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caption: A file photo of an internet pole in Brittany, France.
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A file photo of an internet pole in Brittany, France.

Internetting used to be easy. Then we went home to do it full-time

This is me doing yet another interview on Zoom.

“I think it says you’re muted. Are you muted?”

Sherri Riggs of Whistleout then says "Hello. Can you hear me?"

Whistleout is an internet plan comparison company that did a little poll of 400 adults, and found that 65% had their video calls freeze or disconnect due to a weak internet connection.

It's an emerging problem as so many people move to working at home because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“One third of all of our respondents say they cannot complete their work because of weak internet,” Riggs said.

There are two main ways that internet gets to people’s homes:

  • Fiber, which is very fast but it isn’t available everywhere.
  • Cable, which is more widely available.

Riggs says cable can work really well, but if everyone in the neighborhood is using it, it can be like when everyone is on the freeway at rush hour.

“When you have a lot of people using that bandwidth, the internet is going to run slower," she said.

All this time many of us have been thinking about internet the way we think about water: we turn on the tap and there it is. But now that we’re working at home and having problems, we’re our own IT department.

KUOW reporter and fellow sufferer Joshua McNichols has fiber optic service at his house.

“And it’s usually outstanding," he said. "But our router crashed. Our router stopped working.”

It was barely contained bedlam.

“My son couldn't log into his class. My wife got kicked out of her team's meeting for work, and I couldn't get online either. So we've got four people trying to access the internet and no way to do it and it's just a panic in my household. They come to me and they're like, 'How can you help us get back online?'”

McNichols had to spend hours on the phone before learning what many have discovered the hard way: “The whole tech support system seems to be suffering in this pandemic too. It's like they maybe they don't have enough people or something but their call volumes are huge. And so they can't give you the attention that you need.”

Facing days with no internet and potential domestic mutiny, McNichols flagged down a technician driving through the neighborhood to get advice on how to fix it himself. There was a desperate trip to the Best Buy.

“They’re doing all curbside pickup and a guy comes up and he’s like 'Oh we haven’t carried Century Link fiber-compatible routers for years.'”

I never quite got the whole story of how he got his internet back -- the audio connection cut out while we were talking. Even when I got him back on another Zoom call, the passion in his voice about his harrowing experience was gone.

And then a day later, my own internet went out. Turned out, it was the neighborhood pod port: whatever that is. Service was back in the morning.

In all of this, I learned that in a pinch, you can use your phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot. Recently, many carriers have expanded free access to this way to get online. In case you don’t know: the hotspot becomes your wireless connection to the internet, except it’s coming from your phone. You can teach your computer to connect to the hotspot on a good day, which will help when you have a work deadline and the internet disappears.

However, some of the trouble we are having has nothing to do with our internet connection. Comcast's Joel Shadle pointed out that servers far away may be running beyond their capacity.

“The Internet is a network of networks," he said. "All of the apps that people are using, they also have to anticipate these types of spikes in influx in usage, right, they have to prepare their own network servers. And you know, at times, that application may become overburdened with a whole bunch of people."

Look what happened to Zoom. Last December, 10 million people were using this video meeting platform. By March, 200 million people were using using it. Zoom acknowledged there were problems. Shadle says that by now many of these apps have scaled up.

We’re going to be home for awhile yet. However inattentive we have been to our home internet connections, by the time we get back to the office our IT departments are going to discover we’re a lot more self-sufficient than we used to be.