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Internet traffic spikes as Sonoma County stays home to slow spread of coronavirus

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With tens of millions of people stuck at home in coronavirus lockdown, what do we all do? Go on the internet — for simple things like email and Facebook to keep in touch, but also now videoconferencing for work and distance-learning for students. And, more than usual, streaming movies and playing video games.

All of that has added an extra burden to the fiber optic, copper, cable and Wi-Fi infrastructure that brings connectivity into our homes.

Residents in some cities have reported slower internet speeds in the past two weeks as cities, counties and states across the United States have ordered people to stay home to stem the spread of COVID-19.

But all three major internet service providers in Sonoma County — Sonic, Comcast and AT&T — say their networks are meeting the higher demand. There haven’t been widespread complaints in Sonoma County.

Sonic’s network traffic increased 25 percent after the county health officer issued a shelter-in-place order in Sonoma County last week, Sonic chief executive officer Dane Jasper said.

“That happened over the span of basically a day and a half,” he said. “It was a huge leap all at once.”

But not unprecedented. Internet use can swing widely based on what’s happening in the outside world, like when a major video game is released or an event like the Super Bowl is streaming.

Sonic has always handled those upswings, Jasper said.

As the prospect of almost every Sonoma County resident restructuring their lives to work or learn from home was becoming more real, Jasper accelerated several network upgrades Sonic already had planned.

“It was a big rush last week,” he said. “These are things we wanted done in three, six, 12 months. But we said we better get them done sooner rather than later.

“We didn’t have any congestion. We just wanted to stay ahead of what we’d see as a big increase.”

Comcast/Xfinity said its network, too, is engineered to withstand heavy traffic spikes.

“We are managing capacity, studying the network closely,” said Joan Hammel, a local Comcast spokeswoman. “We have both regional and national centers that monitor network performance 24/7.”

So far, the company’s network has seen a shift in some usage patterns, but the overall peaks are still well within network capability, she said.

AT&T said in a statement that its “network continues to perform well during the coronavirus pandemic.” The company said it continuously analyzes network statistics, looking for trends, performance and capacity issues.

On Monday, for example, AT&T’s network traffic, which includes business, home broadband and wireless use, was up 27 percent from normal. Wireless voice minutes were up 39 percent, Wi-Fi calling minutes were up 78 percent and home voice calling minutes were up 45 percent.

Jasper, co-founder of the Sonoma County-based Sonic, said the typical peak of network downloading has been 9 to 10 p.m., when people are streaming Netflix and other video.

“There was so much extra capacity because we had to build capacity for everyone streaming HD and 4k TV at night,” he said. “So now, using (videoconferencing app) Zoom and kids watching video for school is really small by comparison. The daytime utilization also went up by a quarter, but it was always half of what nighttime was anyway.”

The peak of the outbound use — sending email, uploading photos, video calls — has moved into the daytime with home workers and distance learners. But, Jasper said, it is still “well within” Sonic’s capacity.

For more stories on the coronavirus, go here.

Fiber networks have the ability to absorb higher usage better than DSL or cable networks. Cable customers may see slower speeds now because an entire neighborhood may be on the same network freeway at the same time, causing a traffic congestion.

All three internet service providers operating in Sonoma County are offering bonuses to help customers during these uncertain financial times.

Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspots will be available for free, even for non-Xfinity internet customers. Data plan limits are being paused for 60 days, although the company said the vast majority of customers do not come close to using 1TB of data in a month.

AT&T will also keep its public Wi-Fi hotspots open for anyone and pledged not to terminate the service of anyone who is unable to pay their bill due to coronavirus disruptions. It will also waive late payment fees incurred because of economic hardship related to the pandemic. The company announced Wednesday that it will waive overage charges for covering data, voice or texts on domestic wireless plans.

During the outbreak, Sonic is offering new customers effected by the pandemic three months of free internet access and unlimited nationwide home telephone service to households with K-12 or college students, and for senior citizens 60 or older. Existing customers are able to request billing deferral if they are suffering because of the pandemic.

Based on location, Sonic’s fiber-optic network offers upload and download speeds of up to 1Gbps or 50Mbps or its copper network. Sonic has no data caps.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

The Press Democrat wants to know what stories you see emerging and what you’re experiencing locally during the shelter-in-place order. Reach out to us at coronavirus@pressdemocrat.com.

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