Broadband providers are making service changes as policymakers urge them to prepare for a spike in network traffic from consumers working and studying from home in response to coronavirus. The nation’s internet service providers say they haven’t seen big usage gluts yet, but the coming weeks and months could pose an unprecedented test of their networks’ ability to withstand a massive and sustained surge in bandwidth needs.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai spoke with broadband companies, carriers and trade associations about the issue Thursday. In order to ensure that Americans do not lose their broadband or telephone connectivity as a result of the exceptional circumstances, he asked them to take the Keep Americans Connected Pledge.
The pledge asks companies to do three things for the next 60 days: 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; waive any late fees that any residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstances related to the pandemic; and open its WiFi hotspots to any American who needs them.
More than 70 companies and eight trade associations had endorsed the pledge by Friday. That includes large providers like AT&T, CenturyLink, Charter, Comcast, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon and numerous smaller providers. See a list here. Trade associations supporting the effort are: ACA Connects, Competitive Carriers of America, CTIA, INCOMPAS, NCTA—The Internet and Television Association, NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association, USTelecom, and WISPA.
“The wireless industry applauds Chairman Pai and the Administration for taking important proactive steps to keep Americans connected. We’re committed to serving our customers and continuing to provide access to the world’s most reliable wireless networks,” said CTIA President/CEO Meredith Attwell Baker.
Pai commended companies that have already taken additional steps to ensure that Americans, especially low-income families and veterans, remain connected. He also called on providers to relax data caps, waive long-distance and overage fees. He’s asking providers to work with schools and libraries on remote learning, and network operators to prioritize connectivity for hospitals and healthcare providers.
AT&T and Comcast earlier announced changes to their services. AT&T is waiving home internet data overage fees for customers who don’t already have unlimited home internet access. Comcast is increasing the speeds in its program for low-income subscribers, Internet Essentials, to 25/3 Mbps (up from 15/2 Mbps). The company is also offering the program for free for new customers for 60 days.
“Our hope is that broader access and faster speeds will help all of our Internet Essentials customers more easily work from home, access educational resources, obtain important government health care alerts, and stay in contact with their families during this difficult time,” Comcast said in a blog post.
Broadband companies say they are monitoring network usage but their capacity has not yet been taxed by coronavirus-prompted home use. Verizon said it has not seen a “measurable increase in data usage” since coronavirus emerged. “While this is an unprecedented situation, we know things are changing, and we are ready to adjust network resources as we better understand any shifts in demand,” Verizon CTO Kyle Malady said in a statement.
However a wireless internet service provider that offers internet service to rural customers in Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming saw “holiday-level” usage last week, its chief executive said, and expects that to grow as schools shut down. Vistabeam just finished adding extra capacity to its network, CEO Matt Larsen told Axios. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a peak demand increase of at least 50 percent from what we have now,” Larsen said. “You are going to see a major internet stress test in the next 60 days.“
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