Can Your Internet Service Provider Handle Covid-19 Work From Home?
Is your home router able to handle all the devices on your local area network?
Last week I wrote about some of the issues that I have personally encountered in setting up my own professional “Work From Home” (WFH) equipment and infrastructure. I only mentioned the Internet infrastructure by recommending that you get the most broadband you can afford. Actually, there is considerably more to it than that, and some of it may be a bit more technical than than the average user’s technical knowledge. When I started seriously working from home about six months ago, I found that my ISP’s best home Internet service had intermittent problems. When I regularly started using Internet speed tests, I found that much of the time I was not getting the service I was paying for. I eventually gave up, and got faster and more expensive business Internet service, because it made sense anyway with my business being totally online. People who know IT will tell you that big enterprise customers get service that includes a “service level agreement” (SLA) which guarantees that the customer gets a certain level of performance or the ISP forfeits money back to the customer. Unfortunately, for most of us peons, we do not get SLAs, even with business service, so you should remember that. Know also that with so many new users suddenly going online all day and video conferencing, some service providers are seeing their “network operations centers” (NOCs) having capacity problems. It is possible that you could experience a deterioration in your Internet performance. My recommendation is to regularly test your Internet speed to your ISP’s nearest “Domain Name Server” (DNS) with one of the popular apps and log each result to be able to share the performance data with your ISP support technician, if you are having problems.
Secondly, there is also the issue of your own home router, and all of the devices that are connected to your local home network via your router. In last week’s post I only mentioned turning off any unnecessary apps when video conferencing. In fact, your home network itself could be a contributing factor in your WFH setup and performance. If everything is WiFi-based it could be an issue. You have to be something of a radio spectrum geek to understand all of the potential issues, but router location, distance to devices, obstacles like thick walls, and upstairs versus downstairs can all cause problems. There are now two WiFi frequencies, but they each have performance trade offs. I use wired for my most important Internet connections. If you cannot wire your office, look into Powerlines devices that use the home’s electrical wiring. If you are like me you also have many Internet of Things (IoT) devices on your local network. I have 23 devices in total: smartphones, Philips Hue automated lighting, Amazon Alexa, Smart TV’s, my computers and laptops. In response to the growth of my home network, I also recently upgraded my router to a high-performance wired and WiFi dual-band, multi-antenna router. I do not need or use “mesh WiFi“, but you might need to do so if you have WiFi problems. Mesh is a slick solution. If I have made your eyes glaze over with all of this technical information that has a direct bearing on your WFH setup, pick the brain of a geek friend on what I have written here, and they can explain, The information I am sharing here is about the situation in North America but I suspect that it is similar elsewhere except perhaps in South Korea, Hong Kong or Singapore which reputedly all have the World’s best Internet infrastructure.
I found this excellent New York Times article on the Internet-related and home networking problems that can confound your home office configuration, and I share it here in the spirit of helping each other through this difficult period.
From The New York Times:
March 16, 2020, by Davey Alba and Cecilia Kang
So We’re Working From Home.
Can The Internet Handle It?
With millions of people working and learning from home during the pandemic, internet networks are set to be strained to the hilt.
Derek Pando rarely had problems with his home internet service — until last week. That was when he began working from his house because of the coronavirus.
Mr. Pando, 35, a tech worker in Palo Alto, Calif., immediately started using work applications like video conferencing that ate up a lot of data. And he shared his internet service — which was built atop a premium broadband internet package from Comcast and a state-of-the-art home Wi-Fi network — with his wife, who was also working at home, and their two children, who at times streamed movies.
After five days of this activity, his internet ground to a halt, Mr. Pando said. Google Docs froze, and he couldn’t get on video calls or send big email attachments. “It’s never gotten that bad,” he said.
As millions of people across the United States shift to working and learning from home this week to limit the spread of the coronavirus, they will test internet networks with one of the biggest mass behavior changes that the nation has experienced.
That is set to strain the internet’s underlying infrastructure, with the burden likely to be particularly felt in two areas: the home networks that people have set up in their residences, and the home internet services from Comcast, Charter and Verizon that those home networks rely on.
That infrastructure is generally accustomed to certain peaks of activity at specific times of the day, such as in the evening when people return from work and get online at home. But the vast transfer of work and learning to people’s homes will show new heights of internet use, with many users sharing the same internet connections throughout the day and using data-hungry apps that are usually reserved for offices and schools.
