It wouldn’t be abnormal to have noticed a tech glitch or two if, during this Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, you have been working from home. The same goes for those who have been streaming videos on different platforms and gaming online. You might have noticed that some of your video quality has dropped significantly. If you have been making use of Zoom for conference calls, you might have realized or witnessed your colleagues face freezing while in a Zoom meeting as well. To many, these are all signs that the internet in the US is not just struggling to support the unparalleled millions of internet traffic, but that it is about to crash.
While these signs you see might seem like it, it’s more complicated than you think and won’t break but that doesn’t mean there won’t be some challenges. Firstly, the upsurge in traffic has been happening on a smaller scale before now. The pandemic only warranted a lockdown from state and local governments which resulted in the massive increase in internet traffic as most people now work (or play) from their home computers and other internet-connected devices. Many cable companies in the United States, such as Spectrum from Charter Communications, have enabled people to self-install their internet service if they already have Spectrum TV or there is an existing cable to their home.
Secondly, the internet was designed to adapt to and handle these kinds of sudden and huge rise in internet traffic. It is an outstandingly resilient and robust network. But while it’s true that the internet was invented here in the US, we do not have the very best internet in the world, though it can handle the pandemic. Also, the apps and platforms we make use of on the internet that make it useful for us may not hold up very well. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook (owner of WhatsApp and Instagram), this week, said that his company is “just trying to keep the lights on”. This is a result of the fact that they are experiencing record high usage on all platforms and he’s worried the platforms may not hold up. But the internet will.
Is The Traffic Really Up? The simple answer is yes! According to data provided by Cloudflare, the internet performance and security company, between January 1 and March 22, there was an 18 percent increase in internet traffic in the US. This is something you’ll normally see when you have the Super Bowl. The only difference is that right now, that traffic has become a daily occurrence, not just one that happens for a few hours during the Super Bowl. But Cloudflare’s CEO and co-founder, Matthew Prince says that the internet would be able to handle it. If it doesn’t crash for the few hours of high traffic spikes during the super bowl, it can handle the sustained spikes in traffic for as long as this increased period of traffic lasts.
Cloudflare’s data also revealed that not only is traffic increased, it is sustained. The data shows that traffic keeps growing but even when there’s a fall during the slow periods such as at midnight, it’s never as low as it used to be just 2 months earlier. In Seattle for example, from the beginning of the year, there’s been a 25 percent increase in traffic and when it falls at midnight, in March, it is still higher than what the daytime peaks were in January.
While traffic has been incredibly high here in the United States, there’s not been any noticeable drop in performance. According to a recently published dataset from Ookla, March 22 and Dec 15 recorded the same mean download speed, though it has slightly been trending down. Considering that in the US, the average download speed for fixed broadband is 140 megabits per second, and we’re speaking of a difference of only 10 megabits per second, the difference is quite insignificant.
It’s not just the US that is experiencing this rise in internet traffic. It is happening worldwide and is also sustained but the infrastructures in many other countries are not quite as dependable. Some of these countries, like Italy, have experienced sharp reductions in speeds since a lockdown was issued by their governments. It should be noted, however, that due to older infrastructure in part, internet speeds in many European countries including Italy are not up to half of what is standard in the United States.
The current state of things including the upsurge in traffic in this region (Europe) has warranted Netflix to reduce the traffic there by 25 percent while YouTube has had to promise it will limit quality so that bandwidth can be freed up for other services. The implication of this is that if our watching a YouTube video, you’ll notice that the quality is less than it used to be. The same goes to those watching a Netflix video on its platform. But this also means that bank websites of users in those areas will work just fine.
Because the internet is highly scalable and can route data in several ways to ensure everyone’s connections hums along at a decent clip as the internet traffic continues to increase, the internet speeds in Europe will eventually improve. Also, content delivery systems can be leveraged to reduce the distance that data has to travel over the internet to ensure services run faster, and big players like Google and Netflix have theirs.
But everything we have just looked into is happening on the higher tiers of the internet, not necessarily the infrastructure that provides your home internet. Your home internet may not be invincible. To make this simpler, there are several tiers of the internet, structured according to the hierarchy of infrastructure. There are the Tier-1, Tier-2 and Tier-3 (or last mile) ISPs. Verizon and AT&T are Tier-1 ISPs while Cox Communication is a Tier-2 ISPs. But your home and office internet are provided by Tier-3 ISPs which is the lowest tier and that’s where there might be some issues. Let’s attempt to explain how this might be. If you work for any very large company, there is a good chance their internet is fiber based. This simply means you will have plenty of upload and download speeds for anything you want because fiber-based connections have unlimited bandwidth, theoretically.
Your home internet service, on the other hand, is not fiber based. It makes use of old cable infrastructure to connect to the larger fiber network. But these cables were designed to bring Cable TV programming into your home and not to carry signals out. As a result, there will be a considerable difference between your upload and download speeds which will make your Zoom meetings choppy. Also, there is the issue of network congestion which results from increased usage, and which can lead to latency. The more devices are connected to the same network, the slower it will take for data to go from a server to its destination, which in this case, is your device. So, you will experience out-of-sync video chats as a result.
According to Justine Sherry of Carnegie Mellon University, the main thing to worry about is that there will be increasing latencies which will result from these queues being built up in the network. This will video calling and other high bandwidth activities very difficult to do. When this begins to happen, you may want to reduce how many devices are connected in your home to start. This is simply because more devices connected to a network and doing tasks that demand high bandwidth means your home network will experience more congestion and higher latency as a result.
Seeing that the future of connectivity is uncertain as no one is certain as to how long the pandemic will last, together with Netflix and Google, Facebook has reduced the quality of their Facebook Live videos to accommodate the traffic. Zuckerberg told the New York Times that they are “basically trying to ready everything” they can.
As for the apps and platforms that we use, many of them are hosted on the cloud which is a network of computers working in the background. The cloud seems to be okay handling the increase in traffic for now. The world’s largest cloud computing company, Amazon Web Service (AWS) is much like the internet in design – it can adjust to growing capacity. They have also been handling Black Friday traffic for years, so the will be able to come up with more servers if there happens to be a surge in traffic.
Other cloud-based software also seems to be doing great. Experts believe that these big tech companies will be able to work things out in times like these and come out on top. So, there’s no need to worry.