Is the Pandemic Breaking the Internet?

by | Apr 27, 2020

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Can you imagine what it would be like quarantining without the internet? No videocalls, no streaming TV shows and movies, no email, no social media, etc. It would suck because as most of us work from home (WFH), shelter in place, isolate, quarantine and practice social distancing we have greatly increased our internet usage. Here’s some stats:

  • British Telecom said that the load on their infrastructure has doubled.
  • A group of telecom operators in Spain warned their systems were close to collapse as “traffic through IP networks has experienced increases of close to 40%, while mobile use has increased by around 50% in voice and 25% in data. Likewise, traffic from instant messaging tools such as WhatsApp has multiplied by five in recent days.”
  • Netflix consumption has jumped by 115% in Southeast Asia.
  • In the U.S. time spent on streaming services in the 2nd half of March was double that of the same period a year ago.
  • Cisco WebEx videoconference increased by 240% in March and Zoom’s daily active users jumped from 10 million to over 200 million in 3 months.
  • Cyber-attacks have also increased during the pandemic with Nokia reporting a 40% jump in Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) traffic.

Here’s a chart showing the relative change in Internet use as seen by Cloudflare, a web infrastructure company, since the beginning of the year:

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Internet Traffic Moves to the Suburbs

An interesting pattern has emerged as internet usage has increased: usage in major city centers has plummeted while it has increased in the suburbs. Below is a heatmap from Cloudflare showing internet usage in New York City (where overall internet usage is up about 35%). “The green areas indicate growth in traffic and the red areas indicate where it has decreased between early January and late March 2020.”

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Here’s the heatmap for San Francisco, where overall usage is up 48%:

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And here’s Chicago, where traffic is up 17%:

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In response to concerns about internet capacity, there have been calls for streaming services to reduce the quality of the video they provide and many services such as YouTube, Amazon Prime Video and Netflix have responded by reducing the standard quality of their video.

The internet performance company OOKLA is reporting slower internet speeds across much of the globe as networks strain under the heavy load of increased use. OOKLA reports that in the U.S. landline internet is about 4% slower and mobile internet is running 2% slower.

So, Can the Internet Handle the Surge?

Yes. The internet was built for this. According to Cloudflare, “Originally conceived of as a communications network for humanity during a crisis, it’s come a long way since then. But in this moment of crisis, it’s being put to use for that original purpose.” The internet was designed (and evolved) as a distributed network.

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Source: Cloudflare

Being a distributed network means that there is no central control. If a part of the network fails, the rest of can continue to operate. It is flexible and can adjust when things change. If one node goes down, data can route through different nodes. It is quite amazing.

In addition to the flexibility of a distributed network, the big ISP companies entered the year with planned excess capacity because they build in advance of growth. For example, Comcast said “internet traffic has risen 32% because of COVID-19 but assured everyone it has the capacity to handle peak traffic demands in the U.S. Tony Werner, Comcast’s president of technology, said in a press briefing that the company normally adds capacity 12-18 months ahead of time, with typical plans targeting 45% a year increases in traffic.” And Verizon has said that they have been able to meet the peak traffic demands during WFH and now it’s just “business as usual.”

Companies are also quickly rolling out new capacity and the FCC has approved additional bandwidth for commerical use to meet the surge in internet demand.

We’re Staying Home More According to Our Cell Phones

As a final interesting point, mobile carriers are seeing that we are staying home more. According to Verizon, “in the United States, there has been a notable decline in people’s movements during the course of the global pandemic. Mobile handoffs – the times when a data session moves from one cell site to another as users walk or drive around – have reduced by -27% nationally compared to pre-COVID typical day levels.” Here’s a map showing the change in mobility:

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But, note some increased mobility in some southern states towards the end of April (I’m looking at you Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and North Carolina).

1 Comment

  1. Is this a case of private Enterprise being more prepared than the highly regulated Health Care system for a pandemic?

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