Last week, on the one-year anniversary of COVID in the United States, chief technology officers from America's leading internet service providers (ISPs) offered reflections on the internet usage trends they observed over the past year and how their networks were able to handle the unprecedented surges in internet traffic. This week, in part two of NCTA's special Q&A series, the CTOs from Charter, Comcast, Cox and Midco relayed the massive undertaking it took to ensure that their customers' new remote needs were met when more people than ever before connected online to continue working, learning and socializing.
Additionally, they shared their thoughts on the ways in which the pandemic has altered how they work and how cable ISPs are preparing their networks not only for a new era of evolving consumer demands, but for the unexpected.
See highlights from part two below.
How has your work changed as a result of the pandemic?
Stephanie Mitchko-Beale, Charter
Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer
The pandemic accelerated some of the things we were already working on. For example, we quickly expanded our self-installation program. Now approximately 80% of sales take advantage of self-install, up from about 50% prior to the pandemic. We’ve also had to be much more diligent about watching our network for insights into what is going on so we can anticipate and respond to changes and continue providing high-quality connectivity products and services.
Tony Werner, Comcast
President of Technology, Product, Xperience
I couldn’t be prouder of how our people responded to unprecedented challenges facing our network, our company and the world in 2020. We asked a lot of our leaders, engineers, customer care teams, field technicians and really everyone in the organization. Nearly overnight, they transformed how they worked. In a matter of days and weeks in March and April, the vast majority of our frontline employees transitioned to working from home. Many worked overtime to ensure our customers had uninterrupted access to our products and services, which have never been more critical. As connectivity came to the forefront of everyone’s mind, our people did what they do best, ensuring that tens of millions of people stayed connected to fast, reliable service.
Though the majority of our teams continue to work from home, our teams of technologists across the country worked to create and deliver innovations that provide faster speeds, more capacity and greater reliability. Our frontline teams added capacity to the network in neighborhoods and performed critical installations for essential businesses like hospitals and health centers, all to ensure that Americans and their essential institutions had the online resources they needed throughout this critical time.
Kevin Hart, Cox
Executive Vice President & Chief Product and Technology Officer
If anything, many people over the past year have now seen the importance of having a broadband connection. The customer's expectations [in life] include food, air, water and now broadband. And they need that connection 24/7. As a result of these heightened expectations, we've had to elevate our game in terms of self-install and become more active and preventative in terms of detecting and resolving any service issues. We've always focused on the customer experience and we’ve made some changes to our products to exceed shifting customer demand and expectations.
A very specific example: we’ve had a low-income broadband program for twenty years to help K-12 students stay connected and bridge the digital divide. When schools went virtual overnight, this suddenly became an acute connectivity crisis, with home broadband the only way for students to enter the classroom. We worked closely with schools to rapidly register kids for the program, provided the first 60 days of service for free and waived late fees to break down as many barriers as possible.
And with more people working from home now, we've had to adjust the ways we approach our network maintenance. This means we are more proactive in communicating with our customers. For example, with school districts we’ve worked around the school day when possible in order to prevent disruption during class time. We schedule maintenance windows accordingly, similar to how we schedule this work with our small business customers. We continue to invest in and regularly upgrade the network, but we partner with our customers even more closely to avoid their peak hours of usage.
Jon Pederson, Midco
Chief Technology Officer
Like many others I work from home and collaborative travel has been curtailed, replaced by virtual meetings. One particular area of change and challenge is recruiting and onboarding of new employees. In many regards this is best done in-person, but that is offset by much less reliance on an employee being local; it matters less when everyone is on video anyway. It’s a new way of working and I expect some of that flexibility with endure post-pandemic.
How are you preparing your networks for future crises?
Stephanie Mitchko-Beale, Charter: We manage our network for the future based on customer demand, i.e. the actual load on the network, which has resulted in ongoing augmentation over the past year. The big "secret" to the past year was the extensive investment we made—and continue to make—in our broadband network. In the past five years alone, we’ve invested $40 billion in infrastructure and technology, including all-digital and DOCSIS 3.1. Much of our network uses hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) technology, which is very flexible and allows for significant capacity growth, both upstream and downstream without excessive capital investment, allowing us to meet customer demand, both in terms of performance and pricing, now and in the future. Our 10G plan allows us to upgrade our network incrementally in a very cost-efficient way, which will ultimately result in multi-gig speeds.
Tony Werner, Comcast: Our network would not have thrived the way it did during the pandemic surge, if it weren’t for the years of focused strategic investment and network innovation that came before it. As network operators, we couldn’t have predicted the pandemic, but we knew that we had to be ready for anything. The performance of our network during this crisis has strengthened our resolve to continue working every day to build a smart, powerful, flexible network that is ready for whatever comes next.
Kevin Hart, Cox: We are continuing to invest in improvements to our network and infrastructure and in building out new cable routes. We're investing in all the steps necessary to get us on a path to 10G. We are always leveraging next-generation technologies, capacity, reliability and security. Ninety-nine percent of our nodes are performing well. We are very targeted on our nodes, networks and customers, on creating more capacity, on taking fiber deeper. We also invest in failover capabilities, business continuity planning and disaster recovery.
Our industry has really stood tall over the last many years, and all the work that we did prepared us for the events of the last year. I think more people realized the importance of what we do and the importance of the services we provide. We at Cox have been proactive. We're thinking about the future and most of all our customers. How do we provide high security and low latency, but also deliver products and services that make the lives of our customers easier and better? We are always asking ourselves those questions and looking to provide solutions.
Jon Pederson, Midco: Precisely predicting the future is a tricky business. The best options are strategic, considering the trends and probabilities then responding in a fundamental way that allows flexible tactics, particularly when you don’t know what that future crisis may be. Network usage will continue to increase, particularly in the upstream. The always-valuable currency of low latency and reliability will continue to rise. Rural broadband will expand and enable long-haul and wholesale opportunities. In the future, Midco is investing heavily in fiber-focused solutions including fiber to the premises, fiber to the curb, fiber to the tower, plus increased path diversity and redundancy. We believe in a "full tool belt" and are deploying options from fixed wireless, to DOCSIS to Fiber that match the appropriate circumstance.
Any additional insights you would like to share?
Stephanie Mitchko-Beale, Charter: The past year has been a year like no other. Not only did the pandemic highlight the importance of the high-speed broadband, mobile, voice and video services that we provide, it underscored the investments we made and are continuing to make to stay ahead of our customers’ capacity needs and ensure they continue to have access to our high-quality connectivity services.
Also, a lot has been said about the growth spike in upstream usage as a result of the pandemic. Charter’s average residential upstream usage saw significant growth between January 2020 and January 2021, which is not necessarily surprising given the shift to teleconferencing. What is surprising is the fact that despite all of these increases, upstream usage for Charter is still just a fraction of total usage. The trend that has stuck throughout the pandemic is video streaming, which still makes up the vast majority of all network use—about 16 times more than uploading.
Read part one of NCTA’s special Q&A series with CTOs from America’s leading ISPs.
Check out NCTA’s COVID-19 Dashboard, updated biweekly.