Are broadband providers ready for coronavirus telecommute, remote work surge?

Federal Communications Commission pushed providers this week to sign a “Keep Americans Connected” pledge

As more U.S. companies require their employees to work remotely due to health concerns related to the spread of coronavirus, broadband firms are adamant that they are equipped to handle the increased demand and keep workers connected

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Apple, Amazon and Google are just a few of the major companies to embrace telecommuting in recent days as a way to maintain productivity and keep workers safe during the worsening pandemic. But the expected surge in traffic has raised questions about whether internet service providers can keep WiFi connections intact, especially as the public seeks out fresh updates on coronavirus.

“Broadband providers are laser-focused on making sure the innovative networks they built and manage are ready to accommodate a prolonged reliance on telework, distance learning and other forms of high bandwidth remote communications,” USTelecom, a trade association with members including AT&T and Verizon, said in a letter to Congress.

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Prominent service providers, including AT&T, Verizon and Comcast, have taken steps to reassure customers and government officials about their networks. Verizon said Friday that it has “not seen any measurable increase in data usage on any of its networks” since the outbreak began.

In a bid to ensure service stays intact, the Federal Communications Commission pushed providers this week to sign a “Keep Americans Connected” pledge. The FCC noted that some Americans have experienced “serious disruptions” because of the outbreak.

Dozens of companies, including AT&T, Charter, Comcast, Cox Communications, Sprint and Verizon, have agreed to the pledge. The firms agreed not to cut off service for residential or small business customers due to unpaid bills, waive late fees and open WiFi hotspots to improve connections as necessary.

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“I applaud those companies that have already taken the Keep Americans Connected Pledge,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement. “They are stepping up to the plate and taking critical steps that will make it easier for Americans to stay connected during this pandemic and maintain much-needed social distancing. I urge other companies to join them.”

In its letter to Congress, USTelecom noted that its members spent nearly $80 billion in 2018 alone on infrastructure improvements to their networks. The group noted that more than 60 percent of network usage is tied to video or content streaming, adding that its members have “sufficient capacity” to handle an influx even at peak hours.

Verizon said it would increase its capital investment guidance by $500 million in 2020 as part of its efforts.

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"While this is an unprecedented situation, we know things are changing, and we are ready to adjust network resources as we better understand any shifts in demand," Kyle Malady, Verizon’s chief technology officer, said in a statement.

Still, the increased traffic will inevitably place strain on broadband networks, according to Matt Larsen, CEO of wireless internet service provider VistaBeam.

"I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a peak demand increase of at least 50 percent from what we have now," Larsen told Axios. "You are going to see a major internet stress test in the next 60 days."

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