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CenturyLink, Comcast suspend internet data cap during coronavirus crisis

Area internet service providers say their networks are ready for heavy home use during COVID-19 containment. “The network is built for this,” Comcast says.

The Comcast Technology Solutions office in Denver's Ballpark neighborhood on Nov. 18, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)
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This story was updated at 5:20 p.m. after Comcast announced it would also pause its data cap on internet use.

CenturyLink is suspending its data cap on internet usage for customers, who are increasingly finding themselves hunkering down at home as schools temporarily close and workers move online to prevent the spread of the contagious coronavirus.

Colorado’s other large broadband provider, Comcast, was “assessing the situation literally hourly,” spokesman Joel Shadle said Friday. By late afternoon, the company announced it is “pausing” the data cap for 60 days.

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Internet use is expected to increase as more states issue emergency warnings and promote prevention by asking people to stay home. The two largest residential internet services in Colorado said their networks can handle any additional load and so far haven’t seen any issues. CenturyLink said it’s using “a combination of smart technologies and human expertise” to add capacity on the fly as customer demand surges.

“However, we know how quickly things can change,” Stephanie Meisse, a CenturyLink spokeswoman, said in an email. “Our Network Operations Center is constantly monitoring usage across our network.” 

Comcast’s broadband network sees the most activity in the evenings during primetime hours, when the most people are at home streaming TV, playing online games or pursuing other internet-heavy activities, Shadle said. With more people online in the daytime, the capacity is no different than during primetime when “everyone’s at home anyway,” he said. Comcast has already seen this in Seattle, where coronavirus cases first exploded in the U.S.

“The network is built for this,” he said. “We work every day, and we have for many years to ensure that our network has enough capacity to handle all the things that our customers use it for, and that’s some data intensive stuff like streaming 4K video or downloading big game files.”

Gov. Jared Polis, who’s a gamer, acknowledged the importance of the internet in upcoming weeks if people are stuck at home under quarantine. They need something to do.

“I know it’s tiresome. I know it’s difficult. But when you test positive or your test is pending you do need to stay isolated for up to 14 days,” Polis said during a press conference on Friday.

He added that he’s also talking to Comcast, which is waiving the monthly $9.95 fee for its discount broadband service for new customers for 60 days. Comcast’s Internet Essentials — available college students on Pell grants, children on the National School Lunch Program and others on federal assistance — also got a speed boost to 25 mbps.

“We’re working with them on trying to expand entertainment options for people who are under an isolation order,” Polis said. “I get it. You may be bored out of your mind. You need to stay home. We’re going to try to expand your entertainment options — everything else you need — but we have to protect our most vulnerable populations and slow the spread.”

On Friday, Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, started a “Keep Americans Connected Pledge,” to encourage internet providers to keep the networks available to Americans.

It asked that companies refrain from terminating internet service for residential or small business customers for 60 days and waive any late fees linked to the coronavirus. And companies that provide Wi-Fi hotspots should open them up to “any American who needs them.”

CenturyLink, Charter, Comcast and several other companies told Pai they would agree to the pledge.

A failing internet has been a cause of concern since the coronavirus showed up in China and residents were stuck at home. David Belson, senior director of internet research and analysis at the Internet Society, a nonprofit that advises on internet standards, wrote in February that he doesn’t believe rapid traffic growth will cause catastrophic failure.

“Core internet infrastructure providers should be able to easily absorb the increase in traffic and demand, especially if the growth is gradual over a period of days, weeks, or months,” he wrote. “Cloud infrastructure providers should also have sufficient additional (computer), storage, and bandwidth capacity to enable their customers, including the e-learning, messaging and videoconferencing tool providers, to scale their systems as necessary.”

The weakest point are the tools if they weren’t built to handle the traffic spikes, Belson said. Consumers might experience this when they can’t reach a website because there’s so many other people trying to reach it, which happened in China when a server for one of China’s largest online video platforms, iQiyi, crashed.

READ: Coronavirus coverage from The Colorado Sun

Or when video conferencing tools stutter and stop. Companies remain proactive in letting customers know about issues. Popular video-conferencing tool Zoom, which on Friday suspended the 40-minute meeting limit for schools with free basic accounts, notified other basic users that “increased demand” could temporarily affect their conferencing capabilities.

Shadle said that if the internet seems slow, customers should reboot equipment, use wired connections or make sure their wireless router or other hardware is strategically placed in the house. They should move equipment to areas in the home where the internet is most used. There are also Wi-Fi extenders to increase the distance of the wireless signal. Comcast offers some tips on its site about improving internet performance.

But it’s the data cap that customers may worry about. Both companies cap data use to 1 terabyte a month for residential broadband users. Customers are mostly in urban areas, but  CenturyLink serves a large swath of the more remote parts of the state, including where many COVID-19 cases have been identified. 

“We recognize that high-speed internet service plays a crucial role in the everyday lives of our customers,” said Meisse, with CenturyLink. “In light of COVID-19, we are suspending our data usage limits at this time.”

CenturyLink is also waiving late fees and said it won’t terminate a customer’s service for the next 60 days if there’s a financial circumstance associated with the virus. 

Comcast said, 1 terabyte of data is equivalent to streaming 600-700 hours of HD video, or streaming video non-stop for 29 days a month on one device. Add in multiple users in the home, though, and customers will hit their data cap faster. Customers who hit the limit are charged $10 for each additional 50GBs.

Shadle said customers use a median of about 220 gigabytes, or one-fifth of the max, per month. By eliminating the data cap for 60 days, Comcast said that customers won’t be charged if they use more than 1 TB of data. The company also made its national Wi-Fi networks free to anyone (look for the “xfinitywifi” network name) and will suspend late fees or disconnects for customers who can’t pay their bills.

“We are looking at all facets of our business,” Shadle added. “We’re going to do right by our customers and make sure that in this uncertain time and time of change, we’re going to do right by them.”

Reporter Jesse Paul contributed to this story.

This story was updated to include the Keep Americans Connected Pledge from the Federal Communications Commission and Comcast’s decision to remove data caps and comments from Jared Polis.

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