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Christopher Mitchell Talks Quarantine Connectivity on Marketplace Tech
Marketplace Tech’s Molly Wood interviewed Christopher Mitchell, the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative, this morning on national radio. The pair discussed how broadband providers are responding to increased demand during the Covid-19 outbreak and what barriers there are to expanding Internet access to families sheltering-in-place.
Christopher has been a guest on Marketplace Tech before, providing his perspective on issues including security concerns around Chinese-made network equipment and the effects of ending network neutrality on municipal networks.
Connecting New Subscribers
Schools and businesses have closed across the country, but many students and employees are still expected to complete work from home. This is leading households to subscribe to broadband at record levels in some areas.
There’s a lot of people who are signing up for service who didn’t have it before, or maybe they’re going to a better provider. We’re seeing in areas that have one or more cases of the virus that some of the [internet service providers] are seeing record sign-ups, in some cases twice the previous record of a daily number of new customers.
The surge in demand is creating a challenge for providers still figuring out how to safely connect new users. A number of companies have temporarily halted home installations, while others are instituting policies to protect their employees and household members. “We will need to find a way in which we can do new connections,” Christopher said on Marketplace, “because I think this connectivity is just going to become more and more important”
States Stopping Local Solutions
UTOPIA Finishes City Fiber Build, in Time for Subscriber Surge
UTOPIA Fiber announced last week that it had completed network construction in Layton, Utah’s ninth largest city. The announcement comes just in time for increasing reliance on home broadband connections as more people shelter-in-place in response to the Covid-19 outbreak.
Already, UTOPIA has seen a rise in sign-ups for its regional open access fiber network, even setting a new daily record. While some of the growth can be attributed to Salt Lake City’s booming population, many new subscribers point to the need to work from home as the reason they decided to sign up.
On Tuesday, UTOPIA’s sales team signed on 88 new subscribers, nearly doubling the network’s previous one-day record of 48. According to UTOPIA, most new subscribers said that the ability to work remotely — especially considering Covid-19-related restrictions and closures — drove their decision to connect.
In addition to the current pandemic, some of this increase is tied to population growth in the region. Since the new year, UTOPIA’s monthly sign-ups have hovered around 600-700, exceeding the network’s typical average of 500 new subscribers per month.
As we reported earlier today, many networks are starting to see growth in home broadband usage as workplaces and schools close across the county in an attempt to contain the novel coronavirus. However, it’s too early to say exactly how the Covid-19 outbreak will impact broadband subscriptions and Internet traffic going forward.
Building a UTOPIA
The completion of UTOPIA’s fiber network in Layton, worth $23 million, will bring increased access to vital online education, remote work, and telehealth services to the city of 80,000 people. Approximately one third of Layton households are already connected to UTOPIA’s open access network. They can subscribe to one of 11 Internet service providers offering speeds of up to 10 Gigabits per second.
Service Providers Start to Adjust to Increased Demand, New Environment
With everything from shelter-in-place orders to partying on Florida beaches, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) across the country have had to figure out their own responses to Covid-19. We reached out to a mix to get a sense of what they are seeing and how they are adapting.
Some ISPs have cut all installs and have disbanded their offices as much as possible to work remotely and try to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus. Others have detailed new protocols. Almost all are seeing some increases in bandwidth usage. Lots of ISPs have special, temporary offers to get low-income families signed up during this time of need.
When it comes to usage, we are seeing a lot more activity. We don't have enough evidence to confirm our recent predictions, but things are more or less where we expected. Most networks usually have peak activity in evening prime time hours, and that remains true. The daytime peaks are expanding, but 4K streaming is keeping those evening peaks much larger.
At Sonic, California's largest independent ISP, they have seen an increase of 25 percent in evening peak, which is remarkable, but well within the capacity of their network to handle it.
Week over week @Sonic internet traffic, annotated. #COVID19 #WFH #gigabit #fiber pic.twitter.com/eUKL9FGXMk
ISPs Pledge Higher Speeds, No Data Caps, and Some Free Connections During Pandemic
In an effort to keep families connected as schools and workplaces close in response to the novel coronavirus, many Internet service providers (ISPs) are taking steps to make their services more accessible and functional for those of us who are staying home for the foreseeable future.
Some policies are being officially encouraged by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) through Chairman Ajit Pai’s new Keep Americans Connected Pledge. By signing onto the pledge, providers agree to open Wi-Fi hotspots to the general public and to not disconnect or charge late fees to those struggling to pay bills due to the pandemic.
To ensure people have sufficient connectivity during the public health crisis, some ISPs are going beyond the pledge’s requirements by raising speeds, suspending data caps, and offering free Internet access to certain households.
While these efforts will not close all of the digital divides being exacerbated the pandemic, they are an important step toward mitigating the immediate impact on families and businesses.
Keep Americans Connected Pledge
FCC Chairman Pai announced the Keep Americans Connected Pledge last Friday, March 13. The pledge calls on ISPs to make Wi-Fi hotspots publicly accessible and to keep households and small businesses that are facing financial difficulties because of the pandemic connected over the next couple months.
How Will Broadband Networks Handle Quarantine Congestion? Mostly OK
As schools and businesses ask people to stay home to reduce the spread of Covid-19 coronavirus, I wanted to share some thoughts about how I expect broadband Internet access networks will handle the change and increase in broadband traffic in residential areas.
Our first reaction is that, as with so many areas with network effects, the rich will get richer. This is to say that historic inequities will be exacerbated — people that have been able to afford the high-quality networks will probably see very little disruption and those who have older networks may be effectively disconnected.
Better Network Scenarios
Those on fiber optic networks probably won't notice major changes in demand. This is the easy one — it is why we have long believed that fiber optics should be the goal for the vast majority of Americans.
Most modern cable networks should be also able to handle the demand — especially on the download end. This is good because 2 out of 3 Americans with broadband gets it from a cable network. Upgrades in recent years from the aggressive cable companies (Comcast Xfinity, Cox, and some of the many smaller cable networks — Charter Spectrum less so) should allow more than sufficient download capacity even if home video streaming increases significantly. But in smaller towns, where the local cable companies haven't been able to afford those upgrades and the bigger cable providers have just ignored them, I would expect to see intermittent and in some cases, persistent congestion problems from bottlenecks.
In the upstream direction, the cable networks will have some challenges. I wouldn't expect most Comcast or Cox markets to have too many problems, though neighborhoods with lots of professionals using video conferencing tools could congest. I would expect Charter Spectrum, Mediacom, and many of the others to have frequent congestion for upstream connections, lowering throughput extremely at times.