Minnesota’s top internet service providers said they are ready for more telecommuting around the state.
The data demand by the hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans suddenly working at home is unlikely to top the demand they place on their internet service when they are watching streaming video at other times of the day, executives and engineers at internet providers said.
Data networks become constrained when people are all at once watching lots of video, which is represented by far more bits of data than the e-mail and text messages that are most commonly exchanged for office work.
“It’s when there’s big events like the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards” that networks become busy, said Travis Carter, CEO of Minnesota-based service provider USInternet.
“The worst of them all was the ‘Game of Thrones’ season finale,” he said, referring to the popular HBO show that ended last spring. “So a little bit of telecommuting? Nah, nothing to it.”
As confirmed cases of coronavirus soar across the country, employers are increasingly encouraging employees to work from home if they can. To make telecommuting work, the hurdle for businesses won’t be the internet itself but rather the tools they use with workers’ computers and their own back-end systems, service providers said.
“The internet itself is a network of networks and it’s built for these types of scenarios,” said Comcast’s Xfinity spokesperson Joel Shadle.
Last week, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai called on internet service providers across the country to open Wi-Fi hot spots, avoid terminating services for customers and waive late fees with many providers. He told the internet firms to honor a “Keep Americans Connected Pledge.”
Philadelphia-based Comcast, which provides internet through Xfinity, announced on Friday that for 60 days it will provide free Wi-Fi hot spots around the country, unlimited data to customers and no disconnects or late fees. The company also is allowing new customers, including low-income families, to sign up for a free “internet Essentials” plan for 60 days.
Others, like competing provider CenturyLink, said they will also waive fees, not terminate service for no payment and not cap data usage.
The internet executives said that tools for connecting, like individual businesses’ use of cloud-based servers or apps, pose the main challenge in this period when widespread telecommuting is getting set up.
“The network service we deliver is part of the equation. But there’s other factors involved,” Shadle said.
Minneapolis-based architecture and design firm Studio M Architects moved to telecommuting on Monday.
Its principal, Adam Meyer, said migrating its data onto its cloud-based server took awhile, but after that, it was smooth.
Lisa Hirst-Carnes, co-founder of marketing agency ArcStone Technologies, said ArcStone’s office started telecommuting on Thursday and has tried to make video conferencing similar to normal work life. Employees are even thinking about having virtual happy hours.
“It’s nice to be able to see people’s faces and check in with people, of course,” she said.
Security, like easy Wi-Fi passwords or confidential information being accessed from a personal computer, may also be an issue for businesses, said Peter Durand, chief technology officer for Imagine IT Inc., an information-technology company that assists about 175 small businesses in the Twin Cities.
In a business network, the IT has pretty good control over the environment, [but] when you allow people to work from home, you lose control over a couple things,” he said.
On Monday, the first day when many Minnesotans started working from home because of COVID-19, data usage was about two times a normal day on USInternet’s system, Carter said. During the “Game of Thrones” finale last year, it was 10 times normal.
“If they can handle ‘Game of Thrones,’ they can easily handle COVID-19,” he said.
Caitlin Anderson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.