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Will COVID-19 break the internet? Providers say they’ve got this

Antonio Lenrmi does preparation work for Google Fiber on 2300 East and 2300 South in Sugar House on Tuesday, March 28, 2017.
Antonio Lenrmi does preparation work for Google Fiber on 2300 East and 2300 South in Sugar House on Tuesday, March 28, 2017.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As thousands of Utahns and millions of Americans make the switch to working and studying from home under growing COVID-19 restrictions — putting unprecedented pressures on U.S. internet infrastructure — are we headed for a major digital meltdown?

Major internet providers say no and, not only that, many are opening up free access to help out workers and students who may not have the digital connectivity they need.

In a blog post last week, Comcast Cable CEO Dave Watson wrote that in today’s world, internet connectivity at home isn’t just essential for school and work duties, but plays a critical role in personal health issues as well.

“During this extraordinary time, it is vital that as many Americans as possible stay connected to the internet – for education, work and personal health reasons,” Watson wrote. “Our employees also live and work in virtually every community we serve, and we all share the same belief that it’s our company’s responsibility to step up and help out.”

A Comcast spokesman told the Deseret News the company’s network is engineered to handle spikes and shifts in usage patterns and is under constant monitoring.

“Our engineers and technicians staff our network operations centers 24/7 to ensure network performance and reliability,” the spokesman said. “We are monitoring network usage and watching the load on the network both nationally and locally, and to date it is performing well.”

A spokeswoman for CenturyLink reported its internet network is also holding up under the new volumes and issues have been minimal.

“Currently, we are seeing no unusual impacts to our network, making the risk to our customers’ service continuity minimal,” the spokeswoman said. “However, we know how quickly things can change. Through a combination of smart technologies and human expertise, our teams can quickly add capability, modify paths and shape traffic to meet the changing needs of our customers.”

She also noted CenturyLink was working with public sector partners to identify any usage-induced strains on its networks and respond quickly.

“We also have well-established partnerships with governments around the world and as such, have been designated as a critical infrastructure partner,” the spokeswoman said. “In the event of service issues in high-risk areas, we plan to coordinate with the appropriate governmental officials to restore service as quickly as possible while minimizing risk.”

A spokeswoman for Google Fiber, which serves Utah customers in Provo and Salt Lake City, said the company is seeing about a 10% uptick in volume among Utah customers but noted the change is not taxing networks.

“The Google Fiber network is robust and built to support symmetrical gigabit speeds for both uploads and downloads for all our customers, regardless of how many people are online at one time,” the spokeswoman said. “This allows many users simultaneously, with more than enough bandwidth to meet everyone’s needs, especially as more people are performing productivity-related tasks online like uploading documents and videos, using the cloud and videoconferencing.”

The Internet Society, a nonprofit group nearly as old as the World Wide Web with a mission to keep the internet “open, globally connected, secure and trustworthy,” weighed in on potential COVID-19 related impacts to internet accessibility and characterized the likelihood of an epic failure as “not likely.”

In a recent blog post, Internet Society senior director of research and analysis David Belson wrote that digital networks should hold up well under the strains of new, COVID-19 related increases in usage, especially if the bandwidth demands didn’t all happen at once.

“Core internet infrastructure providers should be able to easily absorb the increase in traffic and demand, especially if the growth is gradual over a period of days, weeks or months,” Belson wrote. “Cloud infrastructure providers should also have sufficient additional compute, storage and bandwidth capacity to enable their customers, including the e-learning, messaging and videoconferencing tool providers, to scale their systems as necessary.

“In order to keep traffic local, content delivery infrastructure from companies including Akamai, Cloudflare, Google, Netflix and Apple is deployed in many last-mile networks.”

Web performance and security firm Cloudflare did an analysis of internet usage patterns in three areas hard hit by COVID-19 that included Seattle, northern Italy and South Korea. While noting overall internet usage in all three areas is up, by 40%, 30% and 5%, respectively, the new volumes have not led to any significant network issues.

“Cloudflare is watching carefully as internet traffic patterns around the world alter as people alter their daily lives through home working, cordon sanitaire, and social distancing,” John Graham-Cunningham wrote in a March 13 blog post. “None of these traffic changes raise any concern for us.”

Some Utah internet service providers have also implemented policy changes to help community members navigate challenges brought on by COVID-19 restrictions and related economic impacts.

Comcast/Xfinity has temporarily lifted its typical customer data caps, opened up its network of wireless hotspots to free use, is offering two months free service for new, qualified low-income households that sign up for its Internet Essentials service and has committed to suspend disconnects and late fees for the time being, opting instead to allow customers to set up payment plans.

CenturyLink is also implementing its own policy waivers.

“We will waive late fees and will not terminate a residential or small business customer’s service for the next 60 days due to financial circumstances associated with COVID-19.,” the company said in a statement. “Today, we committed to the FCC’s ‘Keep Americans Connected Pledge’ outlining these actions. We are also suspending data usage limits for consumer customers during this time period due to COVID-19.”

Google has also signed on to the Federal Communications Commission’s “Keep Americans Connected Pledge” and is temporarily suspending some policies as part of that commitment, according to a posting on their website, though Google Fiber does not does not charge late fees or operate wi-fi hotspots, as stipulated in the FCC pledge.

Companies that sign onto the pledge agree to:

  • Not terminate service to any residential or small business customers because of their inability to pay their bills due to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Waive any late fees that any residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Open its Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them.

Correction: An earlier version said Google Fiber had agreed to suspend late fees and open Wi-Fi spots as part of the FCC’s “Keep Americans Connected Pledge.” The company has an existing policy of not charging late fees and does not operate Wi-Fi hotspots.