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Managing a network during the COVID-19 crisis

By |2020-05-05T14:35:16-06:00May 6, 2020|Categories: COVID-19, For Customers & Partners, Podcast, Residential|Tags: , , |

Viasat’s Evan Dixon on what the company has been doing to keep data flowing

Since the COVID-19 pandemic has forced millions of people to adapt to

Evan Dixon

work-at-home practices, it’s created an enormous shift in the data traffic patterns for internet service providers like Viasat. In this episode of the Viasat Podcast, host Alex Miller catches up with Evan Dixon, Vice President and Head of Residential for The Americas. Topics covered include:

  • How demand has spiked during the pandemic, and how data usage has changed demands on our network.
  • What Viasat is doing to prioritize work-from-home and school-from-home applications during the pandemic. Plus, how the company is working to deliver as much capacity as possible to our customers.
  • How managing data traffic across the network helps ensure all our subscribers continue to get good service.
  • Ways in which customers can adjust their own behavior to improve their experience in their homes and across the network.
  • How what we’ve learned during this period will help improve and expand our service going forward.

Listen to the podcast:

Transcript – Evan Dixon May 2020

Alex Miller: Welcome to the Viasat podcast. I’m Alex Miller with Corporate Communications. And we’re talking with Evan Dixon, Vice President and Head of Residential for The Americas. Thanks a lot for being on the podcast today.
Evan Dixon: Thanks for having me again, Alex.
Alex Miller: We’re talking today during a very unusual time in the world when the coronavirus has forced millions of people to stay at home and practice social distancing as a means of slowing the infection. So, you know, this is had a great impact on internet service providers like Viasat. So I wanted to ask you about some of those effects and the ways in which we’re addressing them. So first, what are some of the changes we’re seeing in how our residential customers are using their Viasat service?
Evan Dixon: Yeah, absolutely. So I think this this has definitely been a very challenging and unsettling time for the whole country. But absolutely for broadband providers, because they’ve been hit with demand that has never been seen before. I know we’re all using this word ‘unprecedented.’ But this truly is an unprecedented situation for Viasat specifically. Two things that we saw immediately: One is that demand has spiked through the roof. And I say that not just in the United States, but we’ve seen it in other countries where we operate, where there’s demand for broadband of all types and satellite is one of many that people are seeking out like they never sought out before. We’ve seen here in the US just an enormous spike in demand. And we’ve had many challenges in trying to meet that demand and making sure that we can continue to bring on as many people as possible while not degrading the performance across the entire subscriber base. So that’s been the biggest one, is that demand spike. I think the second one has been just the usage spike. Like all ISPs, we see peak usage in the evenings. We call it a peak busy period. And it usually happens in that 7 to 9 p.m. range where people get home from work, they get home from school, they turn on Netflix, they flip open their laptops, they grab their iPads, they game. And we see a spike in usage in the evenings. And that’s something we’ve always planned for and it lasts for a couple hours or so in the evenings. Since this COVID crisis began, that peak busy period went from a couple hours in the evening to essentially a 12-hour peak busy period lasting throughout the day into the night. That’s been a great learning for us. But it’s also been something that has led us to have to step up and make sure that we can continue to provide a great experience for all the customers because we’ve never seen that sort of usage before.
Alex Miller: Right. Yeah, it’s an enormous switch. So, you know, given that big shift in usage and those usage patterns, what has Viasat done with our network to meet that today?
Evan Dixon: Yeah, the biggest thing we’ve done is try to address the needs of our subscribers. Typically, we see the most usage on our network being video streaming. So that’s just like most ISPs. We see around 70 percent of usage being video. And we try to make sure that we provide the best experience possible for that. At times like this, when you have a lot of people that want to sign on at the same time, you have a lot of congestion. Usage is the most we’ve ever seen in terms of the number of people trying to sign on, all throughout the day. We’ve had to make some tradeoffs and we’ve tried to step up and do our part to make sure that people that need to work from home and school from home can do that. So the biggest change we made, we did this right up front, right when state-by-state started going on lockdown and people started to work from home. We took the proactive step of making sure that work-from-home and school-from-home applications are getting full speed 24 hours a day, regardless of how much usage that particular subscriber has used in that given month. We make sure they’re full speed. So think of your work from home applications as being things like email thing or things like Zoom video, which has been in the news a lot lately with the amount of growth that they’ve seen on their networks so that people can talk either socially or for work. So we’ve made sure that those applications can work at full speed regardless of congestion or where you are in your usage pattern. Additionally, in