Broadband’s big moment

Chris Ainesworth, an ImOn Communications OSP construction technician, splices two strands of fiber optic cable together in a splice trailer as ImOn expanded its fiber network in Cedar Rapids’ Bowman Woods area in 2019. The rapid expansion of fiber networks in recent years has helped internet providers handle the surge of data traffic during the pandemic. PHOTO IMON COMMUNICATIONS

By Dave DeWitte

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about many things that were once considered unthinkable. Fortunately for house-bound community members, what hasn’t occurred is a breakdown in home broadband service.

Customers are relying on broadband to take online classes, work from home, make telehealth visits and even to sign up for unemployment benefits. Meanwhile, with few entertainment options available, they’re also accelerating their consumption of social media, entertainment download and online games.

Data traffic on the broadband networks operated by Iowa’s cable TV companies rose 31% between March 1 and April 4, according to the National Cable Television Association. That finding is based on a survey of the NCTA’s Iowa cable TV company members that provide internet service.

The Corridor’s big three internet service providers – Mediacom, ImOn Communications and South Slope Cooperative Communications – say their networks have been up to the task of handling all that data. Keeping their networks from bogging down has only been part of the challenge, however.

The ISPs have been signing up new internet customers, upgrading some customers to higher-speed data plans, and handling an unexpectedly high volume of orders for phone service.

At North Liberty-based South Slope, March brought an 80% jump in orders for fiber-optic installations, and a 256% jump in requests for service upgrades, according to CEO Chuck Deisbeck. Demand for the company’s managed Wi-Fi home network product doubled from February, and requests for telephone feature upgrades rose 75%.

Business has been great – or has it? Mr. Deisbeck has mixed feelings.

“It’s bittersweet,” he said, “because we do have our employees out there more exposed than people in other industries.”

ImOn, like South Slope, saw “a bit of a sales surge” in March as residential customers got set up to work from home, said Vice President of Marketing Lisa Rhatigan. Some business customers also upgraded their internet service because they plan to do more of their business online instead of face to face.

Demand for the fastest internet packages the ISPs are offering, such as the 1 Gbps speeds typically available for available for $130/month or more hasn’t soared, providers say. Most customers upgrading are going from basic to intermediate speed packages.

Data traffic on the networks of Iowa’s major cable TV companies has surged since the COVID-19 crisis forced many Iowans to work from home, with upstream traffic growing by 36%, from March 1 to April 11. SOURCE NCTA

The daily pattern of data usage peaks and valleys has also changed at all three providers since the pandemic hit.

“Peak times for internet use are no longer occurring within a narrow band of evening hours,” said Mediacom spokeswoman Phyllis Peters. “They have shifted more toward mid-day, and smaller peaks at more times of the day – but that’s okay because our network is engineered for the peaks.”

For Mediacom, the work-from-home trend hasn’t really been the big driver of bandwidth that it might appear to be. Ms. Peters explained that Mediacom already serves many businesses, and its network is simply seeing that demand shift from business to household accounts. Mediacom does, however, see one significant new source of demand: Wi-Fi-originated cellular data traffic.

No longer using data on their phone at the ballpark or their child’s soccer game, people are instead at home, where their cell phones are linked into a home Wi-Fi network that sends the traffic onto Mediacom’s fiber optic network.

“So instead of internet traffic going to the cell phone tower before dropping onto a backbone network, Wi-Fi-connected devices are going directly into our Mediacom network,” Ms. Peters said. “Our network is supporting more devices because people are all doing things in their homes instead of out across the community and on campuses everywhere.”

But will they pay?

The increased reliance on broadband hasn’t been all gravy for internet service providers.

Those companies were recently asked by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai to pledge that they will not disconnect customers for missed payments for a two-month period because of the critical need for broadband service during the pandemic.

More than 700 companies, including ImOn and Mediacom, have done so, many of them without promoting it, because they don’t want customers who actually could afford to pay their bills take advantage of the situation.

Mediacom has been among the companies promoting its outreach during the crisis. The New Jersey-based company announced on March 16 that it was lifting monthly data caps for internet service customers through May 15, and that new customers who sign for its Mediacom Access Internet 60 broadband service can do so for $19.99 per month, rather than $29.99. In addition, Mediacom raised the speeds for its budget-priced Connect2Compete service from 10Mbps downloads/1Mbps uploads, to 25Mbps down/3Mbps up. It also made all its Wi-Fi hotspots free to the public for 60 days.

