Technology & Science

Telecom networks deal with 'unprecedented' pressure as Canadians work from home

With countless Canadians working from home, bandwidth limits and telephone network capacities are being put to the test. Bell, Rogers and Telus all acknowledged their networks are experiencing higher-than-normal traffic and they pledge their infrastructure can handle the sudden surge.

Bell sees 60 per cent jump in daytime home internet usage

Employees working from home may qualify for tax deductions. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

Temporarily working from his Toronto home, music composer Igor Correia has run into an unexpected challenge: it takes an awfully long time to upload his work.

"It just chugs and it's very slow," he said on FaceTime. The video call repeatedly froze.

Correia, whose music is featured in TV commercials and films, said it took him "a few hours" to send a one-gigabyte file on Wednesday.

He's among countless Canadians following the advice of public health experts and telecommuting during the COVID-19 crisis. The massive shift is serving as a giant technological experiment, testing bandwidth limits and telephone network capacities as users hold virtual meetings, share files and stream audio and video content.

Correia usually works in a studio, where internet connectivity is seamless. At his normal workplace, "it's all set up," he said. "You don't really think about it."

Corporate telecommunication technology is typically built with a higher capacity, with greater speeds for more concurrent users than consumer-grade products. 

Adults and children at home are both adding traffic to home Wi-Fi networks. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

Bell, Rogers and Telus all acknowledged their networks are experiencing higher-than-normal traffic. And the telecommunications giants pledge their infrastructure can handle the sudden surge.

But lower-tech solutions are facing added pressure as well, with employees dialing into companywide conference calls and Canadians calling government agencies for information on the pandemic.

Telus said in an email that it has an "unprecedented volume of mass-calling events."

Phone and internet networks under pressure

In some firms, employees shared anecdotes of teleconferences breaking down entirely under the strain of added usage.

Telecom providers said they were working together to ensure connection between networks would be more resilient.

Rogers spokesperson Sarah Schmidt said the provider was "working with other carriers to minimize any intermittent issues."

Home internet, however, appears to be the service seeing the biggest jump in traffic.

Bell spokesperson Nathan Gibson said home internet usage is up to 60 per cent higher than usual during the day and 20 per cent higher at night.

Widespread outages have not been reported, but University of Toronto computer science professor Yashar Ganjali warned "significant changes in typical traffic might lead to unforeseen situations that might lead to temporary disruptions in some services."

The three main service providers said they're all increasing their ability to deal with the traffic as usage grows.

"During these extraordinary times," Telus spokesperson Brandi Rees said in an email, "our teams are proactively monitoring traffic and performance, optimizing and augmenting capacity as required."

Several home internet providers have also temporarily removed data overage fees for home internet use.

Not everyone gets broadband

The added reliance on home internet has also highlighted the discrepancy in the availability of high-speed service across Canada.

In rural areas, CRTC data suggests as few as 40.8 per cent of households have access to high-speed broadband.

Netflix announced Thursday it would temporarily reduce bit rates for streaming users in Europe. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)

It's taking an added toll on university students who are now expected to attend classes as videoconferences rather than in person.

Because of poor Wi-Fi, some students are dealing with connections that keep cutting in and out, making it impossible to take in an entire lecture, said Lydia Angarso, a member of the Arts and Science Students' Union at the University of Toronto.

She stressed some professors are being especially accommodating, providing lectures as video recordings to allow students to download and watch afterwards.

"It's a test of what the university is capable of doing ... and their ingenuity," Angarso said.

Netflix lowering bit rates in Europe

With many movie theatres, restaurants and bars closed, streaming services are bound to see an increase in viewership, too.

U.S.-based media research firm Nielsen analyzed the extent of the increase when two weather-related crises forced residents to stay inside: a severe snowstorm in New York in 2016 and Hurricane Harvey in Texas in 2017. Nielsen's analysis found a 61 per cent increase in streaming via the TV. 

In Europe, Netflix announced it would lower bit rates — which determine the quality and size of its audio and video files — across all its streams for 30 days after a request from the EU. 

"We estimate that this will reduce Netflix traffic on European networks by around 25 per cent, while also ensuring a good quality service for our members," the company said in a statement.

Netflix did not respond to a request for comment as to whether it would consider a similar move in Canada.

The company says on its website that watching high-definition videos on its platform uses up to three gigabytes of data per hour, while standard definition content requires about one gigabyte per hour. Users can also adjust their own streaming settings.

How to make home internet faster?

Some users may consider temporarily upgrading their home internet plans. The service provider, however, isn't the only factor to take into account when dealing with slower internet speeds.

The CRTC advises Canadians that several in-home factors may play a role, too, including the age of the modem and the distance between the computer and the wireless router.

The federal regulator also points out it's important to note the number of devices hogging connectivity on a single network. That's all the more timely as employees work from home while their children look for pastimes as school is out.

For optimal home Wi-Fi speeds, users are encouraged to move objects away from the modem. (Shutterstock)

For instance, if a smart speaker is streaming music in a bedroom while a tablet downloads a video in the living room and a laptop is used for videoconferencing in the kitchen, the connectivity for all devices may be affected.

If the connection appears slow, it's best to ensure unused wireless devices are disconnected and not causing unnecessary network congestion. What's more, users can plug laptops, video game consoles and certain other machines directly into the router using an ethernet cable to optimize connection speeds.

Correia, the music composer, said his internet service provider suggested he look into upgrading his service package.

"Depending on how this goes — or how long it stays like this — we may have to," he said. Less than a minute later, the video chat failed.

About the Author

Thomas Daigle

Senior Technology Reporter

While in CBC's London, U.K. bureau, Thomas reported on everything from the Royal Family and European politics to terrorism. He filed stories from Quebec for several years and reported for Radio-Canada in his native New Brunswick. Thomas is now based in Toronto and focuses on technology-related news. He can be reached by email at thomas.daigle@cbc.ca.

With files from Reuters

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