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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Broadband providers are making service changes as policymakers pressure them to prepare for a glut of traffic from Americans working and studying from home in response to coronavirus.

The big picture: The nation's internet service providers say they haven't seen big usage spikes yet, but the coming weeks and months could pose an unprecedented test of their networks' ability to withstand a massive and sustained surge in bandwidth needs.

Driving the news: Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai spoke with broadband companies and trade associations Thursday about ensuring Americans can remain connected to the internet as coronavirus spreads, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

  • Some of the ideas that came up in the talks included expanding discounted internet service tiers for low-income people, easing data limits and minimizing service interruptions for subscribers, one of the people said.
  • An FCC spokesperson confirmed the outreach took place, and said the agency would share more details Friday.
  • Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel called on the agency to convene providers to discus what they are doing now to help Americans whose lives have been disrupted by the crisis, including potentially eliminating data caps.

What they're saying: Both AT&T and Comcast on Thursday announced changes to their services in response to coronavirus.

  • AT&T said it is waiving home internet data overage fees for customers who don't already have unlimited home internet access.
  • Comcast is increasing the speeds in its program for low-income subscribers, Internet Essentials, to 25/3 Mbps (up from 15/2 Mbps). The company is also offering the program for free for new customers for 60 days.
  • "Our hope is that broader access and faster speeds will help all of our Internet Essentials customers more easily work from home, access educational resources, obtain important government health care alerts, and stay in contact with their families during this difficult time," Comcast said in a blog post.

What's next: Broadband companies say they are monitoring network usage but their capacity has not been taxed by coronavirus-prompted home use.

  • Verizon said it has not seen a "measurable increase in data usage" since coronavirus emerged. "While this is an unprecedented situation, we know things are changing, and we are ready to adjust network resources as we better understand any shifts in demand," Kyle Malady, Verizon’s chief technology officer, said in a statement.
  • Dane Jasper, CEO of California- broadband provider Sonic, said the company has seen an increase in daily usage, but it still doesn't compare to evening use, when customers are streaming video.
  • "The idea that work from home or school from home would impact networks during the day — we don’t anticipate that would be an issue because the network is built to handle the evening peak," Jasper told Axios. "If the daytime load increases a lot, it’s still nowhere near the evening peak."

Yes, but: A wireless internet service provider that offers internet service to rural customers in Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming saw "holiday-level" usage this week, its chief executive said, and expects that to grow as schools shut down.

  • Vistabeam just finished adding extra capacity to its network, CEO Matt Larsen said, so he doesn't anticipate any issues, but he does expect the load to increase.
  • Larsen expects to see demand during business hours rise at least 50% above current levels. "You are going to see a major internet stress test in the next 60 days," he said.

Editor's note: This story has been clarified to reflect that Vistabeam's traffic projections apply to daytime usage.

Go deeper

Democrat Mark Kelly sworn in to U.S. Senate

Photo: Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images

Astronaut Mark Kelly (D) was sworn in to the U.S. Senate on Wednesday after defeating incumbent Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) last month for the seat once held by the late Sen. John McCain.

Why it matters: Kelly's swearing-in by Vice President Mike Pence narrows the Republican majority and moves the Senate balance to 52-48.

Senate Armed Services chair dismisses Trump threat to veto defense bill

Sen. Jim Inhofe. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters Wednesday that he plans to move ahead with a crucial defense-spending bill without provisions that would eliminate tech industry protections, defying a veto threat from President Trump.

Why it matters: Inhofe's public rebuke signals that the Senate could have enough Republican backing to override a potential veto from Trump, who has demanded that the $740 billion National Defense Authorization Act repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Scoop: Uber in talks to sell air taxi business to Joby

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Uber is in advanced talks to sell its Uber Elevate unit to Joby Aviation, Axios has learned from multiple sources. A deal could be announced later this month.

Between the lines: Uber Elevate was formed to develop a network of self-driving air taxis, but to date has been most notable for its annual conference devoted to the nascent industry.