With COVID-19, desire for fast internet connections accelerates

A family working at a table.
Brent and Janet Eckhoff work on their laptops, as 3-year-old Anneliese colors at the table and 5-year-old Juliet works at a desk at their home in south Minneapolis. Brent Eckhoff says that he is concerned about students having sufficient connection speeds and data plans to take part in online classes.
Courtesy of Brent Eckhoff

Many people are working at home now in an effort to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus. Speed, capacity and reliability of internet connections determine how well remote-working goes. Some telecommuters zip along in the fast lane, others not so much.

Most Minnesotans have access to fast internet connections, depending on how much they want to pay. Eighty-six percent of Minnesota households could get internet connections providing download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second.

Communications consultant Jon Austin has two big “pipes” sending data into his Minneapolis home, where he works. He uses services from US Internet and Comcast.

Austin said his wife, son and son’s girlfriend are all working, and working out, without any hiccups. They use the internet for multiparty video conferencing and even yoga classes.

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“Between the two pipes, we rarely slow down,” he said.

Brent Eckhoff teaches English in the Hopkins school district and his wife, Janet, teaches Spanish. The Minneapolis couple plans to teach classes via the internet, which could be a challenge if they don’t upgrade from their current wireless internet connection. Eckhoff said if they are on a Google video call with colleagues, “We have to make sure that nobody else is using the Wi-Fi.”

Eckhoff said he’s also concerned about students having sufficient connection speeds and data plans to take part in online classes.

“We have no idea what our students’ situation is,” he said. “I guess that first week is going to be a lot of — ‘Can you hear me? Hello? Can you send me something?’’’

Broadband service has been holding up well overall across the state so far, despite the surge in telework.

"We've been heartened by the response of CenturyLink and Comcast and other [internet service providers] in the state who've said, ‘We're gonna do everything we can to make sure broadband connections are strong and fast for Minnesotans who suddenly find themselves doing a lot more work from home than they ever did in the past,’” said Steve Grove, commissioner of the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Web traffic is way up, increasing at a double-digit rate. But William Lehr, a research associate in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said there’s nothing to worry about.

“If it goes up 100 percent, we probably can handle it without much of a problem. And with a little more lead time, we can handle more than that," he said.

Lehr notes that Netflix and other video streaming services agreed to limit high-resolution streaming in Europe — unnecessarily, he said.

“That’s probably more about politics and making people feel good than it is about something that really needed to happen,” he said. “The internet is amazingly able to deal with things like video traffic.”

Travis Carter, CEO of Minneapolis-based US Internet, said weekday traffic on the company’s network is now in line with what’s typical for big events like the Super Bowl, the Olympics or a Vikings’ game.

“It's not a significant tax on the network,” he said. “But it's an unusual traffic pattern because more people are obviously currently working from home.”

And Carter said people are seeking daytime entertainment, too.

“Our Netflix, Hulu and YouTube servers are very busy during the day,” he said, reflecting the more than 150,000 newly unemployed Minnesotans and out-of-school students.

Carter said new sign-ups have been twice the normal rate in March. Meanwhile, US Internet is offering free public Wi-Fi access at 2,500 spots around Minneapolis. They provide speeds of up to 10 megabits per second.

Comcast provides free internet access at nearly 40,000 Wi-Fi hot spots around the state. The company is waiving its usual terabyte monthly cap on downloads.

“As schools suspend classes and companies are encouraging employees to work from home, we know that it's vital that Americans stay connected,” said spokesperson Jill Hornbacher.

The company's network is built to handle shifts and spikes in usage like those going on now. Hornbacher added it’s nowhere near the point of being overtaxed.

Comcast also is offering qualified low-income households two months’ free service, while raising the minimum download speed for that service to 25 megabits per second. The regular price is $10 a month. Other providers have similar packages.

A 25-megabit connection should be good enough for a typical telcommunter, even if others in the home binge their favorite shows, said Luke Deryckx, chief technology officer at Ookla, a Seattle-based company that monitors internet performance through millions of daily speed checks.

For the week of March 16, the average speed for Minnesotans was about 100 megabits per second.

“For the most part, things are fairly stable,” Deryckx said. “Most of the largest providers have speeds that are more or less flat from where they were several weeks in the past.”

With a 100-megabit connection, it’s possible to download a two-hour HD movie in four and a half minutes.

Many customers of some internet service providers can get speed upgrades, sometimes that day, with just a phone call or email, as long as they have a proper modem. No service call is required.

CenturyLink offers speed upgrades by phone, too.

Comcast says same-day speed boosts are available for existing customers. Households with cable drops but no internet service can get hooked up by ordering a self-installation kit or picking one up at a Comcast store. A technician visit is not needed to establish service for those customers.

Those without a cable drop need to schedule installation. Currently, that’s available the same or next day.