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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.

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Companies: comcast

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Comments on “How Smart Software And AI Helped Networks Thrive For Consumers During The Pandemic”

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30 Comments
Anonymoussays:

Re:

Some cable ISPs have features with names like "speed boost", where they’ll make your modem faster than usual when you’re not using it much, and then reduce it after a few seconds or minutes of heavy use. An optimist might say it’s useful to speed up downloads of small files; a pessimest might say it artificially increases benchmark scores.

jlivingoodsays:

Re: Re:

Some cable ISPs have features with names like “speed boost”, where they’ll make your modem faster than usual when you’re not using it much, and then reduce it after a few seconds or minutes of heavy use.

Do any ISPs still offer this? Comcast phased it out many years ago. The release of DOCSIS 3.0 channel bonding make it a sort of outdated approach.

sumgaisays:

Re:

t 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.

My first thought was that this sounds like someone is attempting to access my internet equipment illegally. At only one time is Comcast (or any other ISP) authorized to access equipment on my private premises, and that is when the modem in question is theirs, and I’m only leasing it. (NOT true in my case.)

But in actuality, I believe that the statement really meant to point to the connecting equipment at locations owned by Comcast, not at the connection point in someone’s home. I"d be willing to bet that this is a more a matter of how one interprets nuance, rather than someone’s sales brochure having bypassed the legal department before release.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re:

But in actuality, I believe that the statement really meant to point to the connecting equipment at locations owned by Comcast, not at the connection point in someone’s home.

Considering it’s just a QoS setting on their edge router…… Seriously, what makes you think they need access to your house at all to throttle the traffic that passes through their equipment?

sumgaisays:

Re: Re: Re:

Taken in a literally technological sense, the word modem does indeed include the equipment on the ISP’s end of the connection. But we users have been inculcated for a long time with the word’s use as pertaining to our home-bound setup, not the ISP’s.

Point taken though, I’ll back off on any further assertions of like nature.

jlivingoodsays:

Re: Re: Re:

Considering it’s just a QoS setting on their edge router……

FWIW, as a minor aside, it is not really a QoS setting as this would typically imply use of DSCP at the IP packet level – more a DOCSIS layer thing. But your core observation holds – that this is done at the edge router (CMTS) and to the cable modem that the CMTS connects to in the network.

jlivingoodsays:

Re: Re:

I believe that the statement really meant to point to the connecting equipment at locations owned by Comcast, not at the connection point in someone’s home.

It looks at the RF interface on your cable modem CPE. Whether owned or leased the network need to work with the modem to do things like assign the correct DOCSIS channels and so on. Connecting to and managing the RF interface is an integral part of network management – no essentially nothing new in terms of managing that interface – but more about efficiencies that have been gained.

sumgaisays:

Re: Re: Re:

My particular modem is DOCSIS 3.3 compliant. I’m under the impression that everything is pretty much automatic (given that I, as the user, have not done a manual configuration), and as such, any incoming data is free to appear on any channel it might desire – if it’s bonded at the source (the ISP) then the modem simply receives it in stride and passes it all through to the router.

Does the modem really have to be told ahead of time something like "Hey, wake up – here’s comes some data on channels 1, 2, 3 and 4… deal with it." Seems like wasted overhead to me.

But then again, my mileage has been known to vary. Widely. 😉

jlivingoodsays:

Re:

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.

Maybe think of it slightly differently – the system looks at what devices are currently talking on the network (and on what parts of the spectrum and what each device can do – eg use OFDM or bond 4 channels vs 32 channels), then shuffle/distribute them around in the available spectrum so as to maximize the performance potential of each one and the network as a whole.

Anonymoussays:

Jason Livingood is Vice President, Technology Policy and Standards, Comcast Cable.

I wish you had led with this and saved me the minutes I wasted reading your self-aggrandizing bullshit. Tech that "speeds up" lesser-used connections then slows them down again during heavy use only gives that shithole of a company you work for the ability to say "Up to X Mb!" with even less sincerity.

Eat a cold bowl of dicks.

jlivingoodsays:

Tech that "speeds up" lesser-used connections then slows them down again during heavy use

It is not slowing someone down. This is not an IP-layer congestion management system but rather more of a DOCSIS link layer network efficiency / performance improvement system. In the same way moving to OFDM meant more efficient use of RF spectrum then similarly this system provides a way to wring even more performance out of the network.

Eat a cold bowl of dicks.

That’s a pretty pathetic retort.

Anonymoussays:

Re:

It is not slowing someone down. This is not an IP-layer congestion management system but rather more of a DOCSIS link layer network efficiency / performance improvement system.

If someone’s connection is faster at some times and slower at others then it doesn’t much matter how you phrase it. It’s the same thing. And let’s not pretend that the faster times are a bonus on top of your stated maximum speeds. They are your stated maximum speeds. From a consumer perspective I would see that sometimes I get the speed I paid for, other times I get much less than that. The technology behind it is irrelevant.

That’s a pretty pathetic retort.

Agreed. However, what I see is an employee of one of the world’s worst companies in several areas including government manipulation, customer service and nickel and dimeing coming into a tech forum where your company’s name is reviled trying to brag about what an awesome job you’re doing. Pardon me if I don’t think you or the company you represent are worth a better retort.

Divamithoughtssays:

Agreed

As the writer said- an inflection point in network technology that will deliver unprecedented speed, resiliency, reliability, and enriched service for consumers, even as demand continues to skyrocket. this totally goes with the roll. As being a part of designer and development company- Divami.com , we get in daily basis discussion How Smart Software And AI Helps.

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