We may be distancing socially, but our Wi-Fi networks are bumping against each other big time competing for bandwidth...
During a period like March-April 2020, when everybody — and even their pets — are hopping on the home Wi-Fi, you develop a new appreciation for bandwidth efficiency and network capacity.
At five weeks into New York State on Pause to flatten the curve of the coronavirus, residential Wi-Fi networks are being stretched to the limit. I worked at home before sheltering in place; these days, my neighbors are, too. We may be distancing socially, but our Wi-Fi networks are bumping against each other big time competing for bandwidth.
I’ve learned new things about my neighbors in my Manhattan apartment building since they began spending more time at home. My upstairs neighbor has a lot of friends, and they’re high-spirited, too. One night when I thought she was having a loud party – against the social distancing rules – I realized it was a virtual party. They were all Zooming … and having a really good time doing it.
I discovered waiting in the hallway for the elevator one morning that my next-door neighbor knows Italian and is proficient enough to converse in it on a videoconference. My neighbor down the hall lives alone, but you wouldn’t know it by the number of videocalls with friends and associates she’s had during shutdown.
Kids are using videoconferencing, too, for school, but I haven’t heard any of that in my building. Maybe because adults like to hear themselves more. Or, kids have been smart about keeping a low-profile during school-at-home video sessions. I saw a tweet about a 10-year-old who put up a profile pic of her “paying attention” and then went to play with the family dog — the virtual version of skipping.
I’m glad for my neighbors, who have learned to adjust to working from home during the day and entertaining themselves at night. These are tough times. But I’ve seen a big drop in internet speed, and that has changed my experience during work and leisure time.
This is new. My only beef in my eight-year history as a Verizon FiOS customer has been the astronomical bill. I’ve seen things in past month that I haven’t experienced before: Web pages opening slowly — sometimes not at all — and buffering at least once a night while streaming TV shows.
After some troubleshooting, I found that our smart sound bar — with Amazon Fire TV streaming — was connected to “regular” Wi-Fi, not the one designated by our router as 5G. When we manually typed in the SSID for our 5G network (5 GHz Wi-Fi), the buffering appeared to stop. I don’t remember seeing the 5G network option when I set up the sound bar, but I shouldn’t have had to make that choice, especially if it meant scouring a long list of my neighbors’ networks. Why not default to the one that delivers the more robust experience?
My partner, Liz, became the troublemaker during a client Zoom meeting last week when she kept being booted from a call because the internet speed couldn’t keep up with the rest of the group. On other video calls, she has alternately lost audio and video. When she called Verizon to troubleshoot our “Gigabit” service, the technician rebooted our modem with no notice, and that wiped out a story I had just edited and formatted. The domino effect was real.
Verizon’s Gigabit Connection promises download speeds “as fast as” 940 Mbps and uploads up to 880 Mbps. I’m sure we were never close to that even before the coronavirus. At this writing, midday on a Sunday, I’m getting download speeds of 679 Mbps and 229 Mbps on the upload with a wired connection from the router to the PC. In the next room over, Liz is getting a download speed of 39 Mbps download, 36 Mbps upload over Wi-Fi with almost no competition: no video games, music or TV shows are crowding the network from our apartment.
The FCC unanimously voted Thursday to make 6 GHz available for unlicensed use. Router makers have been ready and waiting. Netgear boasts that with WiFi 6 supporting up to 12 streams at once, we’ll be able to enjoy “blazing-fast speeds on all your connected devices and say goodbye to buffering and lag.” We’ll see about that.
Internet service providers understandably have had trouble adjusting to the overnight change in patterns to work and leisure time. On April 9, Verizon reported that after “weeks of significant increases in voice and data usage as a result of millions of people transitioning to working from home, distance learning and virtual socializing,” customers’ new routines and usage behaviors were “stabilizing.”
Comcast, the largest cable provider, said on April 15 it engineers its network for peak capacity to handle shifts in usage patterns. Network traffic was beginning to plateau in most markets then, including those affected early by COVID-19. Compared with March 1, upstream traffic growth was up 32%, while downstream traffic grew 18%. Voice over IP and videoconferencing from up was up 228% during the period, it said. The ISP has seen an overall 75% usage hike for its xFi internet service since the pandemic began.
Who knows how the telecommuting situation will shake out when the coronavirus crisis eases, but Wi-Fi-based residential work and entertainment loads won’t likely revert to previous levels. The pandemic is a litmus test for the current generation of Wi-Fi and shows the need for deployment of the next-gen Wi-Fi 6, which has been designed to deal with more crowded networks.
COVID-19 has had “an immediate impact on Wi-Fi infrastructure, proving existing infrastructure is inadequate,” said ABI Research analyst Andrew Zignani. Wireless networks are now facing higher capacity with more traffic, and users are finding their existing home Wi-Fi network, and the wider broadband infrastructure, “is inadequate or incapable of supporting the recent 80% increase in upload traffic,” said the analyst.
The COVID-19 outbreak is creating a need for “network flexibility” that will drive the future of connectivity, Zignani said. The stay-at-home order resulting in congested residential networks will create “renewed incentive for mesh Wi-Fi that can provide sufficient high-speed coverage to multiple users throughout the home.”
Today, my convivial neighbors and I aren’t only competing for bandwidth with our PCs, iPhones and smart TVs, but with Bluetooth speakers, wireless sound bars, gaming systems and smart speakers. That list will only grow in years to come. Here’s hoping service providers and device makers are on the road to ensuring there’s ample for all of us — and our connected gadgets — in the RF neighborhood.
— Rebecca Day is a freelance journalist based in New York City.