Mar 23, 2020 - Technology

U.S. internet lifelines face a tough test

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

With the in-person economy in the U.S. essentially shut down, the internet has never been more critical. The key question now is how well the network can handle the unprecedented demand.

Why it matters: Europe's networks have already come under strain, and if cloud services and internet service providers here falter, "shelter in place" could get a lot rougher.

Driving the news:

The big picture:

  • With stores shuttered, the Internet has emerged as a vital lifeline for goods, and Amazon has had to prioritize essentials to keep shipments moving, while online grocery services have also seen long wait times and plenty of items are out of stock.
  • Social networks and video chat services have become a key way to stay in touch with friends and family and avoid isolation amid the physical distancing, something mental health experts say is also of critical importance.
  • Remote classes for students whose schools are closed, telehealth services for medical consultations, and online performances by artists who can't take the live stage are all simultaneously ramping up, potentially pushing the limits of network capacity.

Where it stands: Based on network performance so far, Americans don’t have to worry about Europe’s broadband issues arising here, Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr told Axios.

  • “The performance of the networks up to now doesn’t give any indication that we’re going to be in that type of situation,” Carr, a Republican, said. “There’s nothing in the current traffic patterns and traffic flows that suggest that.”
  • The agency is in close contact with providers, who so far report that peak usage levels are lasting over a longer period of time, and network traffic is moving from downtown urban cores to suburban areas, Carr said.
  • Carr credits the strength of the U.S. broadband networks with a regulatory environment he says incentivizes investment.

A number of Internet service providers echoed Carr's optimism. Comcast chief business development officer Sam Schwartz said his company has seen an increase in video conferencing, video streaming and VPN usage as people try to work and learn from home.

  • "’I've spoken to many of our partners about the experience of their employees using Xfinity to work from home, and generally reports are good," Schwartz said. "We’re also working with major websites, streaming services, and other ISPs to ensure traffic is handled as well as possible."
  • AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, speaking on CNN's Reliable Sources, said: "We're having to go out and do some augmentation of networks, and so we're sending our employees out to get that done, but right now, the network is performing quite well."
  • USTelecom, an industry trade association, said Friday providers have not seen “shifted traffic exceeding peak network capacity” or congestion or latency issues.

Fun fact: Wireless voice traffic is up 25% at Verizon. AT&T, meanwhile, said wireless voice traffic on Friday was up 40% compared to a typical Friday, while voice calls over wi-fi networks have doubled.

  • It appears a global pandemic is what it takes to make people want to actually talk to one another. (AT&T, however, does not plan to revive its 1980s slogan: "Reach out and touch someone.")
  • Data usage on AT&T's wireless network, though, was largely flat as more people connected via their home wi-fi, offsetting increased overall Internet demand.

Yes, but: Some are concerned about how well the networks will hold up as more Americans stay home. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel would like to see detailed daily reporting from the broadband service providers, as they offer during natural disasters and other emergencies.

  • The coronavirus crisis will "stress our networks in new ways," Rosenworcel said, "and it’s important for the public to know how they are performing. This is especially important to do now because these are the networks we are all counting on for some semblance of modern life."

Our thought bubble: As hard as things are right now, just think how much better off we are now than if this crisis happened two decades ago, before Amazon Prime, streaming video and video conferencing — and before the network delivering all these services had been built up to the speed and capacity they require.

Go deeper

Coronavirus exposes the digital divide's toll

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As the coronavirus pushes more human activities online, it's forcing a reckoning with the often-invisible digital divide.

Why it matters: The virus crisis is offering vivid case studies of real-world, everyday harms that result from inequality between those who have access to and can afford high-speed internet, and those who cannot.

ISPs promise FCC they won't shut off service during pandemic

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The Federal Communications Commission obtained promises from several of the nation's broadband providers that they will not cut off internet service to Americans who can't pay their bills during the coronavirus crisis, agency chairman Ajit Pai said Friday.

The big picture: Americans will rely on home internet access to continue to work, study and in some cases, obtain telehealth services as the coronavirus pushes more people to quarantine themselves.

Startup ISP gives Santa Monica families free service amid pandemic

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Southern California broadband provider Wander is offering free high-speed internet to all families in Santa Monica with school-age children for the rest of the academic year.

Why it matters: School districts across the country are moving to virtual learning to keep students engaged during coronavirus-induced closures. But e-learning requires a reliable broadband connection, which many families do not have at home.