Shrihari Pandit knows he’ll hear from his kids if the internet connection at home is shaky.
“I’m on Zoom right now, but my kids could walk right in if they don’t have enough bandwidth and their programs are buffering, slow, or choppy,” says Pandit, the CEO of Stealth Communications, which provides fiber optic–based internet services to businesses in New York City. As the COVID-19 pandemic moved work from commercial establishments to the home, the strain on the family network intensified, he says.
The shift to working from home in the wake of pandemic-induced shutdowns—a Gallup poll found that more than half of those surveyed (51 percent) had switched to remote work in April 2020—has placed an enormous demand on residential internet connectivity and the companies that power it. Not only have work meetings moved online, so have school, gym classes, and almost all forms of entertainment, including opera and ballet.
“Normally the patterns of usage in residential service are very evening and weekend-focused,” says Alex Moulle-Berteaux, chief operating officer at Starry, a fixed wireless broadband internet service provider. “But we saw more than a tripling of usage during the day. The peaks during the day were getting close to the peaks in the evenings. Ten to 15 percent of our user base was nearing a terabyte of consumption a month, which is where cable companies start to cap the charge and the user can get dinged for that usage.”
Plume, a platform for smart home services, has observed similar patterns, tracking the growth in active home users during the day from 22.6 million before the pandemic to 42 million during, at the time of writing.
With this growth comes challenges in performance and reliability. Jay Akin, CEO of Mushroom Networks, which offers broadband bonding services for more robust connectivity, explains that latency is an issue for internet service providers.
“If my video-conference application is delivering pixelated calls, then that’s not meeting business needs,” he says. The other side of the coin, he adds, is reliability. “You may have a wonderfully performing cable modem, but if there’s a major power outage, that’s a problem for businesses too.”
Others, including Pandit, say the challenges come from the scattershot approaches many businesses’ IT departments had to cobble together as they tried to figure out how to make office intranet structures work at home.
“[Some] IT departments are starting to treat their work-from-home employees as branch offices. They’re trying to provision another connection into their homes, ideally through another provider, or get a faster connection,” Pandit says. The additional routers and wireless equipment can vary depending on each home’s needs, which makes the process more complex, leaving employees confused about how to access their business lines with new processes in place. “The biggest issue is retraining the workforce [to switch] from [a] home connection to the business broadband connection and making sure all the VPN connections are established,” he says. “There’s a whole learning curve issue there.”
While Zoom problems such as lax security made news during the pandemic’s early days, other concerns, such as increased demand making home connections sluggish for remote workers, were largely a nonissue. The internet seems to have largely survived the shift in load. The key reason: planning.
Matt Wilson, senior director of product management at Neustar, an information services and technology company that specializes in identity resolution, says the growth of high-bandwidth streaming applications, especially over the last 10 years, helped pave the way for today’s high demand. That capacity is no longer a “nice-to-have,” he says. “Network operators have to build in extra capacity to handle peak events. There are also a number of advanced network simulation tools that help operators model and predict the performance of proposed changes before they’re put into production. These same tools allow carriers to [model] what-if scenarios to understand how traffic growth and failure scenarios will affect their infrastructure.”
Advanced monitoring tools, which broadly fall into two categories—active and passive monitoring—have also helped, Wilson says. Passive monitoring using traditional network tools like Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP), Netflow, and Syslog can give operators a view into what’s happening in their networks. “This is rapidly getting surpassed by streaming telemetry, which avoids many of the common pitfalls of ‘pulling’ statistics by pushing updates off the network as they occur,” Wilson says. He’s observed that practically every network vendor has incorporated these strategies into their larger network equipment and their network management systems.
Active monitoring probes identify latency and packet loss throughout a network, Wilson notes. “Some of this is done as part of standard protocols such as Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), but it can also be implemented separately and even outside the network.” Such monitoring offers a more holistic view of the state of network and internet routing by emulating actual traffic. Combined, these tools deliver a complete view of a network’s stability and performance.
Solutions for boosting existing internet connectivity include added hardware and/or software optimization. Mushroom Networks, for example, operates on the assumption that LTE mobile connectivity is widely available in businesses and homes and can be corralled to make existing fixed-line connections stronger.
“Broadband bonding is where you can bring in multiple internet connections and combine them intelligently into a ‘fatter’ connection with a little device that’s similar to a home router. The advantage is that this is enterprise-ready,” Akin says. A secure encrypted tunnel allows remote employees to access the corporate network just like they would from their desk at the office. Bonding allows for data packets to be distributed more intelligently among shared lines, he adds.
