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WEX, a financial technology services firm in Portland, on Friday became one of the first companies in Maine to tell its employees to work from home if they can to help slow the spread of the new coronavirus.
If the home transition goes according to plan, by March 20 some 1,500 workers in Maine and close to 5,000 worldwide will be using the internet from home to do everything from emailing to streaming to participating in videoconferences.
With businesses, schools and colleges going into lockdown nationwide and in Maine, internet use from home is poised to increase dramatically in the coming days and weeks.
How will Maine’s broadband infrastructure, which lags in rural areas, handle the influx?
“We are going to find out,” said Fletcher Kittredge, CEO of GWI, a Biddeford-based fiber-optic internet company. “The last time this happened was pre-internet, the 1918 influenza pandemic, so we are in uncharted territory.”
Kittredge said his company is in “code red,” with all employees working from home.
Daytime residential internet use could increase 50 percent or more, said Mike Forcillo, executive vice president of Redzone Wireless, a Rockland-based wireless internet service company. Use from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., which is the peak time for home users, likely will stay the same.
Internet experts said service quality and availability will depend largely on what type of internet service a household has.
“Companies asking those who can to work from home to do so during this time will certainly highlight the inadequacy of connections to many locations in Maine,” said Peggy Schaffer, director of the ConnectME Authority, a quasi-state organization with the mission of expanding internet access. “Getting by with slow internet work might work if you are using it occasionally, but not if you, your kids and your partner all need to get on at the same time.”
GWI’s Kittredge said traffic congestion could cause bad or no service. Consumers get internet access via cable, DSL, which is a high-speed network using traditional phone wiring, or fiber. Each has a different amount of sharing, or people using it.
“The more sharing there is, the more likely there will be congestion,” he said. “For DSL in particular, but also cable, the big problem is going to be sharing the link at a household level. There is not enough bandwidth for two kids to be streaming and parents working remotely.”
Kittredge said GWI already is seeing congestion issues with its own staff connecting via cable. Another potential bottleneck for cable is that neighborhoods share bandwidth, he said, and at peak times there may not be enough available space for everyone to use the internet.
Schaffer said she cannot say for sure where and when there will be internet backups in Maine, but people using DSL or old cable could experience delays, especially at peak usage times.
“Lots of our infrastructure is 30-plus years old. If people have subpar speeds prior to today they won’t be fixed, meaning not all people will have the access they need,” she said. “Some 85,000 people are underserved in Maine.”
ConnectME has defined at least 25 megabits per second download and 3 mbps upload speeds as acceptable in Maine. Anything below those speeds is considered “underserved.”
Some 11 percent of Maine’s population is underserved, according to broadbandnow.com, an internet service search website.
Piscataquis and Franklin counties had the greatest reported shortages, with more than half their households lacking access to those speeds. There are also sizable shortages in Somerset, Waldo, Aroostook and Washington counties.
The governor and lawmakers want to expand broadband in the state, but they still haven’t agreed on how to fund it. Giving all Mainers access to broadband internet could cost $1 billion, according to ConnectME.
“What [the coronavirus] highlights is the digital divide that is very real in Maine,” Schaffer said. “Those without the ability to connect or with slow connections will struggle.”
At the same time internet connections shift to the home, offices and schools will have less internet traffic, to some degree balancing the spike in residential use, experts said. So, too, can shifts in the types of content passing through the internet.
“The virtual blackout of national live sporting events could equate to reduced live TV streaming and replaced by more non-live content streaming, which reduces the burden on the network infrastructure,” said Red Zone’s Forcillo.
During the coronavirus outbreak, many internet and wireless companies said they will not disconnect customers who cannot pay their bills. Sprint, Verizon, AT&T, U.S. Cellular, Sprint, Spectrum and Comcast are among the companies that have signed the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s “Keep Americans Connected Pledge.”
The internet shift already is playing out worldwide. Cloudflare, an internet solutions company, is among those tracking spikes in use in areas hard-hit by the virus including South Korea, Italy and Seattle.
“These decisions by businesses and schools increase their reliance on data networks that provide video streaming and collaboration,” according to the publication Data Center Frontier. “Network operations firm Kentik said it has ‘seen roughly a 200 percent increase in video conferencing during working hours’ in North America and Asia amid the coronavirus spread.”
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