Since March, millions of people have worked from home. Now that it’s fall, millions of children are learning from home. Many of them are learning that their internet connection is not what’s depicted in the ads, where smiling people stream, use Zoom, shop, and surf. Instead, their lot has been to gaze, at first in fury and now with resignation, at the spinning wheel of death.
Constant internet outages have obviously been exacerbated by a situation no one saw coming, namely millions migrating to working at home due to the pandemic.
This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. In February 1983, the finale of the hit TV show “M*A*S*H” aired. (This is back when there were four TV networks, not 4,000.) Three minutes after it was over, about a million New Yorkers went to the bathroom at once. Officials said the flow rate in two water tunnels serving the nation’s largest city leaped by 150 million gallons each at 11:03 p.m.
Luckily, that system handled the strain. But what about internet bandwidth?
ASU Now talked to Dan Bliss, a professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering and director of the Center for Wireless Information Systems and Computational Architectures, about what we can expect.
His research includes statistical signal processing, wireless communications, radar, radios, and a host of related topics. He has been the principal investigator on numerous programs with applications to radio, radar and medical monitoring.
“I strongly suspect it was always going on and we just weren’t as sensitive to it,” Bliss said. “Occasionally there would be some sort of outage, which means at home I didn’t get to watch the show I wanted to watch and there was a bad connection for 15 minutes. It was a mild annoyance but I walked away and came back in 15 minutes and it was fine. But when you’re working it’s an entirely different level of expectation of need. I think part of it is we expect a lot more of it now. I’m in a meeting with lots of other people and all of a sudden I’m glitching. It’s not just an annoyance. It can cause real problems in my programs.”
Bliss suspects providers were blindsided by the professional domestic migration. In fairness, no one was ready for 2020. But the bottom line probably played a part. It’s home internet, not a NASA mission with millions of dollars of designer tech invested.
“Let’s face it — they’re a business, and they’re going to operate as cheaply as possible,” Bliss said. “They were always operating right at the edge. And we were willing to put up with the fact you occasionally had bad service. That was OK. It all averaged out, right?”
Unfortunately, the system can only be changed so fast. Any given router in the system is only designed to take so much data. Suddenly there’s more data going through, and it’s a problem.
“And they can only upgrade service so fast,” Bliss said. “They have so many employees and they have to go to so many sites. … They can only respond so quickly.”
Cable and internet providers built a network for a different problem. They were doing broadcast of signals across cables. Now they’re trying to repurpose that infrastructure to send data across.
“It’s just a very different problem,” he said. “Having said that, by now I suspect that’s mostly been converted and I’m being too generous with them.”
At the Bliss home, data comes across a coaxial cable. “That’s kind of strange technology to be using for that, and yet we’re still using it.”
Internet connectivity is not like water or electricity, however. It’s not heavily regulated.
“It’s not like internet providers have a government regulation about performance,” Bliss said. “If there’s lot of problems, the regulators do start hearing about it and they’ll put pressure on the cable companies.”
But as we get more digitally connected, the connection becomes more important.
It used to be true that if the internet went out, no one died. That’s becoming less true. Things like home and health monitoring are starting to lean on the internet more.
“It’s quickly become critical and no one was ready for that,” Bliss said.
There are three steps however, that you can take to improve your internet service, according to BIiss:
1. Buy a new modem. They get outdated pretty quickly. Even a five year-old modem should be replaced.
2. Reboot your modem often, at least once a week. If you’re leery of interruptions, do it before you go to bed at night.
3. Reposition your router. If it’s in a back bedroom, move it closer to where you spend most of your time, like the living room or family room.