Companies are facing added difficulty staying connected to work-from-home employees in remote areas, where internet services can be slow and at times patchy, technology executives and analysts say.
Though not new, the problem has become more pressing as the number of Covid-19 cases surges in rural states that had largely been spared the pandemic. The increase has prompted local officials to impose preventive measures that will likely keep employees at businesses headquartered in these regions from returning to the office.
“You have some people who have lousy connections at home and there’s nothing you can do,” said Paul Scorza, chief information officer and executive vice president of information technology at supermarket operator Retail Business Services LLC, whose brands include Stop & Shop, Food Lion, Hannaford and other grocery store chains.
The company, a U.S. subsidiary of
Koninklijke Ahold Delhaize
NV, has about 2,700 employees at offices in North Carolina and Maine, as well as thousands of associates in more than 2,000 stores in 23 states in the Eastern U.S.
“Everybody has been working at home at some point,” Mr. Scorza added.
He said the biggest problem so far for employees in remote areas is limited bandwidth for videoconferencing, especially in households with children home-schooling or streaming
movies and videogames.
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“We had a couple of people who said they could only do audio,” he said.
Despite this, across the country home internet and wireless connectivity has largely withstood the surge in traffic after companies sent workers home amid statewide lockdowns.
Broadband data company OpenVault estimated average data consumption per household between January and March at roughly 400 gigabytes—up nearly 50% over the same period last year—with peaks during daytime office hours.
The increase was driven in part by data-heavy videoconferencing tools, OpenVault said, which businesses are using in place of face-to-face meetings. So far, industry executives and analysts have reported no major outages or service disruptions.
But that could change as the coronavirus takes hold in places like Arkansas, Idaho, Montana, Mississippi and other states with large rural populations.
A recent state-by-state analysis of download speeds by HighSpeedInternet.com, a website that compares internet service providers, reported speeds below the national average of 59.5 megabits per second in Arkansas, Mississippi, South Dakota, Idaho and Maine, among other states.
But internet speeds in some cities and towns in these states fall below the bare minimum for broadband service, which the Federal Communications Commission defines as an internet connection with download speeds of 25 megabits a second or faster.
An estimated 10% to 15% of the U.S. population is underserved by broadband providers, said Courtney Munroe, a research vice president at International Data Corp., a world-wide technology research firm. “A lot of this is in rural communities.”
Local internet services in these regions tend to be slower, in part because they cover wider distances to reach end users. That can make services more costly and less profitable to providers, said Josh Chessman, a senior director at research firm
Making matters worse, he added, many households tend to use their internet service provider’s Wi-Fi routers, which aren’t “necessarily the best and fastest.”
Add to that multiple devices using the same wireless access point and connection and “you have a huge issue,” Mr. Chessman said.
André Kindness, a principal analyst for infrastructure and operations at Forrester Research, said remote workers in this situation can use email, but they will find “most collaboration tools such as voice over IP to be useless.” A large number of households in rural areas even rely on outdated dial-up services for internet access, he said, and many don’t have 4G coverage to use as a backup.
Slow internet connections also limit the speed of real-time file transfers to and from cloud data storage, among other routine business tasks, said Todd Thibodeaux, president and chief executive of CompTIA, the IT trade group. Common workarounds include shifting more work offline with occasional filesynching, he said.
Other options can be too costly, such as providing employees with advanced networking hardware or paying for dedicated lines, analysts said.
Micron Technology Inc.,
an Idaho-based computer chip maker, in March began taking steps to support remote-work capabilities for roughly 3,500 employees living in and around Boise, said Anand Bahl, the company’s CIO and corporate vice president.
The measures included issuing 700 laptops, 800 monitors and 2,900 remote desktop and virtual machine accounts, which enable off-site computers to access the company’s network and applications, Mr. Bahl said in an email. Micron also quadrupled its own internet capacity, he added.
The company issued guidelines to help employees optimize their home internet bandwidth and offered monthly reimbursements to employees who needed upgrades or a change in their service providers.
“While every situation is unique, most of our Boise-area team members are able to secure good high-speed internet,” Mr. Bahl said.
Federal lawmakers last week introduced a bill aimed at accelerating the development of faster broadband services in outlying regions, citing the urgent need for better connectivity during the pandemic.
Among other measures, the legislation would create a fund overseen by the FCC to defray the costs to service providers of expanding infrastructure projects in rural areas.
A number of states are considering similar measures.
Mr. Scorza of Retail Business Services said that despite the many shortcomings, the move to remote work has gone smoothly.
“When I talk to other CIOs, we thought this was going to be a train wreck,” he said. “And yet we’re all pleasantly surprised.
Write to Angus Loten at email@example.com
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