed the limits of internet and wireless providers’ infrastructures to maintain high levels of service, the industry also took steps to address the needs of those whose lives were dramatically disrupted through employee cutbacks, furloughs and layoffs.
As a whole, service providers answered the Federal Communications Commission's call to take the Keep Americans Connected Pledge. All major players in the cable, wireless and telco space agreed not to terminate service to any residential or small business customers because of an inability to pay bills due to the disruptions caused by the pandemic for a period of 60 days.
RELATED: Industry Voices — Greenblatt: Shelter-in-place workforce creates opportunities for fixed wireless access
The move was extremely well received by consumers and their employers who now have a vital dependence on high quality broadband access in the home to enable every part of their digital lives. Most carriers offered a robust array of services that included:
● Increased data -- often unlimited -- to mobile and hotspot data plans for no additional charge
● Waived activation and upgrade fees
● Access to free or discounted premium content
● Enhanced security offerings to protect business and personal data traffic at no additional cost
● Free international calling services
Harvesting an Improved Public Perception
In so doing, network service providers demonstrated with their deeds that they did not want to be seen as a tax on consumers during this pandemic. Providers have effectively communicated that they are engaged in making capacity available to ensure consumers have the bandwidth they need without passing along any additional costs to the public.
The key question, going forward, revolves around how long current crisis-based offerings will be sustained. The industry is assessing how consumers will react as services -- especially free unlimited data offerings -- are unwound. For example, Verizon Wireless made a block grant of 15GB of data to those not on unlimited plans, whereas T-Mobile removed its mobile data caps altogether (during the 60 day pledge).
When it comes to unlimited services, the industry may have let the genie out of the bottle and set a new expectation that will have significant ramifications for how new revenues are generated while sustaining the hard-won gains in customer satisfaction. The situation is likely to remain volatile, as long-term economic concerns overlap a dynamic public-health crisis over the months and years to come.
Ian Greenblatt leads J.D. Power’s Technology, Media and Telecommunications Intelligence, including a new IoT sub-practice, and drives market strategy across the rapidly converging landscape, which encompasses the entire communication sector. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @GreenblattTMT.
Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.