Revenue shortfalls could be coming at a bad time for broadband providers, because many are facing extra expenses to meet the demand for bandwidth and keep services running in the face of health concerns.

“We’re in the same boat as everybody else,” said Ms. Rhatigan, noting that some businesses that have temporarily closed due to social distancing restrictions have cut back or canceled internet service to save money. She said ImOn is honoring its pledge not to disconnect customers, without fanfare. ImOn does not have data caps on its internet service, and so didn’t have any to lift, she added.

South Slope did not sign the pledge, Mr. Deisbeck said, but has suspended late charges and is working on an individual basis with customers who can’t pay their bills but have a genuine need to keep their service intact. It also does not cap internet data usage.

With schools, public facilities and retail outlets closed, there are more reasons than ever why Iowans feel they need good broadband service.

ImOn realizes this, Ms. Rhatigan said, and is promoting its free downtown Wi-Fi service in Cedar Rapids, Hiawatha and Iowa City as a communications lifeline for those who don’t have internet service at home, and now can’t get it through work or school.

Non-subscribers can go to specific locations to access the internet in their vehicle or outdoors on benches or picnic tables, Ms. Rhatigan said. The list of ImOn Wi-Fi spots was expanded on April 14 to include Greene Square in downtown Cedar Rapids and the Ladd Library at 3750 Williams Blvd. SW, Cedar Rapids.

The new ImOn Wi-Fi spots were added to a list that already included the Ped Mall in Iowa City, McGrath Amphitheater and NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids, and Hiawatha’s Tucker, Clark and Tucker parks.

Data centers are humming

Corridor data center operators have also played a big role in connecting businesses and their customers during the pandemic. The data centers host servers that run cloud services used by the customers of its clients, and sometimes their employees.

Involta CEO Bruce Lehrman said the company has seen some growth in demand for data center capacity. It is expanding facilities in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and hiring additional staff.

Much of Involta’s activity has been in helping to reconfigure customer networks to enable staff to work from home. The CIO of one large health care customer has just completed a three-week project to ensure that 90,000 employees can work remotely, Mr. Lehrman said.

Whether clients will invest in other projects for longer-term shifts in social and work connections is another question.

“It’s still a little early,” Mr. Lehrman said. “People are still getting used to this new environment, trying to figure out how they’re going to operate their business and the impact it will have.”

In the health care industry, for instance, non-essential IT projects are being reprioritized.

“They’re working on how to best staff their hospitals, technology-wise, to address the apex of the COVID-19 cases,” Mr. Lehrman said, mentioning telehealth services as one area of interest. “They’re not thinking about expanding into new services they were talking about a month ago. They’re asking us to help them with what their most urgent challenges are.”

Enseva, which has a fiber network and data center in Hiawatha, has been busy. Demand has increased for cloud resources that are being allocated toward virtual desktop environments that allow individuals to work from home. Chief Technology Officer Chris Sevey said more companies are putting resources for remote workers on the cloud because it avoids many of the security risks of using their personal PCs or complicated virtual private network (VPN) clients to access corporate IT resources.

“Enseva has witnessed a number of clients that have expedited installation of additional cloud capacity as a result of capacity constraints on their existing infrastructure,” Mr. Sevey said. Traffic on Enseva’s network during normal business hours has been nearly double what it was four weeks earlier, before the pandemic arrived.

Enseva placed orders for large quantities of servers and data storage equipment to expand its cloud capacity shortly after the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in the United States, he noted, partly because it was concerned about supply chain disruptions in Asia affecting equipment manufacturers.

All the equipment has arrived, and “thus far we have no issues accommodating the increased demands we are seeing from our cloud clients,” Mr. Sevey said.

Whether the COVID-19 pandemic creates a lasting change in business IT usage remains to be seen. Mr. Lehrman, among others, is betting on it.

“I personally believe there’s some percentage of the population that is now working from home that will remain working from home or will have the option of working from home,” he said. “There will be dramatic impacts from that.”

Moreover, Mr. Lehrman believes the crisis will cause a long-term shift in where organizations prioritize their investments. With limited resources and big challenges to face, the best answer for them in many cases will be to outsource what they don’t do well, he said, and that could be good for service providers like data centers.   CBJ