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Internet companies address added traffic, financial struggles amid pandemic

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The mass closures resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have left Internet service providers with two main issues to address: An unprecedented number of people are now working from home or taking college classes online, and people suddenly out of work may be wondering how they'll make their monthly payments, including the internet bill.

Verizon, for example, said in a report Saturday that web traffic was up 22% on March 19 compared to a week prior.

"We are in the first full week of this new American routine and we are certainly starting to see some patterns emerge," said Kyle Malady, chief technology officer at Verizon, in the report. "We anticipate we will see additional significant shifts in usage over the next few weeks as people adjust and adapt to the changing circumstances."

In an update Sunday, the company said it has reduced store hours and allowed more employees to work from home and is limiting the number of customers in stores at a given time. Verizon has also said it is giving first responders priority access to its networks, waiving late fees for the next two months, not ending service for customers impacted by the coronavirus, and allowing free international calling through April to countries experiencing widespread COVID-19 transmission.

Elizabeth Walden, Western New England spokesperson for Comcast, said in an email last week that Comcast has "seen some shift 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's capability."

She said engineers and technicians staff network operations centers 24/7, and the network is tested and monitored to withstand heavy traffic.

For the next two months, Comcast is giving all customers unlimited data, not disconnecting service or assessing late fees for those who call to say they can't pay their bills, and providing free Internet Essentials service to new low-income customers.

Xfinity WiFi hotspots are available for people who are and aren't Xfinity subscribers; a map of hotspots can be viewed at xfinity.com/wifi.

Atlantic Broadband spokesperson Andy Walton said in an email last week the company has invested heavily in its fiber-broadband infrastructure over the past two years, allowing the network "to accommodate increased levels of demand during this time, especially as work-from-home arrangements become increasingly necessary and as school-aged children are being instructed from home."

Until further notice, the company will not terminate service to customers unable to pay their bills due to disruptions caused by the pandemic, and it will waive late fees. Atlantic Broadband also discontinued front-counter service at its office locations, effective last Wednesday.

Lawrence Fitzgerald, an East Lyme resident who is an adjunct psychology professor at Fairfield University and Sacred Heart University, said he intends to use his Sprint phone hotspot as a backup but hasn't had to so far because Atlantic Broadband "has been great."

Fitzgerald said he's used to using videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom and WebEx for classes, as on snow days.

Peter Cherrick, also of East Lyme, said Atlantic Broadband speeds have been adequate, but that the larger strain is on virtual private network technologies and companies' remote capabilities.

But others in the region have noticed some slowdowns in service.

On Monday, Cox announced that for the next two months, it would be eliminating data usage overages and offering contract-free internet service to new customers for $19.99.

Similar to Internet Essentials, Cox has Connect2Compete for families with school-aged children who are in low-income assistance programs, and Cox announced the week before that new customers could get the first month free.

Cox also announced that it is opening outdoor hotspots, waiving late fees, and "not "terminating service to any residential or small business customer because of an inability to pay their bills due to disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic."

e.moser@theday.com

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