Comcast experiencing much heavier Internet traffic, but no traffic jams

Colorado’s largest internet provider, Comcast, says traffic on its network has gotten much heavier as more people stay at home. But it isn’t to the point that speeds are slowing or significant bottlenecks are developing.

“Usage is on the rise as more people are working, learning, connecting and doing all of their entertaining from home. It has all been within the capability of the network,” Tony Werner, Comcast’s president of Technology, Product and Xperience, said on a conference call Monday.

As of last week, Comcast’s peak traffic nationally was up about 32% from levels seen before the novel coronavirus forced more workplace and school closures and stay-at-home orders. In Seattle, San Francisco and now Chicago, the cable and broadband provider has seen traffic shoot up as much as 60%. Traffic figures for metro Denver were not provided.

Because the company engineers capacity based on what it expects to need 12 to 18 months out, it had some wiggle room to deal with increased demand, Werner said. Until the network gets up to 98% or 99% capacity, it shouldn’t start experiencing performance issues and can deliver advertised speeds.

“Very few customers in America are in that place,” he said, noting the company runs 700,000 speed tests per day across its network and isn’t finding any slowing.

But there is an Achilles’ heel that could get exposed, said Ian Olgeirson, the Denver-based research director for Kagan, a media research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence. Cable-based networks, unlike the fiber-optic networks connecting many offices and workplaces, can deliver 10 times more downstream capacity than upstream capacity.

One way to envision it would be if Interstate 70 had 10 lanes coming down from the mountains but only one lane going up. There’s plenty of capacity to stream a movie or deliver a video game download, but much more limited capacity to send big work files or handle video conferencing the other way.

Werner said that the company is making numerous adjustments to its network to boost upload capacity. Although Comcast hasn’t asked for it, video conference providers are voluntarily lowering video quality to reduce the amount of data that needs to go back the other way.

“The upstream is performing well, and we have a fair bit of capacity,” he said.

BroadbandNow last week provided speed test results showing most networks were holding up well. But Denver and Littleton were among the cities that suffered a noticeable drop in median download speeds compared to the ranges seen earlier in the year.

Both CenturyLink and Comcast, the two biggest providers along the Front Range, say they aren’t experiencing any slowing on their networks, so what might explain the discrepancy? Comcast measures speeds from its modems, while BroadbandNow measures from a user’s device. People are setting up a lot more devices at home and typically using a signal carried by a home Wi-Fi network. That may prove the choke point rather than the nation’s broadband networks.

“My advice to people working at home these days is to move their routers into the room they work in and connect via ethernet. A lot of the home routers are very bad at automatically selecting a Wi-Fi channel so they end up sharing wireless bandwidth with their neighbors,” said Richard Bennett, founder of the High Tech Forum and an expert in network engineering.

Werner mentioned one noticeable shift. Although the Comcast network is carrying more traffic throughout the day, peak demand is still coming in the evening — just earlier. It used to come around 9 p.m., but now comes between 7-8 p.m. Without a commute, people are getting an earlier jump on evening entertainment.

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