Forward-looking: With this year falling victim to an unprecedented global health and economic crisis, 2020 is a year most of us would like to forget. Yet, 2020 was a pivotal year for the internet, serving as an historic test as we became increasingly reliant on digital connections -- highlighting just how crucial the web is. This year effectively changed how people use the internet and technology, and those changes will continue to permeate the years ahead.

Looking back on the year and the pandemic timeline, the internet more than ever became core to business, the economy and society. Over a few short months, students across the globe were forced to pivot to learning online as quickly as possible, as classrooms were shuttered. More people were stranded at home amidst work from home orders and shelter-in-place mandates. Social distancing and mask wearing became the new norm. The internet seemed to be the only sense of normalcy for many.

Streaming and video game content saw record consumption while movie theaters, restaurants, and in-person activities crumpled under the weight of a relentless virus and the economic fallout. People dined-in by ordering out; curbside pick-up became a thing; digital payments soared.

As 2020 comes to a close, we can gain perspective on how it served as a catalyst for several trends heading into 2021. To help highlight some of these trends that are set to shape the internet not only next year, but in the years to come, we spoke with Stealth Communications founder and CEO Shrihari Pandit. Stealth is a New York City-based ISP serving businesses since 1995. They specialize in symmetrical fiber connections and are rated among the fastest business ISPs in the country.

Network traffic, the pain of asymmetrical connections, and the need for speed

During the early months of the pandemic, Pandit expressed concern over how asymmetrical connections may struggle under the load of growing work from home mandates and remote learning for students. Additionally, he noted how Stealth saw increases in both its customers' inbound traffic, and traffic to its cloud providers, as the pandemic set in.

Speaking to Motherboard last spring, Pandit anticipated that residential connections could be overwhelmed under the spiking internet usage. We asked Pandit to revisit this topic, now that we’ve been wading through the pandemic for a year at this point.

“To clarify, residential subscriber connections, not the overall network traffic load, was the focus of my concern. Several months in, we now see wider public awareness of the technical weaknesses of cable's residential broadband infrastructure,” says Pandit.

“As expected, there's been an overall spike in upstream bandwidth usage since the crisis began. This has overtaxed many asymmetric home connections (both cable and DSL). The paltry upstream bandwidth has become an in-home bottleneck, and contention for WFH parents and remote schooled kids. Also, shared bandwidth between multiple homes (nodes) caused local traffic jams -- even triggering neighborhood-wide punishment of heavy usage by one cable operator,” Pandit told TechSpot.

The neighborhood-wide punishment Pandit refers to is the one handed down by Cox Communications over the summer, where the ISP throttled the upstream speeds of an entire neighborhood.

Asymmetric connections refer to the majority of residential broadband connections that have disproportionate downstream and upstream bandwidth, whereas a symmetrical connection provides equal bandwidth for both download and upload speeds.

With the sudden rise in video conferencing, VoIP, telemedicine, as well as more more business applications migrating to the cloud, extremely lopsided asymmetrical broadband plans have been a choking point. And, as Pandit points out, the demand for upstream connectivity has grown exponentially throughout the pandemic, and it will continue to do so throughout 2021.

While the internet has in times struggled with the massive shift in use under the pandemic, it’s also seemingly spurred an interest in more widespread infrastructure expansions -- everything from servers, CDN, and ISP upgrades. This is a trend we expect to see more of in 2021, as increased demand for data and connections galvanizes the industry into action.

Data caps: Merit or monetization?

In the same vein, Comcast recently announced that it would complete the rollout of 1.2TB data caps in all of the markets it serves by early 2021. This was a move that was widely planned, and to many, one that errs on the side of abuse of market power -- and that’s to say nothing of the timing.

The prevailing consensus is that data caps are technically unnecessary, and are little more than a way to extract increased revenue from markets suffering under a monopoly or duopoly. We asked Pandit to speak on data caps, and where they stand in the market.

“We agree -- data caps are arbitrary and technically unnecessary. We believe their imposition reflects a market failure, in other words, insufficient competition to restrain them. In other sectors, like in enterprise connectivity, there is a more robust competitive marketplace - and consequently, no data caps,” Pandit tells TechSpot.

“Simple thought experiment -- if you could change your home ISP as easily as choosing a different brand of toothpaste, would you tolerate a sudden price increase or would you change brands?”

While many ISPs (Comcast included) took part in the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, most ISPs swiftly rolled back to enforcing data caps and overage fees once the initiative expired. Going forward, the pandemic has underscored the need to discuss data caps in greater detail, and whether they are about merit or monetization.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has been among the more vocal about having a broader discussion on these caps and overage fees, while a handful of smaller ISPs have decided to move away from them entirely.

The shifting landscape of the FCC and the future of net neutrality

At the intersection of the internet and regulatory jurisdiction, things stand to change quite dramatically. Among everything else, 2020 was also the stage to a polarizing election, the results of which could bring sweeping changes to the FCC and what open-internet rule making looks like.

As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office in 2021, current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai will be making his exit. During his tenure, Ajit Pai led the FCC to effectively kill net neutrality, despite considerable bipartisan support for the framework. Biden, as well as other Democratic candidates, were quick to make net neutrality a campaigning issue, although its resurrection will largely depend on who will assume the FCC chair, and what the overall FCC composition will look like.

As the current administration prepares to transition out of office, some are expecting the FCC to remain in a partisan deadlock. Furthermore, the future composition of the Senate and balance of power may or may not result in a political stalemate for any possible return of a federal net neutrality policy.

