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Cable/Video

Comcast: Peak network traffic rises 32% as millions stay at home

Peak traffic across Comcast's network surged about 32%, and as high as 60% in cities such as Seattle and San Francisco, according to new data put out by the cable operator detailing usage trends it is seeing as millions of consumers stay at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Comcast said those higher peaks still fall within the overall capacity of its network, and that overall network traffic is starting to plateau in markets that were hit the hardest early on by COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders.

"The network is performing well," Tony Werner, president of technology, product and Xperience at Comcast, said Monday on a press call to discuss the cable operator's latest findings. He said Comcast reviews network usage every five minutes and runs some 700,000 speed tests per day across the network.

While residential data usage is clearly on the rise and traffic patterns are shifting as more people do school and work from home, the resulting surge has "all been within the capacity of the network," Werner said.

Tony Werner, Comcast

He noted that Comcast is always adding capacity and plans 12 to 18 months ahead based on usage trends that typically show increases of about 40% per year, so it's been able to stay a step ahead of what it's seen in recent weeks.

Traffic pattern shifts
As for shifts in traffic patterns, Werner said typical peak times of the network are at around 9 p.m. in a given time zone, but the rise in online gaming and video streaming has slid that peak period to between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. in some cities.

Thanks to increased instances of people working from home and the use of videoconferencing, Comcast has also seen a rise in upstream traffic. But Werner said the company believes it will be able to stay ahead of demand. General broadband usage remains largely asymmetrical and downstream-heavy, he said.

In some cases, Comcast is adding a fourth upstream carrier where it has not already been added, and adding a fifth upstream carrier in other areas, Werner said. He noted that Comcast completed some 1,700 network augmentations in the last week, well above the 400 to 500 during a typical week.

Among other stats, Werner said video streaming on Comcast's network is up 38%, VoD is up 25%, VPN usage is up 40%, gaming downloads are up 50% to 80% depending on if there's a new game being released, and mobile data usage on Comcast's Wi-Fi network has risen 24%.

Voice traffic on Comcast's video platforms is also topping 50 million queries per day, along with a 50% increase in voice queries for free movies.

Linear TV viewing has also risen four hours a day, to about 64 hours a week, since March 1, Werner said.

Werner also took issue with a recent report indicating that speeds were slowing in some US cities during the pandemic.

"There's lots of flaws in the way they do it," he said, noting that tests can be skewed if, for example, speeds appear to be slow because a Wi-Fi access point is far away from the users. Comcast's speed tests, he said, are more isolated and done at the modem level.

And while some in Europe have asked for streaming services to reduce their bit rates to help lighten the load, it's not something that Comcast has requested or feels it will need to request.

"We have not currently seen an issue [with video streaming quality] up to this point," Werner said.

Comcast, which has waived residential broadband usage policies temporarily, has not seen a big rise in the number of customers who exceed 1 terabyte in usage, with median usage in the range of 275 gigabytes to 350GB across different markets.

Among other moves linked to the pandemic, Werner said Comcast's objective in the coming weeks is to have 90% of its call center employees work from home, compared to 25% to 30% at the end of last week.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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