Internet Networks Are Being Tested By a Surge of Traffic

A massive work-from-home experiment is now underway because of the threat of the coronavirus.

“Traffic towards video conferencing, streaming services and news, e-commerce websites has surged,” says Louis Poinsignon of Cloudflare, a San Francisco-based web infrastructure company, in a March 17 blog post. “We’ve seen growth in traffic from residential broadband networks, and a slowing of traffic from businesses and universities.”

That includes my new work-from-home routine, which is like that of many other Americans. Yesterday I joined a video conference, made an internet phone call, watched online video, surfed the web and sent scores of emails and other messages. My wife also used our network to do an array of similar tasks.

Travel bans, restrictions on public gatherings, business closures and quarantines are keeping more and more people at their homes 24/7. That means more video streaming, gaming and social media posting during all hours of the day. After Italy’s lockdown, the country saw its daily traffic soar 20% to 40%, according to Cloudflare.

The prolonged surge of web traffic around the clock is perhaps unprecedented for home broadband networks, which usually see traffic spike during evening hours when folks get home from work and scroll through Instagram or stream Netflix.

Internet providers are assuring customers that their networks can handle the higher-than-usual demands. Verizon recently said in a statement that they “stand ready for increases in data traffic” and highlighted an increase in network investment this year. T-Mobile got special approval from the Federal Communications Commission to tap additional airwaves to boost wireless capacity, though that bandwidth only works on newer smartphones. Other providers have issued similar notes of confidence.

Wireless and wired networks should be fine under the new traffic demands, says Roger Entner, the founder and lead analyst of Recon Analytics. “The networks are designed around busy hours at night” or whenever people are watching Netflix, Entner says. During the day, that capacity is still there. “Video is really the driver for data consumption” and video services can be downgraded in quality if there’s congestion. Plus, a lot of at-home office work doesn’t require streaming HD or 4K video.

The challenge could come with videoconferencing software or other online tools, says Entner. “The bottleneck comes together on Zoom or WebEx.” The root cause is not the internet providers themselves, but rather how the different online tools have set up their content delivery systems. But even then, it might only mean a video meeting sees downgraded video quality. Or perhaps workers have to switch to audio, which uses a sliver of the bandwidth that HD video does.

Expect some major online tools to roll out small changes to keep services running smoothly. Microsoft 365, the online suite of tools that includes email, spreadsheets and video meetings, told users it may change video resolution; the frequency with which it checks that a user is there; and how quickly it shows another party is typing a message. The update is to “accommodate new growth and demand during unprecedented times.” That minimizes some background data usage that Microsoft doesn’t absolutely need, says Entner.

The critical importance of consumer internet and cellular service at this time puts a magnifying glass on any hiccups in service. Expect regulators and lawmakers to watch service reliability and resilience closely. Telemedicine and 911 are especially critical.

“The Internet was built to cope with an ever changing environment,” Cloudflare’s Poinsignon notes. “In fact, it was literally created, tested, debugged and designed to deal with changing load patterns.”

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