Residential internet usage in Maine surged last month as more families worked and studied from home, but providers say they have the capacity to meet demand and at least part of the increase was offset by a drop in workplace usage.
Maine’s increase in home bandwidth consumption in March mirrored a national trend. Peak home usage also shifted temporally, with the busiest times moving up from early evening to afternoon.
The changes are another effect of shelter-in-place policies, with children at home instead of in school during the day, and the majority of adults working from home – a trend that grew as the month wore on. Most Maine schools shifted to remote learning by mid-March, and businesses began implementing work-at-home policies about a week earlier. By the end of March, most businesses that could still function with a home-based workforce had made the transition.
The policy of sheltering at home is expected to last at least through April, and potentially much longer.
Mainers increased their upstream bandwidth consumption – sending data – at a higher rate than nationally in March, as more people left their schools and offices behind and took to home computers for study and work. Upstream data increased by 37.4 percent in Maine last month, compared with a national increase of 27.3 percent, according to the trade group NCTA – The Internet & Television Association.
Downstream bandwidth consumption – receiving data – increased by 19.1 percent in Maine last month compared with prior use, NCTA said. Nationally, downstream consumption increased by 20.1 percent.
Internet service provider Redzone Wireless said data consumption by its Maine customers increased by 43 percent in the last two weeks of March compared with the first half of the month. The biggest increase was in daytime use, which shot up 60 percent during the latter half of the month, the company said.
Redzone was able to handle the growth in usage because it doubled the capacity of its fiber-optic circuits at the beginning of March, company spokesman Michael Forcillo said. It also added more connection sites during 2019, expanding its footprint, he said.
The peak usage time for residential internet customers had been between 6 and 9 p.m., but that peak has shifted to the afternoon, said Fletcher Kittredge, chief executive of GWI, an internet service provider based in Biddeford.
Kittredge said his company and other providers in Maine have the capacity to handle the increased residential demand, which has been partially offset by reduced demand from commercial customers as businesses have shut down their offices to reduce person-to-person contact.
If users are experiencing slowdowns in their networks from home, it’s likely due to heavier-than-normal daytime usage by neighbors, rather than a slowdown in overall capacity, he said. Residential areas often have networks that share bandwidth among neighbors and are built for lower capacity, geared toward downstream usage instead of upstream.
Cable TV and internet service provider Charter Communications, which operates under the Spectrum brand, said it can handle increased online traffic. Spectrum is the leading internet service provider in Maine.
“Our networks are built to exceed maximum capacity,” said company spokeswoman Lara Pritchard.
Daytime internet usage by Spectrum customers has increased, particularly in areas where the coronavirus pandemic has led to a wide-scale shutdown of businesses and schools, but the levels are still “well below capacity,” she said.
At GWI, there was a “relatively minimal increase” in overall traffic of about 5 percent from the beginning of the year through the end of March, said Chris Whelan, director of network engineering for the company.
“As the workforce shifted from corporate to home office, their usage did not change – the network load simply shifted to the residential network,” Whelan said.
Traffic to Netflix, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple jumped, he said, both during peak periods and overall. Traffic to those sites remains heaviest between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., suggesting that users are putting off personal pursuits and online shopping until after typical workday hours.
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