This story was updated Tuesday, March 31, 2020, at 8:44 p.m. with more information.
In the self-proclaimed "Gig City," thousands of Chattanoogans are making digital rather than personal connections and remotely doing their jobs, school work and even social gatherings via the internet.
The home-bound shift has boosted internet traffic and television viewership for Comcast by nearly a third at some times of the day and created more demand for broadband services throughout the day for nearly all internet service providers.
So far, the quantity of the expanded broadband use has not cut into its quality for those with broadband, a new study shows.
But the heightened dependence upon the internet for everything from health care to schooling to work has also highlighted he digital divide between those with broadband service to their home and the nearly 21 million American, including more than 600,000 Tennesseans, who lack such service.
A study by BroadbandNow, which has the nation's largest database of broadband providers, found Chattanooga's broadband connections have remained relatively consistent even though usage has jumped as telework and virtual communications have skyrocketed as people are encouraged to stay at home due to the coronavirus pandemic.
At the same time as more Americans are staying home, people are watching more television. Video consumption on Comcast networks increased by four hours to an average of 64 hours per week.
"First and foremost, I think it's important to know that the network is performing well," said Tony Werner, Comcast president of technology. "And people are able to — both business and customers working from home — do the things they need to do with a great deal of proficiency."
Comcast, the nation's biggest cable TV company and one of the biggest internet service providers in the Chattanooga region, said its internet traffic has risen 32% because of the coronavirus.
Gig city usage patterns
Ryan Keel, vice president of technical operations at EPB, said usage by customers of EPB Fiber Optics has been up during the day but still peaking around 9 p.m. each night when television viewership is at its maximum.
The city-owned utility laid a fiber optic network across its 600-square-mile service territory a decade ago to build a smart grid and the nation's first citywide gig internet service. Keel said the infrastructure is capable of handling most any surge in web traffic.
Data Usage Trends
* 32% increase in peak traffic with peak download times shifting 90 minutes earlier from 9 p.m. to 7:30 pm. Upload peaks have shifted to daytime hours, reflective of a large population that is now working from home.
* 22% increase in video conferencing and voice over internet protocal (VoIP)
* 40% increase in Virutual Private Network (VPN) traffic
* 50% increase in gaming downloands, including 80% jump during new releases
"One of the benefits for customers who use EPB's 100% fiber optic network is that it provides ample capacity as their needs increase and shift," he said. "In the weeks since many customers began working and learning from home, we've seen more internet traffic earlier in the day, but peak internet usage continues to occur around 9 p.m. As it turns out, the internet peak in the evening is similar to what it was before the crisis began."
Keel said the applications people are using to work and learn from home are not as data intensive as video streaming for entertainment.
Among the top 200 U.S. cities studied by BroadbandNow, 88 cities, or 44% of the areas included in the study, have experienced some degree of network degradation over the past week compared to the prior 10 weeks. However, the study found only 27 cities, or 13.5% of those studied, are experiencing dips of 20% below range or greater.
"Users in most of the cities we analyzed should be experiencing normal network conditions, suggesting that ISP's [and their networks] are holding up to the shifting demand," said Tyler Cooper, editor and chief of BroadbandNow.
Shift to telework, telemedicine
Most major employers in Chattanooga have shifted at least some, if not most, of their workers to teleworking from home to help control the spread of the coronavirus. Two weeks ago, President Donald Trump also announced an expansion of telemedicine services for Medicare recipients, the majority of whom are 65 or older.
"Medicare patients can now visit any doctor by phone or video conference at no additional cost, including with commonly used services like FaceTime and Skype — a historic breakthrough," Trump said in a news conference last month. "In addition, states have the authority to cover telehealth services for their medical patients. And by doing this, the patient is not seeing the doctor, per se, but they're seeing the doctor. So there's no getting close."
Many health care organizations are now encouraging their patients to visit their doctors virtually. But many Americans lack the broadband access necessary for a video medical consult — not to mention the ability to telework or participate in online classes from home.
"There's a massive gap here and we're seeing it exposed clearly with COVID-19," said Christopher Ali, an associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia who researches rural broadband issues. "I teach at a wealthy public university and not all of my students have broadband."
Digital divide leaves some behind
The Federal Communications Commission estimates more than 21 million people in America still lack advanced broadband internet access, defined as download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second with upload speeds of 3 mbps.
"If you're getting your internet connection from what's called DSL, which is the type of broadband connection telephone companies use, it is not fast broadband," said Christopher Ali, associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia who researches rural broadband issues.
Even where it is available, some people say they can't afford broadband service, which costs an average of $58 a month compared to $46.55 across 29 nations, according to a 2018 Federal Communications Commission report.
Such disconnected people "already have to work harder to tread water," said Chris Mitchell, who advocates for community broadband service at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "I don't think people appreciated the magnitude of the problem."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 423-757-6340.