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While roadway congestion has dwindled over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, traffic on Eastern Iowa's digital highways has hummed along without too huge of an increase - but with several key changes.
The influx of area residents working from home, taking online classes and holding Zoom conferences as well as happy hours has not yet strained the networks of ImOn Communications or South Slope Cooperative, representatives said.
Those digital activities have, however, disrupted previously predictable peak internet usage patterns among customers.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, ImOn used to see peak usage in the early evening, when customers tended to return home from work, said Lisa Rhatigan, the company's vice president of marketing.
Now, peak use periods take place on and off each day, and over longer periods, she said.
South Slope CEO Chuck Deisbeck said his cooperative typically sees bandwidth use spikes between 6 and 11 p.m. - after work and school hours - as customers begin using Netflix and other streaming services.
Now, he said, there's more of a steady stream of usage between 7 a.m. and midnight.
'I'm not sure that we're seeing a distinct pattern anymore,” Rhatigan said. 'Whereas it used to be we could always predict that the evenings would be the peak (for use), it's a little more all over the place now.”
Bandwidth use recently has increased across ImOn's more than 20 hubs across Cedar Rapids, Marion and Hiawatha, but not beyond capacity, Rhatigan said.
Cloudflare, a global internet infrastructure provider, estimated in March that U.S. internet traffic has grown between 10 percent and 20 percent since the first week of February.
Broadband speed testing service Ookla noted the average time to download videos, emails and documents increased across the United States the week of March 20, as more state leaders began instituting stay-at-home orders.
Fixed and mobile speeds decreased 5 percent and 3 percent, respectively, the week of April 6 compared to that of March 2, the service found.
ImOn still experiences occasional short-lived outages but these, Rhatigan said, are unrelated to the increase in people online, and are instead regular service impacts that customers might have noticed for the first time working remotely rather than at an office.
'Now, it's just so important that we're even more hyper-viligent than we normally are,” she said. 'We're taking (bandwidth use) very seriously and watching it very closely.”
At South Slope, the pandemic has resulted in steep increases in new customers as well as existing ones upgrading service.
Deisbeck said in March South Slope saw a 70 percent to 80 percent uptick in new internet connections, plus an approximately 260 percent increase in service upgrades, including to internet speed or package contents.
There also have been 'large” surges in the number of customers signing up both for television and landline phone service, he said.
Why landlines? Some customers, Deisbeck said, have found landline service allows for easier conference calls when compared to cell service.
In other, more rural parts of Iowa, however, the pandemic has brought into starker contrast the divide between Iowans who can and cannot access broadband or high-speed internet - defined by the Federal Communications Commission as defined as 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 megabits to upload.
Nationwide, 18 million Americans lack broadband access, according to February data from FCC.
The latest information from BroadbandNow, an organization that collects and analyzes internet provider coverage and availability, ranks Iowa near the bottom - 45th - in terms of access to broadband among U.S. states, factoring in low-price plans, wired broadband coverage and friendliness to broadband competition.
With an average statewide speed of 38 Mbps, 89.7 percent of Iowans have access to wired broadband 25 megabits per second or faster.
'It's difficult for providers to expand the geographic scope of their service to a wide amount because of staff shortages and quarantining,” said Dave Duncan, CEO of the Iowa Communications Alliance, which represents 120 Iowa-based broadband providers.
To counteract this, he said, some schools and broadband companies have partnered to ensure students still can complete lessons from home. For example, a school might identify unconnected houses and pay for modems that providers will hook up to supply service.
More than 60 internet service providers - including ImOn, AT&T, Comcast, Mediacom and Verizon - have signed on to the FCC's Keep Americans Connected pledge, committing not to disconnect or charge late fees to residential or small business customers who, as a result of COVID-19, cannot pay their monthly bills.
Other smaller providers, including South Slope, did not sign but said it would work case by case with customers struggling to pay during the outbreak.
”When you're an Iowa-based provider, you know your customers, so they prefer to work individually with people rather than follow an FCC pledge,” Duncan said.
The longer the pandemic continues, Duncan said, the more that internet providers, especially those already operating on a thin profit margin, could struggle to balance these accommodations with the need to generate revenue and keep their lights on.
'Our companies need to have some cash flow to keep the networks up and running fast and well,” he said. 'If the stay-at-home orders go on and on and on, and large chunks of the Iowa population are not working and are not able to pay their broadband bill, that will have a negative impact on the providers' ability to continue to offer service.
'But we're not there yet,” he added.
Deisbeck, with South Slope, said another potential challenge he intends to watch over the next 30 to 60 days involves residential customers reducing or discontinuing service after getting laid off or furloughed, plus business customers permanently closing.
That twofold impact would have a 'trickle-down effect” on revenue for internet service providers such as South Slope, he said.
'That's what we see as our biggest challenge, what (COVID-19) is going to do to the economy and our local communities that are going to be struggling as we work through this pandemic,” Deisbeck said.
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