Did internet speed impact exposure to COVID-19?

|

This page in:

Two young girls in a village in Ecuador use a tablet to complete their after-school activities
Providing fast, reliable, and affordable internet is important to bring more equitable impacts to vulnerable communities. © Shutterstock

When the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic in March 2020, slightly more than half of the world’s citizens had access to the internet. Connectivity allowed many people to work, receive services, and socialize without physical contact—a key factor in limiting the virus’s spread.  Did people with internet access, then, benefit from reduced exposure to COVID-19? 

The Digital Development Global Practice of the World Bank and the University of Greenwich looked into the question. We conducted research to find out how access to the internet and variety in speed affected adherence to pandemic-related movement restrictions in three Latin American countries: Colombia, Ecuador, and El Salvador. 

Why does this matter? Access to the internet alone is not enough to unlock the benefits of digital technologies.  For instance, many online public services offered during the pandemic could only be leveraged if users had access to an affordable, reliable and fast connection.  While these are all important features, in this case we focused our analysis specifically on internet speed.    

The three countries reported different average download speeds, with Colombia and Ecuador performing better than El Salvador (see below). Moreover, connectivity features significantly varied among users, with significant diversity in terms of service affordability and quality within and across the three countries. This provided a good opportunity to look at how differences in internet quality affect exposure to COVID-19 in developing countries. This research is part of the Digital Economy Assessment for Latin America and the Caribbean (DE4LAC) initiative, a series of national digital ecosystems assessments and uses Ookla® Speedtest Intelligence® data.

Average fixed internet download speed by department (megabits per second)

Average fixed internet download speed by department in Colombia Ecuador and El Salvador
Source: World Bank analysis of Ookla Speedtest data

The governments of the three countries adopted policies to limit the movement of people to tackle the spread of COVID-19, much like governments across the globe. Data from Meta, the parent company of Facebook, reported a substantial drop in mobility in all three countries, with maximum reductions of 53 percent in Colombia and 64 percent in both Ecuador and El Salvador in late March and early April. This decrease coincided with the introduction of stricter restrictions which were then relaxed in the early summer of the same year. By late 2020, the movement of people approached pre-pandemic levels (see below).

: World Bank analysis of movement range maps from Meta’s Data for Good Program in Colombia Ecuador El Salvador
Source: World Bank analysis of movement range maps from Meta’s Data for Good Program. Note: The green line shows the mobility reductions within intervals within a certain statistical range. The orange dotted line shows the Oxford Stringency Index, which measures the strictness of policies implemented to contain COVID-19.

Download speeds varied significantly within countries. For instance, in El Salvador, the average download speed in the department (administrative unit similar to a province) of La Libertad was twice as fast as in the department of Morazán. In Colombia, the department of Bogota showed about 13 times higher download speeds than in the worst-performing department. Similar findings were observed in Ecuador. Overall, the analysis confirms the findings of other studies—on average, internet users in dense urban areas have faster internet connections than people in less connected, more digitally isolated rural regions.  

Next, we explored the relationship between the reduction in mobility induced by COVID-19 restrictions and the quality of fixed internet connections. We controlled for a range of socio-economic variables such as wealth index and GDP per capita, among others. First, we found that socio-economic attributes played a big role in the ability to adhere to movement restrictions, and therefore exposure to COVID-19. 

For instance, residents of denser areas and those with greater wealth moved less. Second, our research showed that better fixed internet connections made it easier for people to adhere to pandemic-related movement restrictions.  In short, access to good quality internet connections allows users to perform activities online instead of in person, which could reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

The research shows how the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures put in place to fight it are distributed unequally across different social, economic, and demographic backgrounds.  It highlights both the importance of internet access and the role played by the connection speeds, suggesting that poor access and low speed connectivity might increase vulnerability to health shocks. While the critical role of internet access during the pandemic was clear early on, until now there has not been data based analysis focused on the specific role of internet speed, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.

This research indicates that policymakers and private actors should not only focus on providing internet access, but also on factors such as reliability, affordability, and speed, which are important elements to bring more equitable impacts to vulnerable communities. 

Join the Conversation