How Smart Software And AI Helped Networks Thrive For Consumers During The Pandemic
from the adaptation dept
Staying ahead of modern Internet usage – including the unprecedented surge caused by the global pandemic – requires much more than just raw capacity. More than ever, networks need to be smart in order to effectively anticipate and respond to traffic demands that are growing exponentially larger and more complex each year. For years, network operators have been investing in software and artificial intelligence that played key roles in meeting the unique challenge posed by COVID-19.
Throughout the pandemic surge, we have observed the performance of our network more closely than ever before, conducting nearly 700,000 diagnostic speed tests per day, and since March we’ve continued to deliver above-advertised speeds across the country, even in the areas we serve that have been most dramatically affected by COVID-19.
Our industry’s commitment to adding capacity was certainly critical to that success – since 2017 alone, Comcast has devoted more than $12 billion in private investment to strengthen and expand our network – including building more than 33,000 new route miles of fiber. But in today’s network environment, even massive capacity improvements have become table stakes. Every 2.5 years we add as much capacity to our network as we added in all the previous years combined, and while that’s enabled us to consistently deliver faster speeds to more people, we know that by itself, it is not enough.
Our teams also stepped-up in the face of the pandemic surge, performing an average of 771 network augments each week between March and September – compared to about 350 per week pre-pandemic (and averaging over 1,000 per week in the first few months of the pandemic). That our teams did this in the midst of an unprecedented shift to working from home and adapting to new ways to serve our customers – and safely conducting vital field work – made it that much more impressive. That work continues today, as pandemic-related stay-at-home activity continues to drive elevated traffic.
Of course the combination of investment and hard work was vital, but we also implemented new technologies and innovations to meet the unique challenge posed by the pandemic.
Internet traffic hasn’t just increased exponentially in recent years, it’s become dramatically more variable and complex. One illustration of this is popular gaming downloads, the largest of which can spike downstream demand across our entire network by as much as 10 percent overnight. With downstream usage regularly generating more than 14 times more Internet traffic than upstream, these gaming spikes represent truly massive traffic events. Today, such surges are commonplace, and are only one example of how much the modern network landscape has evolved to handle all kinds of Internet traffic.
We’ve been working to build smarter networks for more than a decade, transforming architecture, equipment, and tools to be faster, more efficient, and more resilient, but that work has accelerated dramatically in recent years, as we’ve leaned into AI and machine learning to monitor, optimize, and repair network performance faster than was previously possible.
Perhaps the most remarkable recent example of this work has been our Comcast Octave AI platform.
Comcast engineers in Philadelphia and Denver designed Comcast Octave to check more than 4,000 telemetry data points (such as external network “noise,” power levels, and other technical issues that can add up to a big impact on performance) on tens of millions of modems across our network every 20 minutes. It is programmed to detect when a modem isn’t using all the bandwidth available to it and automatically adjust the modem to deliver significant increases in speed and capacity.
This is not an example of AI replacing the work of human technologists, but rather of AI performing a volume of work at a speed that would be impossible for thousands of engineers, working around the clock. As a result, Octave enabled us to improve network performance and enhance customer experiences in a way that wasn’t previously possible. In essence, Octave becomes a force multiplier for the network that is constantly and automatically optimizing performance, in conjunction with the 24/7 work of our network technicians, engineers, and field crews across the country.
We developed Octave in 2019, just before the pandemic, so when it hit, we had only rolled it out to part of our network. Knowing how important it could be to providing additional performance and capacity, a team of about 25 engineers worked seven-day weeks to reduce the deployment process from months to weeks. As a result, in addition to the capacity we gained by adding significant new physical infrastructure in March and April 2020 and the work of hundreds of other network engineers to make other optimizations, we were also able to deliver a 36 percent increase in capacity with Octave alone – just at the time that customers needed more bandwidth than ever as they shifted to doing everything from home.
While Octave’s behind-the-scenes operations are invisible to users, its positive impact on them is unmistakable. Octave helped us to provide sustained, robust Internet access for our customers throughout one of the most significant challenges in our history – to maintain the high quality of remote classes they take, movies they stream, games they play, and video conference calls they participate in. And because Octave is so new, we continue to make significant improvements to the technology, improving device performance even more as the pandemic surge continues.
As we accelerate the digitization and virtualization of our networks, and evolve our use of AI and machine learning to not only monitor performance, but also automatically improve it millions of times every hour, we are approaching an inflection point in network technology that will deliver unprecedented speed, resiliency, reliability, and enriched service for consumers, even as demand continues to skyrocket.
Jason Livingood is Vice President, Technology Policy and Standards, Comcast Cable.