Clark County teachers and families are reporting big spikes in their data usage and accompanying bills during the first month of virtual education, with some saying they are exceeding caps of more than 1 terabyte offered by internet service providers like Cox.
“These were numbers people thought were never reachable before,” Kendall Hartley, associate professor of educational technology at UNLV, said of the increases in data usage. His own household hit the data cap in May, he said, between his work, his wife’s usage as an elementary school teacher and their college student child.
Videoconferencing is often thought to be the culprit, using approximately 1 gigabyte — 1/1,000th of a terabyte — per hour, Hartley said. But it’s only part of the issue. Many cord-cutters like his family use data for entertainment as well as work, driving up usage.
Caps are also not the exclusive cause of some of the frustrations behind virtual learning, Hartley said. Bandwidth capacity causes service drops and slowdowns at peak times of the day, and services like Google, Zoom and Canvas are having issues of their own, he added.
But taken altogether, Hartley said the difficulties create frustration for families and raise concerns about learning loss, particularly for younger children or those from households already facing inequity.
Like ‘power … water and gas’
“Videoconferencing is critical for these students, and I’d like to see that continue (to be a priority),” Hartley said. “Broadband access is a utility now. We need it as much as we need power and water and gas.”
Jeff Ferrari, an advertising executive, said that after he and his teacher wife and their two children began distance learning last month, he received an alert that the household had used 75 percent of its allotted data. When another alert said they were up to 90 percent, Ferrari opted to upgrade to the unlimited plan offered by Cox for another $50 per month.
“It’s a lot of live teaching,” he said. “The expectation is that (teachers) are available all day to answer any questions.”
Clark County School District teacher Ashley Juresic said she wasn’t aware that a data cap existed until she saw an additional charge on her August bill. Cox had suspended its data cap for approximately four months when the COVID-19 outbreak hit earlier this year but recently reinstated it.
Juresic said that when she called and asked for help with her bill, she was told to buy more data. Instead, she said, she has cut out most personal streaming and browsing to avoid going over the limit again.
“I feel bad for my students. I’m trying to have them not use excessive data,” Juresic said. “After a lesson, I tell them that if they understand the material, they’re free to log off. … I don’t know what their data situation is.”
Juresic said internet service providers like Cox, a multibillion-dollar company, shouldn’t penalize teachers who are working from home during the pandemic.
Cox Communications spokeswoman Susie Black-Manriquez said a partnership with CCSD is in the works to offer some relief to a limited number of teachers. She said she could not yet reveal details.
No subsidizing internet bills
CCSD, which recently announced subsidized internet for qualifying families, did not return a request for comment about whether any such programs may become available to teachers. Under district policy, teachers are responsible for paying for their own internet at home, including any overages.
A statement from Cox also said the company has raised data allowances by 25 percent — from 1 to 1.25 terabytes of data — and will waive overage charges the first time a customer exceeds the cap, which should cover 1,000 hours of video conferencing every month.
“1.25 TB per month is more data than the vast majority of customers will need,” the statement said. “In fact, more than 95 percent of our customers will not be charged for overages even at the current increased consumption levels due to social distancing and learn and work from home activities.”
Dan Rayburn, an expert in streaming media, also said it’s highly unlikely that a household would exceed 1 terabyte of data per month, even with multiple family members videoconferencing and streaming media. Streaming a video will use approximately 2 gigabytes per hour, he said, and videoconferencing — which produces lower-quality video — uses less.
“There just aren’t enough hours in the day that they’re going to meet their cap,” he said.
Rayburn said that when usage caps were first introduced, they created a furor as consumers felt their broadband access was being limited by large corporations. He said the companies took the action to crack down on accounts engaged in activities like mass file-sharing.
The anger quickly died down because almost no one hit the caps, he added.
Other factors may be at work
Rayburn said there may be other factors behind the spikes in usage, like large downloads. A recent update for the game “Call of Duty,” for example, required a 100GB download, he noted.
Consumers should take steps to monitor their usage, Rayburn said. Anyone working or learning from home should have consistent daily usage, while random spikes could indicate a miscalculation on the internet service providers’ part.
Keeping a close eye on the account could also help determine if unauthorized users are accessing the network — another source of unexpected usage spikes.
Finally, Rayburn said, keeping an eye on usage might reveal that the usage alerts are just a sales technique and that the account is actually using far less than the amount stated in the alert.