The coronavirus pandemic has forced the world to self-isolate. Social distancing is the new norm as people stay indoors, and world leaders call for shutdown of countries together. Large parts of various developed and developing nations are currently under lockdown to beat the highly contagious coronavirus.
As millions of people work from home, children attend virtual classrooms, businesses are conducted through virtual meeting from drawing rooms, one thing is evident. The coronavirus has forced the world to almost completely go online. Across the developed world, millions of us are now connecting to the internet from our kitchens, living rooms, and home offices every day—causing some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to see demand skyrocket.
Today, the household Wi-Fi router is tasked with carrying out umpteen video calls, streaming videos, and supporting online learning and what not. Supporting such a huge surge in internet usage has ISPs worried.
Sudden surge – a potential problem
Analytics firm Comscore has reported an 18% surge in home data use in the US compared to Q1 2019. Verizon said that the voice usage between March 12 and March 19 on its network was up 25%. And total web traffic was up 22%. The company said that the week-over-week usage patterns showed demand for streaming video services, like Netflix and Amazon, increased 12%. These are the most bandwidth-intensive applications on the internet. Meanwhile, web traffic climbed 20%, virtual private network jumped 30%. and online gaming skyrocketed 75%. Social media usage didn’t change compared with the prior week.
Vodafone, which operates in more than 65 countries, says it has seen data traffic increase by 50% in some markets. Spain has sounded a warning asking users in the country to use the internet responsibly. The warning comes after 5 major network providers and telecom operators including Vodafone and Orange expressed their fears of network collapse due to an approximate 40% increase among the internet users.
Rising to the challenge
So far networks in the US, Europe, and across the world have been holding up even as usage spikes. But will it continue? Broadband companies in the US say their networks can handle whatever traffic is thrown their way. But some broadband policy experts are skeptical. The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has asked the premier agency to report daily on the state of communications networks across the country. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has urged for a daily report as the procedure is followed in the aftermath of hurricanes or blackouts. In a tweet, she said that the daily status report is vital as these are the networks everybody is counting on for some semblance of modern life. Anticipating the need for Americans to get online, the US carriers and broadband providers have already suspended data caps on service.
Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg told CNBC that the company, which operates the Fios fiber-optic network and is the largest US wireless provider by number of users, is well positioned to handle the onslaught. AT and amp;T and Comcast have also said they’ve seen traffic surge, but they’re confident their networks can handle the surge in usage. Cloudflare, which provides cloud-based networking and cybersecurity services, and which has been tracking worldwide data usage, in a blog post said that it had seen network usage increase as much as 40% in Seattle, where the coronavirus first broke out in the US. More than 550 US-based companies have pledged allegiance to the Keep Americans Connected Initiative which requires broadband and telephone providers to ensure that Americans do not lose their broadband or telephone connectivity as a result of these exceptional circumstances.
How is Europe tackling the surge?
Netflix has agreed to reduce its streaming bit rates across Europe to help keep internet traffic under control during the pandemic. The decision was arrived at after a series of meetings between Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and the European Commissioner Thierry Breton. In a statement, Netflix has said that it expects a 25% reduction in traffic on European countries after this move. Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Disney Plus too have taken a cue from Netflix and have reduced streaming quality in a bid to save networks for emergency services and first responders.
The situation in the UK is surprisingly normal. Network providers insist that their infrastructure is capable of supporting the surge in demand. ISPA-UK, the organization that represents ISPs, said that networks were built for peak usage in the evenings, when users come back home and stream video and other content. For example, tools and applications that are required for work from home and other official purposes are far less data-intensive than normal household entertainment, gaming, and streaming tools.
Can networks handle the pressure?
There are several potential choke points in the internet that could hurt network performance. The most obvious depends on the type of technology used to access services. For instance, older cable broadband networks and DSL networks use infrastructure that was primarily designed to send information in one direction—downstream. As a result, the broadband service offered is asynchronous, which means that the download speed is much faster than the upload speeds. This is fine for consuming data through downloads. But when conference calls are held on apps like Zoom, the upload speed too has to have robust capacity, or the system fails.
In many developing countries, there is no adequate infrastructure to handle a significant increase in demand which needs to be addressed. In the UK, only 10% users have access to full-fiber broadband technology that delivers higher download speeds and is much more reliable than copper-based broadband. The rest of the country uses physical copper-based network that is susceptible to outages.
The internet today is robust enough to handle surging traffic and heavy usage. Despite an explosion in the number of users, internet service in most parts of the world is resilient. Showing a glimmer of hope, the Internet Society has said that the core Internet infrastructure providers should be able to easily absorb the increase in traffic and demand. However, in these trying times there can be no dearth of caution. It’s advisable to always have a backup if users are dependent on their home routers for official work, general entertainment, video calls, and conferences. Having a backup not only allows continuity, but it also means less frustration, which given the current state of the world, is definitely not a bad thing.