Internet access is a hot commodity in Charisse Murphy’s household. With eight people living, working and being educated and entertained under the same roof, there’s been some juggling of screen time.
“Usually, it’s a good chunk of us using the internet all day,” said the 40-year-old from Ayer.
With users ages 2 to 47, the broadband is stretched from work-from-home tasks to Zoom video conference calls with her children’s teachers to email, Bible study and beyond.
More than a year ago, the family upgraded to the highest available broadband from their provider, Charter. Now in their seventh week at home, they report not much has changed in speed or quality of service.
The largest interruption Murphy has noticed is infrequent Zoom call freezes. However, she added, “it’s nothing that’s hindered us.”
In terms of internet speed and availability, the transition to working and schooling from home for Worcester County residents and employers – not to mention internet providers – has been nearly painless.
From March 15 through April 5, median download speeds in Worcester, by week, ranged from 17.7 Mbps to 22.54, acoording to an April 15 report from database and comparison site BroadbandNow. The federal minimum for broadband download speeds is 25 Mbps. In that period, Worcester’s median upload speed range was 4.19 Mbps to 5.69 Mbps, hovering just above the federal 3 Mpbs minimum.
Explaining Murphy’s lagging feed, Tyler Cooper, editor-in-chief of BroadbandNow, said: “One person doing an HD video chat can use 75 to 90% of the 5 Mbps,” the median in Worcester, and tie up much of a home’s broadband.
One reason Worcester’s upload and download speeds are less than desired, he said, is because of “legacy technology” such as DSL or cable. “Less access to fiber can drag the numbers down even during normal times,” not to mention increased demand because of COVID-19. Residential broadband in Worcester, according to BroadbandNow, is available from Charter (cable), Verizon and EarthLink (DSL), and Viasat and HughesNet (satellite).
Given the upload and download speeds in Worcester, Cooper’s largest concern is whether the local infrastructure will hold out as long as COVID-19 social distancing regulations.
“Connections are definitely still functional and have remained that way through March.Then again, they weren’t extremely high to begin with compared to the national level,” he said. In order to innovate, he said, provider competition must be increased in the area and technology updated, as was done in Princeton.
Sherry Patch, Princeton town administrator, said the transition to fiber-optic cable in October allowed for multiple people within a residence to use the internet simultaneously and benefitedthe town “tremendously.”
She added: “Everybody is getting used to the new norm figuring out how to use Zoom and WebEx, but I don’t think there’s been any issues technologically.”
While installation of new technology is not the primary focus of many of Worcester’s providers, given the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many are working to ensure a high-quality supply.
Doing so has been a challenge for Atlanta-based EarthLink, said Leon Hounshell, chief product officer, as its system is experiencing a 30 to 35% sustained increase in demand throughout the day. Responding to service and new sales calls, he said, has been the priority since mid-March when their team began working from home. Earthlink has hired 20 to 30% more staff to help cover the interest. The company would not share the size of its employee base for comparison.
Viasat, out of Carlsbad, California, took a different route. Noting a 65% increase in demand since the pandemic hit, Evan Dixon, general manager and head of residential services for the Americas, said worldwide “demand has been at levels we’ve never seen.”
Viasat therefore chose not to prioritize streaming movie and TV services in favor of work and educational applications such as email, web use and teleconferencing.
“Any supplier of a limited, finite resource where supply is not as great as demand has to make tough choices,” he said.
Both, as well as Spectrum and Verizon, have signed the Federal Communications Commission’s Keep Americans Connected campaign calling on providers to not disconnect consumers unable to pay their bill during this economically uncertain time.
Charter too is reporting exponential use. In response it has made all Spectrum WiFi hotspots free for public use through May 15. In an effort to connect K-12 and college students learning from home with their educators, Spectrum is offering 60 free days of service to individuals without home internet who are new subscribers.
In an early April statement, Kyle Malady, chief technology officer at Verizon, said: “While usage in key categories is still up compared to a typical day, the large increases we saw over the first four weeks of this transition have started to normalize. … We may be seeing the tail end of the large variations in customer usage behaviors.”
Valerie Cohen too has hit her groove. As the rabbi at Worcester’s Temple Emanuel Sinai, she holds weekly virtual services on Friday evenings from her home in Holden.
“I knew right away we had to increase our capacity,” Cohen said. “I couldn’t have our internet freezing.”
In addition to her services, Valerie’s husband and high school- and college-aged children similarly rely on a strong internet signal to accomplish work and school tasks from home.
While she notes some “tiny little glitches” around 5 or 6 p.m., Cohen said her six virtual worship services so far have gone off without a hitch. Membership in the congregation is nearly 400 families and while 50 attended an average pre-COVID-19 service, the first of her virtual services drew 225 devices.
Cohen could not say how many individuals listened in to that first service but added that attendance has slowly declined since the March 13 event. However, she was pleasantly surprised to report the virtual nature allows for members of her previous congregation in Mississippi to join.
Steve Joseph, senior vice president of individual disability operations at Unum’s Worcester office led the transition of his 398-person team to work from home in mid-March. Joseph, who works from home except a once-a-week visit to the office, said of his staff’s internet access: “We’re not seeing very many blips in service to our clients, which is very important.”
As for a return date and procedure, he is following federal, state, and local guidelines. “We don’t have a current return-to-the-office date,” he said. “When we do, it’ll be a gradual progression.”
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