Clickability tracking pixel

Residents Lacking Fast Internet Struggle to Work at Home

While many upstate New York residents cope with work and study from home orders amid the COVID-19 crisis, those with slow or non-existent home Internet service are experiencing some frustrations.

by Larry Rulison, Times Union / April 20, 2020
Shutterstock

(TNS) — While many Upstate New York residents, from parents to students, can cope with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's work and study from home orders amid the COVID-19 crisis, for those with slow or non-existent home Internet service, the experience can be downright frustrating,

Gina Mintzer, executive director of the Lake George Regional Chamber of Commerce & Convention and Visitors Bureau, says in Adirondack towns where land line Internet service is either non-existent or unreliable, parents and students working from home must often rely on their cellular service for Internet connections to work.

And then there are those who must leave their homes just to connect to work or school.  Mintzer says that although the Six Flags Great Escape Resort in Queensbury is closed through the COVID-19 pandemic, the Johnny Rockets Sports Lounge at the hotel is broadcasting free WiFi that can be used by SUNY Adirondack students to link into their online classes and do schoolwork while the campus is closed.

But it's not ideal, obviously, working out of your car in a parking lot to get your work done.

"Really it comes down to a lot of students, really," Mintzer said of the hardships that people are experiencing with connecting online in rural areas. "It's a big deal."

In the suburbs and cities of the Capital Region, where large cable TV and telecommunication companies like Spectrum and Verizon offer robust Internet service, connecting to the Internet — even with multiple household devices — is not a major problem, except during some peak periods of usage.

Even then, Internet providers say that the increases are being driven not only by the additional increases in work activity and online meetings and classes through applications like Zoom, but also increased streaming of movies and video games during the day that can clog up the network.

"Demand has been driven by increases in video streaming, video game downloads and the increased use of video communication tools like Zoom, WebEx and Skype," said Lara Pritchard, a spokeswoman for Charter Communications, the parent company of Spectrum, the dominant cable TV company in the Capital Region.

Spectrum has seen a 30 percent increase in uploading Internet traffic since the COVID-19 pandemic began and families had to shift their online activities to their homes from work and schools.

Stephanie Mitchko-Beale, the chief technology officer for Charter, says Spectrum's network "continues to perform well" during the crisis, and that the increased network activity during the daytime remains "well below capacity," meaning Spectrum's network can handle the traffic.

But don't just take Spectrum's word. The state's top Internet service regulator, the state Department of Public Service, says it has been keeping tabs on Internet service reliability in the state, especially considering the Cuomo administration's order that people stay home, now at least through May 15.

"The Department of Public Service is receiving weekly updates from telecommunications providers in New York that report usage statistics, issues with network congestion, and network capacity," agency spokesman James Denn told the Times Union. "To date, all Internet providers have reported that their networks are fully functional and have sufficient capacity to handle the increased usage resulting from the governor’s stay-at-home (and) work-from-home orders."

The Internet & Television Association in Washington, D.C., a trade group, says that New York's Internet providers are meeting more than 99 percent of the increased Internet activity in the state, even with traffic spikes of as much as 30 percent since March.

The trade group found that Internet traffic slowed during peak periods in New York just 0.4 percent of the time — leading to "reduced capacity" and "minor impact on performance and customer experience," although that home usage peak is generally after 8 p.m. when many people are done with their workday and streaming videos and games.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai reported earlier this month that while land line Internet service providers like cable TV companies reported network usage had risen about as much as 35 percent and that cell phone network traffic rose as high as 20 percent during daytime periods, the companies have been able to handle the increased traffic for the most part.

“It appears that our nation’s communications networks are holding up very well amid the increase in traffic and change in usage patterns," Pai said during an April 2 address to telecom company leaders. "That’s thanks in part to networks being designed to handle ever-higher peak traffic loads and in part to a market-based regulatory framework that has promoted infrastructure investment and deployment. That said, we will continue to closely monitor the situation."

But what if your home Internet service just is not up to the task? There are some steps that homeowners can take to improve their connection, although people must take care of the fixes themselves since companies like Spectrum and Verizon are limiting home visits by their field technicians to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the virus that causes COVID-19.

"We are minimizing our in-home installation work to critical needs to keep our employees and customers safe and to reduce the spread of COVID-19," Verizon spokesman Steve Van Dinter told the Times Union.

The easiest thing that can be done is to simply make sure the wireless router in your home is in the best place. For instance, make sure the router is in a central location instead of on one side of the house. And it should be out of the way of other electronics, such as cordless phones, microwaves or baby monitors that operate on the same type of signal as a router, Verizon advises.

"If they’re close enough to your router, they could potentially interfere with your wireless signal. It’s always good to keep your router away from other electronics," the company suggests.

Hiding a router may also be causing problems, the company says, along with other household obstacles.

"Concrete walls, metal pipes and mirrors can also interfere with your Wi-Fi signal, Verizon notes. "Mirrors, in particular, may actually reflect your signal back toward the router."

Verizon is also waiving router fees for new customers in certain cases, although upgrading to a new router can be expensive and requires self-installation during a time when service technicians aren't being deployed. Verizon customers can also upgrade their Internet speeds as well, which usually is more expensive.

"Speed changes for instance can be done remotely through our website," Van Dinter said.

The FCC suggests some cheaper potential fixes as well. The federal agency says on its web site that a typical wireless router uses two types of signals: a 2.4 GHz band and a 5 GHz band. The 5 GHz band is faster, although it covers a smaller range. But the FCC says a quick fix is to use the 5GHz band for the most important uses like work and school and to disconnect wireless devices you aren't using during those times.

Another free fix is to set a strict schedule when family members can stream video and play online video games, so the home network is not swamped at critical times.

"Even the latest Wi-Fi routers with fast service speeds can get bogged down by a family of users trying to do things simultaneously," the FCC says, "Set guidelines with your family members and discuss daily schedules to avoid performance issues and prioritize usage."

Still, tinkering with a wireless router may not be an option for those who live in rural areas where land line Internet service is just not offered by companies like Spectrum or Verizon, says Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara of Rotterdam.

"The reality is that many of our rural communities in New York state still do not have reliable access to high speed broadband, making this move (to working at home) particularly difficult," Santabarbara said. "Many have been forced to rely on more costly cellular connections to access high-speed Internet for work."

As a result, Santabarbara and other consumer advocates have asked cell phone companies to waive data caps for 60 days so those who have to use their cell phone networks to work or study can do so without fear of running over their plan limits and being charged extra or having their connection speeds slowed. Many cell phone carriers have adopted the measure as part of their overall plan to provide relief to customers during the pandemic.

"Most cellular plans simply do not have data flexibility to meet the current needs of both family and work life during this national emergency,” Santabarbara added.

The FCC has also helped cellular companies with this effort by granting 33 companies that operate in rural areas additional wireless spectrum to serve their customers.

©2020 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Looking for the latest gov tech news as it happens? Subscribe to GT newsletters.

E.REPUBLIC Platforms & Programs