That may challenge what are known as last-mile services, which are the cable broadband and fiber-based broadband services that pipe the internet into homes. These tend to provide a very different internet service from what’s available in offices and schools, which typically have “enterprise grade” internet broadband service. In broad terms, many offices and schools essentially have the equivalent of a big pipe to carry internet traffic, compared with a garden hose for most homes.Get an informed guide to the global outbreak with our daily coronavirus newsletter.
On top of that, home networks — such as the Wi-Fi routers that residents set up — can be finicky. Many consumers have broadband plans with much lower capacity than in the workplace. And when many people are loaded onto a single Wi-Fi network at the same time to stream movies or to do video conferencing, that can cause congestion and slowness.
“We just don’t know” how the infrastructure will fare, said Tom Wheeler, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. “What is sufficient bandwidth for a couple of home computers for a husband and wife may not be sufficient when you add students who are going to class all day long operating from home.”
Use of bandwidth-hogging apps and games has already shot up in places where the coronavirus has taken hold. In Italy, housebound youngsters playing PC games in large part pushed up internet traffic over one local landline network, Telecom Italia SpA, more than 90 percent compared with traffic in February, said Francesca Valagussa, a company spokeswoman. And in parts of Europe last week, traffic to WebEx, a videoconferencing service run by Cisco, soared as much as 80 percent, the company said.
In Seattle, which has been a center of the virus outbreak in the United States, internet traffic started spiking on Jan. 30, nine days after the first positive case of the virus in the area with people accessing news and using chat apps, according to security company Cloudflare. Last week, overall internet traffic in Seattle rose 30 percent compared with a normal week for the city in January.
Cogent Communications and Zayo, which provide internet services to big companies and municipalities, said they had also seen recent spikes in traffic from banks, retailers and tech companies in the United States to their remote employees.
In response, Verizon, Charter, Cox, Comcast and AT&T said they were confident they could meet the demands placed on their home internet services, which includes cable broadband like Xfinity, fiber-based broadband like FIOS, mobile LTE services from Verizon and AT&T, and Wi-Fi hot spots. They added that they were taking measures to help people who were working and learning from home.
Cox said last week that it would automatically upgrade users of its basic broadband internet package, with speeds of 30 megabits per second, to a package with 50 megabits per second. That could help people deal with a rise in internet use and apps that require faster speeds and more bandwidth.
Comcast said that for the next two months, it would lift data caps that limit broadband use so that people who surpassed the limits of their data plans wouldn’t be penalized.
AT&T, Verizon and Charter said they were also preparing to increase capacity on their networks if needed, with more equipment to upgrade networks and emergency roll-in cell towers that are used to keep people online during natural disasters.
“Verizon operates its networks every day as though it’s a snow day,” said Kyle Malady, Verizon’s chief technology officer. “Delivering reliable networks is what we do.”
On Friday, Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, also introduced the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, whose dozens of signatories include Altice USA, CenturyLink and Sprint. They committed to not penalize Americans with termination of internet service or fees if people delayed their internet service payments, at least for the next two months.
Jon Peha, a professor of electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and a former chief technology officer of the F.C.C., said he was grappling with how to conduct online lectures from his Pittsburgh home because the campus had shut down in the face of the virus.
Because Mr. Peha was nervous about his cable broadband provider’s ability to handle the intensity of services like video conferencing, which requires constant back-and-forth transfers of data packets with no interruptions from broadband congestion, he said he was considering upgrading his internet service.
He said the entirety of the internet infrastructure — home networks, last-mile services, private networks run by companies, the points of interchange between networks and the backbone superhighway at the core — would be stress-tested in coming days.
“Lives depend on reducing face-to-face interaction. and the internet is perfect for that,” Mr. Peha said. “But there is a risk that usage will surge and capacity will be inadequate and performance will suffer. This is new ground for all of us.”
As for Mr. Pando, he tried various ways to get his internet service to speed up.
First, he turned off other devices in the home that were connected to his Wi-Fi network and made sure his wife and children weren’t online at the same time. Then he took a 75-foot Ethernet cable, which could feed his home broadband service directly into a device, and wrapped it around the home from the living room router to plug directly into his laptop.
It helped — but only a little.
On Friday, Mr. Pando got an email from Comcast saying it would soon increase bandwidth to help meet the greater demands from customers who were working from home.
“It’s good to know they’re worried, too,” he said.