terms of schooling from home. My kids are getting homework assignments every day from their teacher. It usually comes in the form of video. They have to download that video. They then upload videos back up to those applications and there are a lot of applications like that that many schools, universities are using right now, and we’ve tried to identify all of the major applications that are used for educating kids at home. And we’ve made it so that those applications also will continue to get full speed 24 hours a day, regardless of where they are with the usage. And so with that, when I talk about tradeoffs, of course, we are prioritizing schooling from home, working from home applications ahead of some of the more novel applications like Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime. I mean, we do the best we can to make sure that people have an optimal experience with those and can still enjoy watching those applications throughout the day and the evening. But in cases where there is congestion on the network, we are prioritizing those essential applications ahead of ones that are more seen as nonessential.
Alex Miller: Right. And I think I understand, another example is like, if someone’s got a huge game, new game download or something like that, it might get shifted to a different time of the day when not as many people are on or things like that.
Evan Dixon: That’s exactly right. And you know we have a blog, as you’re well aware, and we do the best we can to educate our subscriber base on tips and tricks on how to get the most out of their broadband, especially during this time. And what you just mentioned is a good example of that. Right. So if people can if people can think ahead of movies that they might want to watch that evening or games they might want to download the next day, if they can try to download those movies or download those games during off peak hours, so not so early in the morning, maybe set it to happen in the middle of the night. Things like that. Then those people will see, you know, much less impact from all the usage that’s going over the network and potential congestion.
Alex Miller: Right. Yeah I think it’s important for people to understand that, you know, it is a shared network and it’s like a highway. And the more cars that are on it, the slower everybody goes. So maybe those game downloads are like the 18 wheelers. You know, you ask them to go at a different time or something like that.
Evan Dixon: Absolutely. So, you know, everybody’s having to pitch in and do their part on this side, private and public. And so we’re doing the best we can to educate and give the tools to our subscribers to let them know how to do that.
Alex Miller: Right. You know, and speaking of educating our subscribers. One of the things that we hear from our customers relates to data and how our plans are somewhat different than the ones you might see on a terrestrial network like cable or fiber or even DSL. And I was wondering if you can explain how satellite’s a little bit different in how we manage data and those usage limitations.
Evan Dixon: So first off, I should mention that every one of our current plans that’s currently marketed and sold today is an unlimited plan. And so when I say there will be certain limitations in terms of if you pass a certain threshold of data, you are subject to potentially being slowed down if the network is congested, but regardless, you will get unlimited data. You will never have to pay for more data. You may just see a different speed on your broadband if you pass a certain inflection point in that data. But we are not making people pay for more data if they buy a package that’s out there in the market today. So that’s an important distinction. But to your point about limitations on satellite broadband versus others, I think it’s first worth noting that, you know, in the case of satellite broadband, when we send the satellite up in space, it has a finite amount of capacity on it. And we only have so much capacity to deliver to a certain number of subscribers. And we have tradeoffs to make. We can deliver a lot of capacity to very few subscribers. We could deliver very little capacity to a lot of subscribers. Or you can do what we’ve tried to do, which is balance that and make sure that we can allow the most amount of users on the network to get the best experience possible. And we do that by making difficult decisions in order not to sacrifice an acceptable broadband experience. And that’s something that we have to, you know, we continue to get better and better at. And it’s something that subscribers, you know, educating subscribers, letting them understand that we’re not holding anything back. It’s not like we have lots and lots of capacity and we are trying to make people pay for more broadband. It’s that we’re trying to make sure that we have 600,000 subscribers today. We’re trying to make sure that all 600,000 have a great experience. And with that comes just making sure that one guy can’t use too much that would degrade the experience of his neighbors. So and that’s the difficult part with managing satellite broadband.
Alex Miller: Right, yeah. It’s definitely a difficult balancing act. So I was wondering … is there a little bit of a difference between how that traffic might look on a terrestrial network versus a satellite network?
Evan Dixon: There’s really no difference in the sense that terrestrial networks and satellite both have their limitations. And when a terrestrial network is full and it’s congested, you will see speeds degrade. When a satellite network is full and congested, you will speed these speeds degrade. We have different limitations for, you know, when congestion is reached. But the same principle holds true.
