DENVER, March 18 (UPI) -- With pressure from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, Internet service providers are making broadband and WiFi easier to acquire and faster, as as coronavirus fears have sent countless millions of workers and students home to work remotely.
Several companies including T-Mobile, Sprint and have agreed to offer unlimited or expanded data for the next 60 days. Others, like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon are waiving late fees and temporarily refraining from canceling accounts for non-payment.
Ajit Pai, chairman of the FCC, has asked Internet companies to take the "Keep Americans Connected Pledge," and lift restrictive data caps for Internet use.
Pai also asked internet providers to consider bumping up low-income budget broadband plans to download speeds of 25 megabits per second and to refrain from suspending or charging late fees on residential and business accounts for 60 days.
Comcast made its national "xfinitywifi" hotspots network free to anyone for 60 days. The company is offering free new 60-day subscriptions to Internet Essentials service, which has upgraded download speeds.
Cox offers first month free for low-cost Connect2Compete.
About 18 million households in both rural and urban areas don't have broadband, and that's a problem, said Angela Siefer, executive director of the Columbus, Ohio,-based National Digital Inclusion Alliance, which advocates for universal home broadband access.
"For people who have to stay home because of the virus, lost their jobs and are possibly struggling with access to food, they have all these other issues, and now they don't have broadband," Siefer said. "They were using WiFi at McDonald's, the library, school -- and all those options are gone."
In rural areas, like Presque Isle, Maine, population 9,000, patrons use WiFi in the library parking lot because the building closed to stop the virus, said Director Sonja Eyler at the Mark and Emily Turner Memorial Library.
"Right now, it's a wild card for how much demand there's going to be. We are the only place that provides free WiFi in the community," Eyler said.
Internet providers maintain that their infrastructure can handle the strain of increased social distance tele-working, educational programs, media games and telemedicine.
But people who are working from home are struggling with broadband speed.
Work emails would not send Tuesday, said Michelle Cooper, of Forest Park, Ill., whose home broadband service was getting more use, "with two people working from home, and my husband using a lot of data and two kids using devices." Cooper, who runs a medical non-profit, said she switched to messenger apps on her phone.
Large Internet service providers, which have invested in fiber-optic cable across the country, say they have the capacity to handle the work-from-home traffic because the digital load is not different -- just differently balanced.
"These patterns look similar to traditional weekends," said Todd Smith, executive director of media relations for Atlanta-based Cox Communications. On weekends, "There's more traffic in residential areas and less in business districts. Peak times have shifted from evening to throughout the day," Smith said.
Cox, the third-largest U.S. cable provider, serves about 6.5 million customers.
"Currently, we are seeing no impacts to our network. However, we know how quickly things can change." Broomfield, Colo.,-based CenturyLink Chief Technology Officer Andrew Dugan said in a statement.
CenturyLink connects 5 million broadband customers in 37 states.
"Our teams can quickly add capability, modify paths, and shape traffic to meet the changing needs of our customers," Dugan said.
Typically, home broadband service is slow when multiple users are logged in to a single WiFi signal, broadband providers say. For schoolchildren, educational programs, often using gaming software, takes up higher data loads on home broadband systems.
For people who are experiencing broadband slowdowns, sites such as Downdectector show whether websites and services are down or having problems. Many Internet companies offer free online Internet speed tests.
Extra encryption from an employer's virtual private network (VPN) can slow speeds on a home system, leading to dropped video conferences and slow load times.
"VPNs can get be sluggish even in the best of times," said Grant Gross, technology reporter for the non-profit Internet Society and long-time teleworker. "If we've got a bunch of people using VPNs at the same time, that's where the problem can lie."
Meanwhile, some websites are going blank because of increased traffic. Colorado's Department of Labor and Employment site crashed Tuesday when more than 6,000 recently laid-off workers tried to fill out online unemployment forms.
State labor agencies in New York, New Jersey, Oregon, Kentucky and Washington, D.C., also reported website failures this week from a rush of traffic.
And some worry that reliable Internet service can become a life-or-death issue as healthcare facilities strain to combat the COVID-19 outbreak.
The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced Monday that telehealth services would be covered by Medicare during the coronavirus outbreak.
For example, Blue Cross-Blue Shield offers a symptom-checking live virtual doctor visits and text consultations over a phone app.
Older patients, more resistant to computer tech, appear to be more at risk for COVID-19. But video-consulting with doctors from quarantine at home or nursing homes might be able to keep hospital loads down, government officials said.
The new reality of pandemic social distancing for work, education and telemedicine might lead to a new way of looking at broadband Internet connectivity, said Siefer, of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.
"In the United States, broadband is a commodity, and companies want to sell it. In other countries, it's considered a utility," she said. "The Internet is something we can't live without at this point."