By BECKY GILLETTE
With the unprecedented shifts in how business services and education are delivered due to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), demand for high speed internet service has doubled and tripled from uses ranging from more telecommuting to online remote education, said Dave Miller, senior media relations manager for C Spire in Mississippi.
Miller said most of the demand on the business side has been for companies that want to switch to remote access for employees or need to change their business and service delivery models to safely and responsibly continue to meet the needs and desires of customers.
In some areas of the country, internet service providers (ISPs) have struggled to meet the demand, with customers complaining of spotty service particularly during times of peak demand. Miller said C Spire has been able to meet the need without customers having trouble accessing the internet.
“We have pivoted and changed most, if not all, of our processes and policies on how to service consumer and businesses–all with the goal of meeting their voice and data communication needs in these special times and continuing to make it simple, easy and intuitive to order and receive service,” Miller said. “We’ve done a lot since mid-March.”
Miller listed some highlights:
*At C Spire, we build our wireless and fiber networks, data centers and essential services for the ultimate reliability, even in the most challenging situations. Our team has stepped up with even more customer-inspired ways to serve your unique needs during the COVID-19 outbreak.
*We provided more high-speed data at no extra charge.
*We waived overage fees as part of our efforts to help communities stay connected during the coronavirus outbreak. Even customers who aren’t on Unlimited talk plans receive as many minutes as they need to keep in touch with loved ones and keep up-to-date on COVID-19. And customers who are on eligible smartphone Unlimited plans are getting an extra 25GB of high-speed data for free (a $50 value) through Sept. 30, and double the high-speed data up to an additional 25GB on eligible prepaid plans each month through Dec. 31.
With schools grappling with how to safely reopen for fall classes and many people continuing to work from home, demand for network services continues to grow. Streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube are more popular with many alternative forms of entertainment not available. Miller said C Spire has stayed ahead of the curve by increasing direct capacity to those sites by more than 50 percent. They have also expanded direct capacity to Facebook by 30 percent.
In mid-March when the pandemic began, the University of Mississippi Medical Center moved quickly to set up a large outdoor testing facility at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds in Jackson. As a partner with UMMC on the C Spire Health app, their development team stepped up to repurpose the app to handle triage for the main testing facility as well as pop-up testing centers around the state, with a streamlined registration and login process.
“During the first two months of use, more than 110,000 patients received evaluations through the app,” Miller said. “Our network team also stood up a mobile network for UMMC at the fairgrounds so they could access their servers and operate in full. C Spire repurposed its health care app in early June after new cases started to wane, although infections have recently spiked as more areas have resumed normal activities.”
Rural areas in Mississippi have long suffered from what is known as the “digital divide.” With public Wi-Fi locations like libraries and businesses closed or hours curtailed under social distancing policies, C Spire took its fiber signal and broadcast it to 27 local areas to provide complimentary high-speed Wi-Fi for students working on school assignments.
Demand is expected to continue to increase for the foreseeable future.
“The public health emergency has dramatically altered and forever changed the lives of most Mississippians, including working remotely from home, students transitioning to distance learning education models, businesses using e-commerce, online ordering and drop off or pick up options and doctors, hospitals and medical centers and clinics exploring and implementing creative solutions to serve patients via telehealth,” he said.
C Spire plans to continue to invest in the network. C Spire has more than a million consumer and business customers in Mississippi, and also serves many business customers in Alabama and Tennessee. It is the sixth largest wireless provider in the U.S. and eighth largest fiber-to-the-home ISP in the nation.
ISP provider TEC has also seen demand from customers double and triple during the pandemic. TEC spokesman Jordan Kay said their network is robust and engineered to handle the increased load.
“We were prepared, and our customers have not had issues accessing the internet due to increased usage,” Kay said. “We have created Wi-Fi hotspots for public use in the Bay Springs area. One hot spot is at our office and one is at the park in downtown Bay Springs. We also have stepped up internal procedures to get people connected more quickly and efficiently.”
Kay said with more people working from home, schooling from home, telemedicine, and streaming options, TEC expects to see demand continue to greatly increase.
“And we are dedicated to meeting these demands,” he said. “TEC works diligently getting as many people connected as fast as we can. We are actively adding more fiber to our network to bring internet connections to rural Mississippians.”
The company recently received an Infrastructure Loan for almost $10 million that will allow TEC to expand their network in Jasper County and surrounding areas. Additionally, they are collaborating with Southern Pine Electric Cooperative to offer internet to many of their underserved and unserved members.
TEC has about 8,000 customers in Mississippi.
AT&T, ranked as the largest ISPs in Mississippi with about 2,800 employees, reports that their network continues to perform well as more people work from home and students attend school remotely.
“We continuously monitor bandwidth usage with tools that analyze and correlate network statistics, which reveal network trends, and provide us with performance and capacity reports that help us manage our network,” said AT&T spokesman Daniel Hayes. “This is standard practice. It’s what we do.”
AT&T has a long history of investing in Mississippi. Hayes said for more than 140 years, the company has worked to deliver the connectivity Mississippi residents and businesses want and, from 2016-2019 alone, invested nearly $750 million to enhance and expand their wired and wireless networks in the state.
“We are committed to continuing our work to help close the remaining digital divide in the state and to deliver the high-speed services that keep communities and businesses across the state connected,” he said.