By Gopal Ratnam
WASHINGTON — The push by governments, companies and educational institutions globally to have employees and students work from home has created a surge in demand for video conferencing and internet access that their providers say so far are holding up.
As cases of COVID-19 worldwide reached 395,000 this week, including about 46,000 in the United States, governments from Hong Kong to Hawaii have asked their citizens to stay indoors except for essential trips to stores and hospitals.
The world’s largest video conferencing company, Webex, which is owned by Cisco, has seen its traffic skyrocket as the shutdown spread around the world, its CEO Chuck Robbins told CNBC last week.
“The volumes are unprecedented,” Robbins said. “In the last 10 or 11 days our volume has literally doubled.”
Traffic out of China rose 22 times more than normal since the outbreak of the disease, whereas the surge in South Korea and Japan have been four to five times the usual, he said.
Traffic in the United States has grown three times compared with the pre-COVID-19 period, Cisco said in a statement.
By March 20, Webex had hosted a total of 7 billion minutes for the month, the company said in an email.
Overall, the company has seen 8 million to 9 million net new attendees on its platform, coming from new companies and institutions using its services as a result of the work and school closures.
Although demand for its services has grown significantly, Webex has been able to keep up and is “scaling up,” both in terms of people and technology, Jean Rosauer, chief of strategy for Cisco, told CQ Roll Call.
Cisco also designed a website with tutorials for smaller companies, educational institutions and doctors’ offices on how to use its platform during the crisis, Rosauer said. The company has pledged to give $225 million to help communities across the world cope with the pandemic.
Webex also is seeing an increase in doctor-patient video consultations.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has relaxed its rules regarding telehealth, allowing more patients to access their doctors remotely through video conferencing platforms.
While telehealth has been popular for patients and doctors in rural areas, the new rules allow senior citizens even in urban centers to consult with physicians without having to leave their homes, and that, too, has expanded the use of video conference platforms, Rosauer said.
If the widespread closures continue and grow to include legislative bodies across the country, Webex has the capacity to host large, virtual meetings, allowing participants to share documents, call roll and register votes, Rosauer said.
Zoom, another video conferencing platform, said it would not disclose details of the increase in traffic on its platform, but spokeswoman Amie Dehner said the company was managing the surge without any glitches.
The company operates its own data centers in 17 places around the world, allowing for flexibility and control “when it comes to routing both our audio and video traffic,” Dehner said.
If the growing demand exceeds its current capacity, Zoom has “the ability to access and deploy tens of thousands of servers within hours,” she said.
The switch to working from home also has meant a shift in internet and mobile network use away from commercial centers of large global cities to outer suburbs and residential areas, with implications for internet service providers.
Internet providers Comcast, one of the major providers of cable and internet service, is “monitoring network usage and watching the load on the network nationally and locally,” Joel Shadle, a company spokesman, said in an email. “So far we have seen some shifts in usage patterns toward more daytime usage in areas that have moved to a work-from-home environment, but the overall peaks are still well within our network capability.”
Comcast likened the growth in demand from residential areas to what is seen during the Olympics or the Super Bowl.
Comcast is one of several companies that has temporarily paused its data plan limits, giving customers unlimited data at no additional cost.
Verizon said its fiber-optic and wireless networks are coping with the shift in demand and were performing without any glitches. The company said it is expanding data allowances for schools that are part of a collaborative effort with the company to expand digital access to educational institutions.
Cox said it had eliminated data usage limits to meet higher bandwidth demands and also began offering a $20 monthly plan for new customers with no annual contracts to help low-income Americans gain access to the internet.
The NCTA, an industry group that represents television and internet providers, said in a statement last week that all its members had pledged to open public Wi-Fi spots and make them accessible to everyone.
Other internet providers, including Comcast, Mediacom and Midco, have also offered new, low-income customers two months of free internet, the group said.