Starry uses massive multi-user, multiple input, multiple output (MU-MIMO) technology to create a wide area network. At the network’s core are antennae and receivers that simultaneously transmit radio signals from one location to multiple specific endpoints, creating a stronger, faster wireless communication that delivers high-capacity internet access to the home. MU-MIMO technology is also used to help home Wi-Fi routers connect to multiple devices at the same time. With this directed point-to-multipoint communication on a wide area network, devices can share available bandwidth equally instead of having to queue up for internet service.
Building bigger and more hardware is one approach, but it need not be the only solution to more robust internet connectivity, says Bill McFarland, Plume’s chief technology officer. Plume shifts the complexity of a distributed Wi-Fi approach from hardware to software. It optimizes the configuration of the Plume mesh network, modulating it daily according to a long list of environmental conditions, including home internet traffic.
Plume uses a set of pods that consumers scatter around the home to create a mesh network. The pods relay environmental data between different devices, including signal strength, access points, traffic load, and interference on frequency channels. Plume moves this information to cloud-based software that optimizes the configuration of the network based on these conditions. “The cloud tells these devices, ‘You should connect to that access point on this frequency channel,’” McFarland says. Plume also uses machine learning algorithms to study usage patterns over time, intelligently predict what they might look like the following day, and optimize the configuration accordingly.
“The user doesn’t care what my packet loss rate was. They just care about crystal-clear video communications.”
Ensuring optimized internet connectivity might be one measure of resilience, but Akin believes the true test lies in the end-user experience. “The user doesn’t care what my packet loss rate was. They just care about crystal-clear video communications,” he says.
Moulle-Berteaux sees resilience as redundancy. “We build the network so that we have dual paths to redundant backhaul. Our network macrosites always have dual paths back to a central internet hub,” he says. “We don’t want anything that’s power or connectivity-related to take the network down.”
Pandit maintains that the government also has a role to play in shaping resilience. During the pandemic, the U.S. government encouraged internet service providers to take the “Keep Americans Connected” pledge, resolving not to terminate services because of subscribers’ inability to pay, to waive late fees, and to open up more hot spots. The response to this call was encouraging but varied over the months the pledge was in effect, from March to June 2020.
While today’s internet services might have more or less supported remote tech workers in urban areas during the pandemic, larger questions loom about long-term resilience, especially if more tech workers move to rural areas. Already, workers are considering relocating from tech hubs like San Francisco and Boston: In a September 2020 Tech Domains survey, 81 percent of 500 tech employees surveyed said they were considering moving to smaller cities. Reliable internet connectivity is essential if such forecasts are to come to fruition.
To that end, Pandit says the government must take action to ensure connectivity equity not just in cities but in rural areas too. Such efforts have been stop and go in the U.S., and public sentiment isn’t exactly aligned, either: In an April 2020 Pew research poll, 62 percent of Americans surveyed said they don’t think it’s the federal government’s responsibility to ensure all Americans have a high-speed home internet connection during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, Pandit urges legislators to play a larger role in building an information highway. The Connect America Fund is portioning out as much as $16 billion to individual providers to build out broadband in rural areas, but that’s not the most efficient approach, he argues. “If you built an information highway with fiber, then you can create a [vibrant] marketplace for providers, like we had in the ’90s,” he says.
While partnerships between private enterprises and the government could be crucial to networks’ evolution, as Pandit suggests, for now, internet service providers and related business entities have to figure out how best to address connectivity issues, wherever people are and however they work. The switch to remote work in the wake of the pandemic has shaken up service providers, he says. “They may have to rethink the entire business model. The dust has not settled yet.”
The pandemic accelerated the push to remote work, and Akin predicts it’s here to stay, at least in some form. The key to making it work in the future will be automation, he says. “You cannot have an IT manager in every home. IT systems and solutions are getting smarter. You’re really taking out the human element in terms of [the] configuration, maintenance, and operations of these systems. It will become almost like a turnkey zero-touch–style solution.”
Moulle-Berteaux predicts that smart, intelligent networks will be part of our future. “The pandemic showed us where the kinks were in the old way of doing things and has allowed us [all] to build on that knowledge,” he says. “It’s been eye-opening to see where the gaps are.”