Not All Internet Access Is Created Equal

Nearly all students have internet access at home, but some connections are better than others. Most participants (83%) reported having home internet access that is reliable enough to meet most or all of their needs as a student. The majority of students (60%) said that the main type of internet connection they have access to in their primary residence was through a commercial or community internet service provider (ISP) over cable or fiber. Our data indicate that there are differences in the reliability of the types of internet connections that students use; ISPs had the best reliability ratings, while connecting via cellular phone had the worst (figure 1).

Bar graph showing the reliability rating of each type of internet connection.  Internet service provider (ISP) 93%.  Dial-up 85.  DSL 84.  Satellite internet 75.  Cellular hotspot 63.  Cellular phone 55.
Figure 1. Internet reliability by connection type

These results suggest that students who must use their mobile phones for service (either as a primary or back-up connection) may have poorer learning experiences due to bandwidth limitations (e.g., slow connections, data limits) and may struggle to afford the cost of using mobile data. Among student comments were the following:

  • "After being unable to load webpages for some time while connected to my home Wi-Fi, I tend to connect to my phone hotspot since it's faster. However, I very quickly run out of data and encounter the same difficulties. As a student, I'm just desperate to get my work done at this point through any means possible."
  • "When this semester started, I had no home internet. I relied on the school library. I tried to get by with the hotspot capabilities on my phone, but it simply wasn't enough for Zoom. I had to buy better internet, a big cost in a difficult time. Up until now libraries were my only resource. It makes being a student on a low budget hard, when such things are required for success."