All This Work And School At Home May Be Slowing The Internet

Mar 26, 2020
Originally published on March 27, 2020 8:56 am

With many North Carolinians now under stay-at-home orders to keep the coronavirus from spreading, we're all relying on the internet for remote work and schooling. Dropped connections during meetings or classes are becoming more common, a sign that the internet is straining under the demand.

Internet download speeds are declining nationwide as more of us are on our devices at home, says Doug Suttles, CEO of Seattle-based Ookla, which tracks network speeds on its site

“The degradation is more real now, you know, performance is being impacted,” Suttles said. “But it's geography based as well. I can give you a national picture, but it's really more interesting when you look at it county by county or city by city.”

Mecklenburg and Guilford counties have seen speeds decline 10% this month, he says, while Wake County hasn't seen as big a drop. That's before stay-at-home orders took effect, so the picture could change. In places already under orders, like Westchester County, New York, he says speeds have fallen as much as 25%. 

Big internet providers including AT&T and Spectrum say they're managing their networks amid heavy demand, but are not seeing major problems. But Suttles says many internet providers weren't ready.   

“Of the areas that we've honed in on and researched, which are predominantly the ones that have had stay-at-home mandates, there are certain counties that clearly the ISPs, or a subset of the ISPs, weren't as ready to handle this,” he said.

One interesting side note from Suttles:  Internet speeds in business districts are actually better right now. That's because offices have been cleared out. He says that likely helps keep up average speeds in some areas. 

It Might Be The Website

In some cases, specific websites may just be overwhelmed. Suttles says videoconferencing is especially hard hit, based on data from Ookla’s site He says many companies are scrambling now to add capacity to services that weren't built to handle this much traffic. 

“With videoconferencing, there are systemic outages. We're tracking them every day on DownDetector," Suttles said. "I experienced it firsthand yesterday. I had a large meeting going on with 10 or so people and seem to go down for all of us at once.”

Amy Jordan is a Providence Day School high school science teacher, and says her online classes through Google Classroom have seen a few interruptions.

“I'm not sure if I can say it was a provider or who knows what happened." she said. "Who knows if you can't connect for five minutes? It could have been anything."

After one extended outage, she and fellow teachers joked over text messages, "We broke the Google." 

Glitchy Church Services, Too

Slowdowns in internet speeds haven’t just affected work. Many churches have been video-streaming their services online after being forced to end gatherings of more than 10 people. But it hasn’t gone smoothly. The Unitarian Universalist congregation in Charlotte faced stream glitches when their streaming provider couldn’t handle demand.

And St. Ann’s Catholic Church offered a “drive-in” service where parishioners were invited to park in the lot and stream a video feed on their phones on Facebook Live.  But it was interrupted several times.

Blame it on the network if you can, but sometimes, the problem isn't internet or website troubles. It may just be that kid upstairs streaming Netflix while you're trying to work. 

Charlotte Neal of Davidson said she is ecstatic that her college-age son is sleeping until 2 p.m. this week.

"Otherwise he would be in my space and taking my Wi-Fi when I am trying to work from home," she joked.   

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