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Infrastructure Investments Have Helped ISPs Avoid Disaster

According to Internet service providers in Pennsylvania, ongoing investment in network infrastructure was key to meeting the increased service demand brought about by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

(TNS) — Usually Internet and cable companies are all hands on deck before major events -— think Super Bowl. This May, the high school Advanced Placement tests, administered remotely in the midst of a pandemic, became the Super Bowl.

“Because kids were now taking their AP tests online versus in person, our network team paid very special attention to that AP testing window,” said Josephine Posti, senior public relations manager for Comcast. “… Those major events, they have changed during this time.”

The company’s engineers used web-based tools and artificial intelligence to help them track any issues that were in the network. They could even identify kinks in a cable, and in many cases, correct something without any shut downs, Ms. Posti said.

Comcast and its counterparts in the industry faced a surge of Internet traffic in March and April, as other parts of the economy largely shut down. Employees began meeting on video conferencing platforms instead of at the office. Students and teachers moved to online as well. And while essential workers continued to report to their workplaces, nobody could go to a bar, movie or dinner afterward to unwind. What else to do? Netflix and chill.

While some in the U.S. may have experienced outages, Western Pennsylvania’s infrastructure did not fail its users, companies say.

“Clearly there was a dramatic surge especially those first few weeks,” said David Wittmann, vice president of cable marketing for Armstrong, an Internet service provider in the Pittsburgh region.

Upstream traffic, meaning an output of data including video conferencing, increased during the day; downstream traffic, meaning streaming or downloading content, increased in the evening.

“We were able to manage that, as most of the industry was, because we planned for significant overages,” Mr. Wittmann said. “I can tell you that our engineers worked tirelessly that first month augmenting our network where we saw areas of congestion. … They probably did as many augments in that month as they would in a year.”

For those who wanted new service or upgrades, companies utilized two-way application for remote installation so that crews and customers could see what the other was doing during self-installation.

“There's still a significant amount of folks who really don't want anyone in their home, understandably,” Mr. Wittmann said.

The company hired more crew to handle any advanced installations that required in-home appointments, he added, and cleared a waiting list by the end of June.

Average data usage pre-pandemic for Armstrong customers was roughly 350 gigabytes per month. That increased by about 100GB per month once shelter-in-place orders began, according to the company.

Comcast saw in an increase in upstream traffic by 32% and downstream traffic by 11% from early March to late May, Ms. Posti said.

Verizon’s network weathered the pandemic surge, “maintaining pre-COVID reliability levels even in the midst dramatic usage spikes and shifts in demand,” according to its report that monitored the network from March 1 to May 31.

Verizon boasts of a network “engineered to perform during moments of crisis such as hurricanes, snow storms and flooding,” according to the company’s July 9 press release.

But did Internet service providers have a pandemic contingency plan on the shelf?

“I can't tell you we planned for a pandemic, that would not be accurate, but we do plan for 18 to 24 months in the future for sure,” Mr. Wittmann said, highlighting that a $200 million project to install new infrastructure in the areas of Cranberry, Wexford and Pine, hasn’t stopped.

“We keep very close tabs on how much data usage is growing. In general it’s growing at a 40 percent compound annual growth rate, and that's before the pandemic. That's a staggering number. ... That's is only going to continue. With that in mind we had that in our plan, and we had enough head room in our network capacity to handle that, that's why we were able to handle the surge without having an issue handling the problem.” 

A report by the San Francisco-based Internet monitoring company ThousandEyes largely bolsters that claim, finding that while broadband interruptions spiked in some regions of North America post-pandemic, the outages likely occurred during non-business hours. Overall, the state of Internet infrastructure is “healthy,” the report found.

But some challenges were observed by the Washington-based Center for Democracy, namely redistribution issues because of the “massive shift from using network connections in office buildings to using them at home.”

“I think a lot of us found out exactly how many video conferences our home connections could support at one time, which for many was only one,” Stan Adams, the organization’s deputy general counsel and open Internet counsel, said in a written response to questions. “While it can be difficult to determine whether a bandwidth limitation stems from the ISP’s [Internet service provider] network, your own local network (WiFi), or the other end of your connection, I think we saw pretty clearly that many ISP networks are not capable of providing the marketed speeds and throughput to every subscriber simultaneously.”

No major outages were reported to the organization, but that’s not the first thing on Mr. Adams’ mind.

“For me, it's tough to talk about ISPs meeting the needs of the communities they serve without talking about all those folks who remain unconnected, either because they cannot afford a connection or there are none available where they live. So while it's important that existing customers receive the service they pay for, whether the performance of their connection lives up to expectations comes second to whether someone has access to the Internet at all,” he said.

‘Keep Americans Connected’

When the pandemic hit, 785 major industry players and smaller companies took a Federal Communications Commission pledge to “Keep Americans Connected,” by vowing not to turn off service and to expand low-income offerings through June 30, according to the FCC.

FCC chairman Ajit Pai on June 19 urged the service providers not to disconnect those in need and urged Congress “to ensure that doctors and patients, students and teachers, low-income families and veterans, those who have lost their jobs and livelihoods due to the pandemic and the accompanying lockdowns ... remain connected until this emergency ends.”

Comcast will continue to offer “extended payment options,” and through the end of 2020 new customers can sign up to receive 60 days of complimentary low-income Internet Essentials service. The company has also made  Xfinity WiFi hotspots available to anyone who needs them for free, Ms. Posti said.

Armstrong has decided to permanently increase the download speed to 25 megabytes per second, from 12Mbps, and its upload, to 3Mbps from 1Mbps, for its low-income Internet package, Mr. Wittmann said.

Verizon will continue to offer a $20-per-month discount on its low-income Lifeline Internet service “for as long as they remain eligible,” according to the company’s website. New registrants will be accepted until the end of 2020.

©2020 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.