Mar 13, 2020 - Technology

Broadband providers brace for coronavirus stress test

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

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School districts are exploring ways to keep their homebound pupils connected to the classroom, even though many students don't have the internet service or devices they need to do assignments.

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