“The FCC Chair is appointed by the incoming President, so it is expected that Biden would make this appointment and move forward. Any other scenario, like political turbulence or gridlock would be counterproductive to a rapid economic recovery,” says Pandit.

“Businesses crave predictability -- and never more so than after the largest disruption in history.”

In the absence of net neutrality at the federal level, many states have moved to enact such laws at a state level. And while federal courts have upheld the net neutrality repeal at large, it was also decided that the FCC has no right to preempt states from imposing their own such laws.

Being an independent ISP serving the more competitive business and enterprise sector, Stealth Communications has long supported net neutrality as a regulatory framework, and has in the past called on other independent ISPs to do the same.

“As an independent ISP, we fully support Net Neutrality principles, and restoring those protections at the Federal level. It is in our collective interests, for our society as well as our economy, to maintain an open, non-discriminatory Internet as a platform for permission-less innovation,” Pandit tells TechSpot.

Looking ahead to 2021, we can expect the year to be a battle ground for a possible net neutrality resurrection, as well as the continued debate surrounding Section 230 reform. A Biden-Harris administration will likely continue to accelerate 5G, bolster the Universal Service Fund to connect more Americans, and address the need for accurate data from ISPs regarding broadband coverage maps.

LEO satellites, Wi-Fi spectrum, and the broadband gap

Once upon a time, satellite internet was relegated to being a last resort for those in areas where cable and DSL wasn’t available. However, with the advent of LEO satellite constellations, that’s changing.

Several key players have emerged over the years, all competing in the race to deliver satellite-based broadband that could be competitive with what today’s ISPs are able to achieve with copper, coaxial, or even fiber.

Such forerunners include SpaceX’s StarLink, OneWeb, Amazon and Telesat. SpaceX recently made headlines with its beta test, cleverly dubbed “The Better Than Nothing Beta.”

SpaceX has continued to make news by partnering with Microsoft to help power Azure Space, as well Microsoft’s Azure Modular Data Centers. Not to be left out, Amazon recently won FCC approval for its Project Kuiper initiative, and expects it can begin offering services once 578 satellites have been deployed.

2021 could prove to be a critical year for the aspect of satellite broadband, and according to Stealth Communications, its future impact in bridging the broadband gap could be momentous. It could also have a positive knock-on effect for small WISPs (Wireless Internet Service Providers).

“I think the LEOs can be a big step forward in solving the rural broadband gap. Not because they will entirely supplant WISPs or mobile carriers -- but by connecting those most difficult to reach terrestrially. For example, WISPs will be able operate more efficiently and rationally, freed from spending resources to extend their fiber/wireless coverage to the edge of feasibility,” says Pandit.

“And globally, the impact of near ubiquitous connectivity could be profound.”

Along the same lines, opening up new WLAN frequency bands on the spectrum will be crucial in driving innovation for wireless connections -- such as the emerging 5G and Wi-Fi 6E.

The 5.9 GHz band has sat relatively dormant for years, being reserved for vehicle-to-vehicle communication and intelligent transportation systems (ITS). Opening up spectrum within the 5.9 GHz and 6.0 GHz bands is seen as critical to achieving gigabit Wi-Fi speeds, as well as addressing the current spectrum congestion problems we have with the 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz bands.

Earlier this year, the FCC voted to open up more spectrum within the 6 GHz band, and it more recently voted to open up parts of the 5.9 GHz airspace for unlicensed use, including Wi-Fi. According to Stealth, these developments will serve as building blocks for future Wi-Fi milestones.

“We are very excited by several Wi-Fi developments -- the two big chunks of recently unlicensed spectrum (5.9 GHz and 6 GHz), as well as the new Wi-Fi 6 protocol. We look forward to gigabit Wi-Fi as a real milestone - and vital as a wireless extension of fiber gigabit connections. The ultimate will be Wi-Fi 6E, on virgin spectrum, with larger channel capacity. It will be truly revolutionary, enabling new capabilities,” Pandit tells TechSpot.

Through the looking glass

2020 has been a year that has been anything but normal. As events this year relentlessly pushed us all closer to screens and connected devices, the internet became something of a conduit to the outside world, and even a lifeline for some.

As for how it will shape how we use the internet in 2021, Pandit seems to think less is more.

“Since the pandemic began, we've all spent a disproportionate amount of time looking at screens - our work, schooling and socializing has all happened through our connected devices. I expect in 2021 -- as the virus restrictions ease with vaccine availability - we will see a rebalancing away from our screens,” says Pandit.

“It seems that people are burnt-out on screen time, and there will be a rush to embrace in-person activities as soon as possible. Admittedly, this is as much a hope as a prediction.”

The internet remains an ever-changing and transformative resource; it never stays the same for very long. The coronavirus outbreak abruptly altered the ways in which we rely on the internet, as the virus moved from local outbreaks overseas, to skipping continents and becoming a pandemic. Many of those changes will continue to mold the future internet in 2021 and beyond.

We all found new ways to work, learn, and entertain ourselves. Though at times it has been challenging and exasperating, 2020 has proven that -- so far -- the internet and technology can always rise to the occasion. And of course, so can we. Here’s hoping that 2021 is a better year for all of us web denizens, and that the web ever remains a platform to empower us all.

Image credit: Alphaspirit.it, AlexLMX, Mirexon