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The Great Work-At-Home Experiment

In response to the evolving public health concerns, governments, businesses, and educational facilities have directed people to remain at their homes. This will put more internet traffic on residential internet systems than ever before:
  1. School children and college students will view videos and materials while uploading assignments online.
  2. Adults will work at home, remotely connecting with networks, storage systems, and communicating with colleagues, sometimes by bandwidth consuming video
  3. Since everyone is at home, they’ll be passing time by viewing entertainment such as streaming media, gaming, and accessing news.
The first challenge of this first ever Great Work-At-Home Experiment is bandwidth: Will there be enough for everyone to do what they want? Early indications are yes, for the majority of people with broadband connections.

The second part of the Experiment regards power reliability. As the healthcare response plays out, people will need these service for weeks, months, or even longer if a long-term shift to working at home occurs. Over this time, power interruptions will likely occur as they do over any other period. For instance, last week’s magnitude 5.7 earthquake in Utah interrupted power to tens of thousands of customer. As this piece was written, poweroutage.us was reporting that thousands of customers across the US were out of power even though no significant outages had not been reported. Are the networks serving people who work at home vulnerable to these outages in ways that have not yet been realized?

Under legacy copper-wire “Plain Old Telephone Service”, bandwidth was limited to 56 kbs. However, the systems were reliable because backup generators powered telecommunication central offices, and these offices imposed communication signals on dc current that reached all the way to the customer terminal. There, the dc current powered customer equipment such as handsets.

Today, most residences are served by high-speed internet that primarily operates on fiber optic systems, where signals are imposed on light waves that do not transmit electrical power. While head end facilities are routinely provided with backup power sources, downstream outside plant equipment electricity relies on batteries charged by a nearby utility power source. For instance, optical signals are sent to nodes in neighborhoods - these are typically powered from a utility source. Customer premise equipment such as modems and routers must be powered from electrical circuits in a home or business. If an electrical utility outage occurs:
  1. Nodes with working batteries will stay up for the duration of battery capacity, nominally 4-8 hours, but duration is highly dependent on battery condition. If outages occur, service providers sometimes use portable gens for temporary power, but this solution is best suited for localized events.
  2. Customer premise equipment will go down unless a user has installed a properly functioning Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS). Many home/office UPS units are suited for short-term use only. If they are not maintained, will not stay up even for their designed duration. In any case, the residence will experience a communications outage after the available battery capacity is exhausted, unless it is equipped with its own backup generator. Most existing homes do not have this capability.
Understanding how internet networks serve communities can better prepare workers for outages. Mission-critical facilities plan for backup solutions. Organizations and workers could mitigate the effects of outages by planning for them. In the near term, the best practice might be to anticipate a two-fold problem. The first is powering work at home equipment. Making sure laptop computer batteries are fully charged is a common-sense step. Connecting computers, modems, and routers to a UPS with generous capacity can maximize communication time when outages occur, and internet networks are running on backup power.

Second, many home workers rely on cloud storage and cloud-hosted services. Access to these services will be disrupted if internet distribution is disrupted. Workers should consider strategies for saving copies of important files locally and often. Doing so, they can avoid loss of work and finish important tasks if backup power issues temporarily prevent access to corporate servers or cloud storage systems.

Work-at-home strategies could be a key tool for stemming the spread of communicable disease. When utility outages occur, properly powering outside plant and customer premise equipment could maximize success.

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