With more working at home, pressure builds on internet service

AT&T, Comcast and EarthLink say internet speeds are holding up as more people work and study from home, but industry data says the network is starting to feel the strain. FILE PHOTO
AT&T, Comcast and EarthLink say internet speeds are holding up as more people work and study from home, but industry data says the network is starting to feel the strain. FILE PHOTO

When Wendy Murphy’s husband and daughter began working from their North Fulton County home earlier this month, the family’s internet connection got noticeably slower.

“With three of us home all day, our internet speed is horrible,” Murphy said.

Murphy is far from the only person in metro Atlanta suffering from slower internet service. As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced thousands to shift from their offices and schools to work and study at home, the pressure has built on home-based wireless internet connections.

The issue typically is not with the communications infrastructure, say representatives from metro Atlanta’s three largest internet-access providers. Instead, it’s a case of too many people logging on to a home’s Wi-Fi network at the same time.

“There are more people in the home, more devices hooked up to the network: cameras, notebooks, game consoles, digital thermostats,” said Leon Hounshell, the chief product officer at EarthLink, the third-largest internet provider in Atlanta.

“When that happens, the home Wi-Fi network is going to take the hit more than the internet backbone,” Hounshell said. “What you’re really seeing is a bunch of devices competing for that airtime in the home.”

AT&T and Comcast, the two largest providers in metro Atlanta, both said their speeds have held up under the weight of higher home usage.

Other industry sources, however, suggest that the internet superhighway is getting congested. Mean download speeds in the U.S. decreased to about 41 megabits per second during the week of March 16, compared with about 43 mbps in the previous week, according to Ookla, which makes Speedtest and other network testing applications.

In Fulton County, average download speeds declined 4.3% from a four-day period starting March 9 to the same four-day period a week later, according to Ookla. In DeKalb County, they dropped 9.8%. Gwinnett County’s average speeds fell 7.9%, Cobb County’s declined 6.6% and Clayton County’s dropped 5.7%.

Online content providers are adjusting. YouTube has reduced streaming quality to preserve bandwidth, according to Wired. Netflix has said it will limit streaming bit rates.

Schools and businesses have relied heavily on videoconferencing software, which has increased pressure on digital networks. Use of Skype, WebEx, Zoom and other remote-conferencing software rose 300% this week compared with the previous week, Bloomberg reported, citing a Nokia study.

On Friday, the Federal Communications Commission granted a rules waiver to Inteliquent, a company that carries internet traffic for WebEx and Zoom. That will make it easier for Inteliquent to provide the same services under the stress of higher traffic, the FCC said.

But AT&T and Comcast both say their networks are withstanding increased demand, though neither company offered performance details.

“AT&T’s network continues to perform well during the coronavirus pandemic,” Joe Chandler, a company spokesman, said in an emailed statement.

Comcast’s internal figures “look at lot like the weeknight peaks when so many of us are watching TV or streaming,” Alex Horwitz, a spokesman for the company, said in an emailed statement.

“Our network has been able to nicely support the shift of consumers and students now working from home,” Horwitz said.

When consumers notice internet access slowing, a few adjustments usually fix the problem, Horwitz said. Those include moving a router to the most-central location in the house, typically on the main floor instead of the top floor or basement.

Some experts recommend mesh routers, which use a different technology than Wi-Fi extenders. Mesh routers help eliminate dead spots in Wi-Fi coverage throughout a house, according to CNET.

In many cases, these steps are unnecessary, said Andre Kindness, a networking technology analyst at Forrester Research. For most people who think their home internet has slowed down, it’s a product of their imagination, he said.

“There’s a bit of a fear factor going on,” Kindness said. “The work you do at home isn’t much different from what you are doing at night, streaming videos on Netflix or YouTube.”

Don’t tell that to Murphy, whose access to the internet is through AT&T. Things have gotten progressively worse over the past week, she said, probably because her husband and daughter are on conference calls for work all day.

“My daughter gave up on our internet,” Murphy said. “She uses the Wi-Fi hot spot on her phone now.”