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How home connectivity has been a lifeline during COVID-19

As the world moves to contain the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, home containment has been our biggest weapon to 'flatten the curve.'

Charles Cheevers

April 6, 2020

6 Min Read
How home connectivity has been a lifeline during COVID-19

As the world moves to contain the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, home containment has been our biggest weapon to "flatten the curve." While the work of first responders and medical professionals will be what we will tell our grandchildren about, we will also tell them about the time we spent several months in 2020 together as a family 24x7 in our homes.

Now that we are about three weeks into home containment in the US, we've seen just how important connectivity has been. Staying connected to the outside world to carry out work, keep in touch with isolated loved ones and enable our children to participate in e-learning has been critical to this new normal. In this three-week period, the world has tested what it is like for most professionals to telecommute and we are seeing some interesting new dynamics in our home data and digital technology usage patterns.

In normal times, residential home broadband and video usage has typically followed a pattern of three distinct times during the day:

  • Data usage drops down to its lowest use for a six- to eight-hour period overnight

  • Most people leave the house and go to work or school and the home data usage typically comes from one adult and pre-school kids or night shift workers

  • Most people come home from work and school and the peak period of traffic comes between 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. as people stream video and use their devices

During the weekend, data usage varies. If the weather is nice, then people go outside. If the weather is poor, then the whole family stays inside watching and streaming video and/or gaming.

As the world is now in a "shelter-in-place mode," the S-curve 24-hour bandwidth usage playbook gets thrown out of the window. Now, college students are home to quarantine with their families – pushing the concurrency of broadband usage and associated data rates to their highest. Older parents are staying at their kids' houses to get support, which is also increasing the peak occupancy of homes.

In this new era of self-imposed quarantines, the home has become the school, the office and the center of communication with remote and extended family and friends. And just as people were buying up supplies to survive the weeks at home, they were also buying new access points and cable modems, cameras and office devices, for telecommuting. We estimate there was a 36% increase in retail home working and networking products purchased in March.

Everyone has connected their work and school devices to their home Wi-Fi to begin the week in quarantine.

Wi-Fi and the DOCSIS or optical networks connected to it saw a rise in both downstream and upstream demands at new times of the day. We saw demand rise during the first and second weeks of March as people got into a new rhythm of working, schooling and living at home. By the third week, most people were in a regular data rhythm and we saw repeating patterns of downstream and upstream usage and new peaks.

Generally, downstream traffic correlates with upstream usage. For example, most OTT video services on the downstream count for about 14% of the upstream usage with TCP ACKs, ABR control and telemetry from the user selections. While the downstream traffic has increased, it is typically the upstream that starts to show the first signs of capacity shortage for nom- symmetric networks.

For the upstream usage, we saw:

  • Week one: There was a new first bandwidth peak emerging between 11:30 am and midday, reaching about 75% of the typical evening peak

  • Week two: The midday peaks climbed to almost the full levels of the normal 9:00 p.m. peak and stayed there from midday to 9:00 p.m.

  • Week three: Increased traffic continued but the new normal pattern of three weeks at home started to emerge as people discovered new tools to work from home

The shift in US traffic through two weeks of lockdown

Figure 1:

So, what bandwidth activities are now driving the "new normal"? Besides some of the uses mentioned previously, we are seeing the following:

  • More people in homes for the 24-hour period

  • Using iPads more frequently to isolate while being stuck with family in one room

  • Binge-watching shows, movies and videos

  • Watching daily news briefings on both linear and streamed IP video

  • Using several devices in homes concurrently:

    • Work laptops generating normally unseen traffic like OneDrive Syncing

    • Company VPN servers were one of the first resources to be stretched

    • Some people working from home are trying things they only do in the office or labs, such as running QA tools, sending huge files and conducting remote tests

People are watching more entertainment video during the day. There is now a constant use of collaborative conferencing/video tools during the day for school and work because of travel restrictions. This generates new streams of upstream and downstream traffic.

In some cases, people are leaving connections open all day to stay in touch with people. They are doing more personal video chats because of isolation. In addition to video chats, we are seeing more video content being consumed for two key reasons – online streaming of news and more TVs on all day even as background noise.

When more people under the age of 25 are in a home, more content is streamed versus QAM-based video. We estimate an increase of 10 percent of downstream usage, which is typically online gaming during normal periods. Online gaming has increased in every aspect of the day (days, nights and weekends).

Mobile devices are connecting to Wi-Fi more often in well-served mesh Wi-Fi homes; however, they are still connecting to LTE where Wi-Fi coverage is poor. With iOS and Android smart phone implementations being in control of which wireless system to connect to, consumers are encouraged to see if their data usage using LTE during “shelter in place” periods drops. High LTE usage for a whole month at home signals poor Wi-Fi propagation in the home. This means that either the Wi-Fi is turned off on a mobile device or there is no Wi-Fi connection management from an LTE provider. Consumers are likely to keep Wi-Fi on their devices all day vs shutting it off to save battery life.

A lot of work has gone into making sure that no one is deprived of broadband services. OTT streaming services reduced their streaming levels and encoded to lower levels although adaptive bitrate technology kept smooth playouts running.

Additionally, most providers have removed their data caps to allow people to work and connect with family and friends. HFC and DOCSIS networks that can rate shape and preserve quality-of-service on high-value streams are holding up under this strain of the new midday to 9:00 p.m. peak.

The question going forward is whether there will be an increase in telecommuting from this enforced trial. The likelihood is yes. We could see service providers respond to this alteration in traffic patterns by offering telecommute packages for people working at home. These packages will include more business services and SLAs for residential SOHO solutions. They might also offer higher reliability packages for mitigation against service outages as more people work from home.

Most of us are now well versed in using multi-person video conferencing technology for work meetings and even social virtual gatherings. One thing is for sure: We will remember this period in history for a long time. Stay safe and this too shall pass.

— Charles Cheevers, Chief Technology Officer, Home Network Solutions, CommScope

About the Author(s)

Charles Cheevers

Chief Technology Officer, Home Network Solutions, CommScope

Charles Cheevers is Chief Technology Officer, Home Network Solutions, at CommScope, a global leader in infrastructure solutions for communications networks. He is responsible for the two- to five-year technology vision of CommScope's consumer-premises equipment (CPE) business.

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