The Impact of COVID-19 on VPN Usage and Streaming Habits

By Jayesh Varsani


The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we live in countless ways. It reached almost every country, confining people to their homes, closing offices, halting transport, and causing huge disruption to normal social and economic life. In response, many activities rapidly moved online, and as a result, internet usage soared. At the peak of worldwide lockdowns, between February and April last year, global internet traffic surged by nearly 40% (Taylor, 2021).

Internet service providers (ISPs) around the world saw a double-digit increase in broadband usage. In the UK, BT claimed network traffic jumped as much as 60% in March. Meanwhile in the US, Comscore reported in-home data usage surged to nearly 20% in just the first two weeks of March, compared to the same period in 2019 (Comscore, 2021).

The growth in Internet usage was driven by large-scale adoption of home working, remote teaching, and a shift in media consumption habits. While most industries faced financial difficulties due to COVID-19, Internet streaming platforms have seen record subscriber growth. However, demand for online video content has also led to greater VPN usage.

VPNs are being employed to bypass geo-blocking restrictions from streaming platforms such as Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime and the BBC in order to view content that is not available in certain locations.

1. Global streaming subscription revenues rose to over $69 billion in 2020

The global need for escapism and entertainment seems to have catapulted the number of streaming service subscriptions. As coronavirus lockdown measures were imposed, streaming time went up a full 20% worldwide in a single week (Griffith, 2020). The pandemic accelerated existing trends within the media and entertainment industry, driving the total number of subscriptions to online video streaming platforms to 1.1 billion in 2020, with global subscription revenues increasing from $53 billion to over $69 billion (Bay, 2021).

Prior to the pandemic, consumers were already spending an increasing amount of time streaming television as oppose to watching it live. COVID-19 seems to have only accelerated this trend with 156 billion minutes of usage on streaming platforms in the US for the week of March 16th 2020, which was more than double the same week in 2019 (Barney, 2020). This makes sense considering the popularity of streaming services: Americans now subscribe to four services on average, up from three last year (Spangler, 2021). Meanwhile 21% of British households purchased a new streaming subscription, which increased the UK average to 2.3 subscriptions per household (Sunnebo, 2020).

2. One in three internet users have used a VPN

By 2017, a quarter of internet users worldwide had used a VPN. In 2020, that number had risen to a high of 27% and in 2021 it had increased to 31% globally. In other words, almost one in three internet users have now used a VPN.  (Bulatovaitė, 2020)

Data shows that online searches related to VPNs began to surge mid-March in the days following the World Health Organization’s declaration of a global pandemic. The trend below highlights the popularity of the search term ‘vpn’, which has been steadily rising over the last 10 years. As can be seen, the interest in the search term hit its highest level ever in March 2020, just as lockdowns started coming into effect. (Google Trends, 2021).

There has been record interest in searching for the term

Unsurprisingly, the countries with the highest number of COVID-19 cases had the largest increase in VPN popularity. Italy and the United States led the pack, with Italy witnessing a 160% growth in VPN usage and the United States followed at 124%.

Table comparing 9 countries and their COVID case increases versus VPN usage increases

(Statista, 2021)

This growth in VPN usage can be attributed to an increase in people seeking out online video while at home due to quarantines and lockdowns. In most countries facing serious outbreaks, schools were closed, public gatherings were banned, and employees were working remotely. This resulted in people spending considerably more time online with many utilising VPN services to access geo-blocked streaming platforms and content.

3. VPN users are 40 percent more likely than average to access a subscription streaming service

Content access and privacy are two of the main reasons propelling the adoption of VPN usage. In fact, better access to entertainment is the main motivator for VPN use worldwide, driving half of VPN users. In Canada and Mexico 49% of all VPN users admitted using a VPN to access region-locked content. Brazil, at 37%, is in third place followed by the UK, Ireland, and India (Vojinovic, 2021).

Most streaming services prohibit the use of location-changing proxies in their terms and conditions. Therefore using a VPN to access region restricted content is a direct violation of the terms of use agreed upon when first signing up for the service. Although there is no specific legislation that explicitly prohibits the use of VPNs in the UK or US, committing illegal acts with a VPN in these countries is still prohibited. 

Streaming services and content owners have now become more focused on ensuring correct geo-blocking is in place in order to remain contractually compliant and protect their revenue. As stated by the GlobalWebIndex, five out of every ten VPN users are circumventing geo-blocked content to stream Netflix (Vojinovic, 2021). And it’s not only Netflix that’s being targeted by VPN users. Statistics show that users watching Disney+ via a VPN also shot up, with an increase of 154% between the 13th- 23rd March; for HBO, VPN users grew by 86%; and at Amazon Prime Video it was 38% (LLB, 2020).

The commercial impact of such widespread use can be significant. For example, Serie A lost an estimated $200 million when BeIN Sport TV demanded a refund after rampant piracy meant its territorial exclusivity was compromised (GeoComply, 2020).

4. 36% of VPN users use the medium almost daily

VPNs allow internet users to maintain their privacy by browsing anonymously, bypass geo-restricted content, circumvent filtered networks and much, much more. As a result, VPNs have become a regular day-to-day tool for many users. Within the UK and US, 36% of VPN users use the tool every day, or nearly every day, whilst 41% use a VPN at least once per week (Mlitz, 2021).

The data suggests that VPNs are not necessarily used for particular occasions or reasons, instead they have become seamlessly integrated into general internet browsing activities as they ensure more privacy online. Top10VPN found that video quality can also be improved with a VPN. Due to their large, private networks users noted fewer interruptions in their streams whilst using a reliable VPN (Patrizio, 2020).

The everyday usage and integration of VPNs has a negative effect on streaming services as they are often used to unlock restricted pieces of content, some subscribers may not even be aware they are avoiding geo-blocking and breaching the terms of use when accessing these services.

36% of US and UK respondents use a VPN every day. 41% use a VPN at least once a week

(Statista, 2020)

5. Cartesian’s solution to geo-blocking circumvention

Cartesian works with many world leading content providers to deliver testing and assurance services, monitoring the impact of VPN usage on their streaming platforms.

Our geo blocking solution allows streaming service providers to ensure their content is served only to authorized geographies. We offer a limitless range of geographical access points and mechanisms to simulate the behaviour of users and determine whether successful identification and blocking of VPN services and other circumvention mechanisms occur. The service delivers critical intelligence supporting content owners and streaming service providers, and help to answer a wide range of questions:

  • What level of geo-blocking is in place?
  • Are contractual commitments assured?
  • Is revenue protected?
  • Which regions and devices have the biggest issues with geo-blocking?
  • Which Circumvention Mechanisms are most problematic?
  • How services compare to their competitors?
  • Are geo-blocking providers (such as GeoGuard, MaxMind etc.) working correctly?

We operate in a range of engagement models, from one-off assessments through to fully managed services that provide ongoing service assurance.


Looking forward the current trajectory shows that even as restrictions and quarantine protocols relax worldwide, the demand for VPNs remains 22% higher than before the pandemic started (Anthony, 2021). It is therefore safe to assume that geo-blocking circumvention will continue to be an ongoing challenge for the video streaming industry. Hence it is extremely important service providers ensure they are doing what they can to remain contractually compliant and protect their service and revenue. Combining advanced geo-blocking technologies with strict monitoring and robustness testing can give service providers assurance that they are doing all they can to protect against this form of infringement.

To learn more about how Cartesian can help you ensure your circumvention mechanisms are working correctly and efficiently, visit our Geo-Blocking Circumvention Testing page.


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