Alex Miller: Ok. And Evan, can you talk just a little bit more about some of the things our customers can do on their end to help out with network performance?
Evan Dixon: Yeah, I think we touched on this a little bit with the planning ahead in terms of downloading games and videos ahead of time. I think that’s a big one. And the other big one is that most people don’t know, but when they watch streaming video – be it YouTube or Netflix or anything – they do have the ability to change what the video resolution is. And that video resolution has a direct impact on the amount of data that’s being used. So if you are watching Netflix in 4K, that is using a lot more data than if you are watching it in 720P, for example. And so simple changes like that that many people … and I’d say the majority of people depending on your TV, would not even notice the difference between those. Simple changes like that will help you get a lot more usage out of the broadband over the course of any given month. And so we try — again going to the blog — we try to give those tips and tricks to folks so that they arm themselves with the tools to go and make those simple changes.
Alex Miller: Right. And we do touch on a lot of those topics on the blog. We also have a knowledge base where people can find articles about their service. And, you know, one of the things that people can also do is just kind of keep an eye on how many people are actually on their home network. So if you’ve got, you know, three kids, you know, all on their tablets and somebody else streaming video, then, you know, it may be hard for you to do that Zoom chat, right?
Evan Dixon: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I think if you were to sit down and speak with one of our customer care representatives, they get calls all the time, saying, hey, you know, I haven’t used broadband at all and I’m seeing a little bit slower speeds, you know, what’s going on. And after some investigation by our customer care agent, we’ll find out that one of their kids is probably watching Netflix day and night in the bedroom on an iPad. And they didn’t know it. And so, you know, making sure – it’s just an example – but making sure that the whole family understands these things and everybody’s operating in a way that maximizes the amount of usage you get out of your broadband throughout a given month is good practice.
Alex Miller: So what has the COVID-19 crisis told us about our network and our customers? You know, sometimes there’s a silver lining to some of these things where you get some learnings that you may not have seen otherwise. And so what does the future look like for internet delivered over satellite in light of all this?
Evan Dixon: You know, this has been and continues to be an unsettling and unnerving time in the world. But we’re really excited to be part of the solution. And this, I think, unlike any other time in Viasat’s history, we’ve always felt as though we were there to provide a great service to people who in the past did not have an option — they  were truly unconnected from their friends and family and society. And so we’ve offered them that ability. But now being able to do things like offer people telemedicine and e-health solutions to people in rural areas that otherwise can’t get to a doctor easily, to offer schooling from home because, you know, we’ve had many superintendents across the country contact us and say ‘please help.’ We have lots of students that have to school from home, and they are not able to do so because they don’t have an internet option. We’ve stepped up in helping provide that. And it’s the same with work where we’re allowing much of this country to continue to receive a paycheck because they’re able to continue to work from home through our connectivity. So I think that makes us feel as though we’re doing, we’re bringing a lot of good to this country in this time of crisis. So that’s been a positive.
Alex Miller: So is it fair to say also that, you know, some of these learnings will extend to that global presence that we’ll have in many other countries where those kinds of services are very desperately needed?
Evan Dixon: Yeah, absolutely. So I think you know, we’ve focused mostly on the U.S. in this conversation. But in Spain, you know, there was an immediate spike in sales. We know we said publicly that we saw in Spain a 35% spike in sales in the first week when that country went on lockdown because everybody’s having to work from home. We now provide service in Mexico and Brazil. And growing country by country. And the more countries that we’re able to roll out to, the more good we’ll be able to do to make it so that more and more people can feel connected in times of crisis like this.
Alex Miller: All right. Well, Evan Dixon, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us on the podcast today. I know it’s a challenging time, but I think, you know, Viasat’s up to it. And hopefully the next time we talk, we can we can do it in person. I think a lot of people are hoping that.
Evan Dixon: Yeah. Absolutely. Thanks a lot, Alex. Appreciate it.
Alex Miller: Thanks for listening to the Viasat podcast. If you know someone you think would be interested in what you’ve heard on this episode, please share. You can always find the latest episode on our blog at corpblog.viasat.com.  And you can subscribe at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, just about anywhere you get your podcasts.

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Alex Miller is the editor of the Viasat corporate blog. A veteran newspaper reporter and editor, Alex has been with Viasat since 2012, working out of the company's Denver office.