Keeping Connected

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      Keeping Connected

      Because of coronavirus, hundreds of millions of people are working at home. Kids are out of school. The internet is being stressed like never before. In Europe, some companies reduced the quality of video streaming to prevent an Internet collapse. So far that hasn’t been necessary here. And this week, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to approve a giant boost in space for Wi-Fi. Today, we speak with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai about the challenges and future of keeping connected.

      Ajit Pai: Wi-Fi of course is one of the things we use in our everyday lives. Whether you're on a smartphone or using a connected home appliance that those Wi-Fi airwaves today have become increasingly congested. But by massively expanding the amount of Wi-Fi that's available, we can anticipate how American society will evolve over the next several years.

      Sharyl: That’s looking ahead. But the sudden stay at home stress on the internet from coronavirus was trial by fire. Video calls using services like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger quickly doubled.

      Verizon saw a 75% jump in gaming traffic in one week and reported a 30% increase in usage of Virtual Private Networks people use from home to securely hook up to their company networks. And Facebook reported giant surges.

      Sharyl: What happens when so many people try to use internet? Maybe even more people than ever on video chats, doing interviews the way we're doing it or linking up for meetings?

      Pai: Number one as you might expect, people are using the network a lot more and more people are at home. They are using more devices to access the internet and the like. The other interesting thing, this is a time of usage has also shifted. Typically, for example, it's after people come home from work say seven to 8:00 PM when they log on and start streaming Netflix and the like. But now a lot of that usage is shifting to the daytime when kids are doing their homework and parents are working from home as well.

      Sharyl: But it’s the livestreaming, linking up through video in real time, that puts the most demand on the internet. Schools are now livestreaming classes. Employers are livestreaming meetings and video conferences.

      In Europe, Netflix and YouTube, which each account for about 12% of video traffic, dialed back on high definition video to keep the Internet from crashing.

      Sharyl: Is there somebody doing technical projections that would show us starting to get into trouble in terms of capacity, and is there a capacity that at some point we just can't handle?

      Pai: When it comes to building this infrastructure, we expected network usage is going to go up and that's part of the reason why the good news during the pandemic at least has been that this surge in traffic that we would see has not taken down our networks. And compare that to Europe, for example, where the European commission has asked some of the network providers to throttle to slow Netflix and other high bandwidth applications like that. That’s not something we've seen here in the United States thus far.

      Sharyl: Why would it be different in the United States when the internet is connected all over the world, isn't it?

      Pai: That's exactly right. But the difference is the different regulatory framework here compared to Europe. Europe for example, has a much more utility style network regulating the internet. Companies like the water company, the electric company, the train, the state it companies in the light and as a result, infrastructure investment there has lagged significantly behind the United States over the years. They don't have as much fiber in the ground connecting homes. They don't have as much 4G or 5G network deployment compared to here in the United States. So even before the pandemic we had really good building blocks in place thanks to the regulatory framework we've got, which is more free market and allowing the companies to innovate and invest and making sure that consumers are protected but more with a competition based framework as opposed to a heavy handed regulatory framework.

      Sharyl: Do you see permanent changes or shifts that are going to have to be made for better or for worse as a result of this crisis?

      Pai: One of the things that we are trying to do at the FCC is anticipate how that is going to change. We've got a $20 billion initiative to get rural broadband out there, for example. We’re doing other things to make sure that as American society changes, as it goes more online, we'll be able to accommodate that increased demand with an increase in supply.

      Pai says more than 650 broadband and telephone providers have taken the FCC’s “Keep Americans Connected” pledge promising to waive late fees and not cut off customers’ internet if they can’t pay their bills due to coronavirus.