How ISPs are keeping the world connected during COVID-19 and beyond

Today, it seems most businesses, hospitals, utilities, and governments can’t function without broadband and/or mobile internet. What was once considered a luxury 25 years ago is now deemed critical infrastructure.

This new reality has become even more obvious throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. People are using the internet as their sole means of entertainment, work, learning, news, and even worship.

The increased demand has put internet service providers (ISPs) in a position to not only meet the challenges of today, but also adapt to the “new normal” of tomorrow. Here’s a look at how they’re responding to the needs of their customers and society as a whole:

Putting people over profits

As the pandemic continues to impact economies around the world, many people are facing financial hardships. And it’s not just the global workforce that has been affected. Students of all ages have transitioned from traditional classrooms to kitchen tables as schools have closed.

To ease the burden on society, many ISPs have committed to continuing service to customers unable to pay their bills. In some cases, data providers have offered free service to students, healthcare professionals, and subscribers who meet income requirements. Others have increased monthly data caps free of charge.

Immediate impact: In the U.S., more than 700 companies have signed the Federal Communication Commission’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge. As part of this pledge, the companies promised not to terminate service for residential or small business users. They also vowed to waive late fees incurred as a result of the pandemic and opened hot spots to those who needed them.

In Canada and Europe, telecommunications companies have offered discounts and additional bandwidth to customers. The South African government relaxed regulations to allow network operators to offer discounted or free data plans.

Looking ahead: By continuing service to customers, ISPs are enabling those who’ve lost their jobs to apply for unemployment aid and/or seek new jobs online. Additionally, it allows people whose jobs weren’t impacted by the recession to continue working, ensuring future revenues from existing customers. Strides made to assist students will see fruition in the form of academic success, which contributes to the future workforce and creates new ISP customers.

Ensuring quality service

Throughout the pandemic, ISPs have seen internet traffic spikes of up to 50% in parts of the world. For example, the Deutsche Commercial Internet Exchange in Frankfurt, Germany, set a new world record for data throughput (9.1 terabits per/second) in early March.

Because more people are working at home and can’t socialize with family and friends, videoconferencing usage has increased by more than 1,000% in March. For one meeting, Microsoft had to raise the limit on an Azure Stream from 10,000 to 100,000 users.

Global cellphone providers reported spikes of more than 40%, while virtual private network (VPN) traffic increased by as much as 65%. In March, people downloaded 30% more games as compared to the previous year.

Immediate impact: To help ensure continuous service during peak times, hundreds of ISPs have extended data caps and increased connectivity speeds for residential subscribers. In Europe, data providers agreed to transmit only standard-definition video, reducing the traffic burden on networks by as much as 25%.

Looking ahead: As ISPs build out networks, they will also strengthen “last-mile” connections to residential customers by replacing old infrastructure (e.g., phone and cable lines) with reliable and faster underground fiber optic lines. New automation technology, like software-defined networking, enables companies to improve traffic management and be more responsive and resilient versus companies using legacy networks.

Meeting new service demands

With workers and students quarantined at home, the demand for residential internet service has increased. According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative, areas with one or more positive cases of COVID-19 saw record sign-ups for broadband.

Immediate impact: Because of public health orders and social distancing, some ISP technicians can’t enter homes and install new connections. To meet the needs of customers, ISPs have relied more on mobile hot spots to provide high-speed internet access from any location without residential fiber installation.

Looking ahead: The accessibility of mobile hot spots, available via cellphone or USB dongle, enables new customers to experience the value of an essential service and could lead to a more significant broadband investment in the future.

Aiding healthcare workers

From walk-in clinics and pharmacies to major hospitals and research labs, the global pandemic has affected healthcare services in a profound way. Hospitals overrun with COVID-19 patients were forced to establish temporary care centers at other locations.

Immediate impact: In New York and California, the U.S. government dispatched two U.S. Navy ships to augment stressed medical facilities. In both cases, ISPs worked quickly with naval engineers to establish a high-speed ethernet connection from the ships to the Defense Information System Agency’s (DISA) private network.
Elsewhere, ISPs have worked with public healthcare organizations to establish data access at temporary medical facilities. Doing so has not only provided support to healthcare workers on the front lines, but has also helped patients receive timely and life-saving medical care.

Looking ahead: Some ISPs developed pandemic plans more than a decade ago, which took infrastructure into account. Because ISPs laid millions of fiber miles, it’s easier to quickly establish service at a moment’s notice, whether through fiber or mobile hotspot, ensuring ISPs can meet the needs of healthcare services whenever the next major crisis occurs.

Moving forward in the “new normal”

ISPs have risen to the challenge and helped customers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and have started adapting to “new norms” created by the crisis. However, the full impact of these challenges remains unclear.

For example, will telecommuting become more a rule and less an exception? Doing so would save companies money on facility maintenance, but it would also require ISPs to evaluate their systems to meet higher data demands.

Also, it’s important for ISPs to determine where fiber to the home (FTTH) and fiber to the premises (FTTP) will be needed most in the future. They will also need to review where to invest to remove bottlenecks and vulnerabilities. Improved connectivity and reliability will not only lead to greater economic prosperity for developing countries but will also open doors to new educational opportunities.

The end result would be one world, truly connected and better prepared to take on the next global crisis.

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