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Despite fears of gridlock, Internet is holding up under coronavirus strain

March 12, 2020, 7:48 PM UTC

Big telecommunications companies say there has been no surge in Internet traffic, countering concerns that employees and students forced to work from home due to the novel coronavirus outbreak would cause online gridlock.

Verizon, which runs both wired and wireless networks, said it had not seen a “measurable increase in data usage” since the outbreak but that it was prepared to handle potential increases. “Verizon operates its networks every day as though it’s a snow day,” Kyle Malady, Verizon’s chief technology officer, said in a statement. “While it is not clear yet how having millions of additional people working from home will impact usage patterns, we are ready to address changes in demand, if needed.”

Meanwhile, AT&T said it has actually seen reduced demand at some wireless cell sites in cities where the coronavirus outbreak has had the largest impact. Overall, AT&T said its network “continues to perform well.”

Over the past few days, many large U.S. companies and universities have closed their buildings and asked people to work remotely. This week, for example, Google, Facebook, and Amazon announced that most workers should stop coming into the office. 

The shift, including the possibility of millions of people using video streaming for meetings and classes, prompted Federal Communications Commission commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, among others, to raise concerns. The Internet, they feared, could become congested, making it impossible for some people to get any work done. They also worried that some people didn’t have adequate connectivity even before the outbreak.

So far, at least, congestion problems have not appeared.

Longer term, Verizon told Wall Street on Thursday that it would spend $17.5 billion to $18.5 billion this year on improving its network, a $500 million increase in the target range due to possible demand from the huge at-home workforce. AT&T, in contrast, has announced no changes to its $20 billion capital spending plan for 2020.

AT&T has also taken steps to deal with its own workforce, encouraging employees in New York, San Francisco, and some other areas to work from home. The carrier also said it would give paid time off to any workers experiencing Covid-19 symptoms, who are in self-quarantine, who recently returned from an at-risk country, or who are caring for children affected by the outbreak.

The outbreak of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has already infected almost 1,200 Americans, according to the U.S. government, though experts says many more are likely carrying the virus but have not been tested yet.

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