- Infrastructure Challenges
Somebody ate a bad bat soup and suddenly the internet has gone from an important tool to a fundamentally critical infrastructure connecting us to the outside world. Internet that is keeping us afloat in these times of pandemic is just the same as it was before. We’re just more dependent on it, with no other alternatives available.
We rely on it to carry out our jobs, to meet in virtual space, to school our kids, to provide our entertainment, to keep society running and salvage a modus vivendi from the pre-Covid days. In short, we are using it a lot.
As states have imposed lockdowns and social distancing measures came into effect in March, internet traffic has increased by more than 50% in some areas, according to Vodafone stats. Particular online services have led the charge in this unintended congestion: gaming platforms, social media, messaging and conferencing apps, streaming and shopping services. Zoom, for instance, has seen more new users in the first two months of 2020 than in the whole previous year, and the Microsoft Teams app gained 12 million new users in a single week due to the influx of people working from home.
Our connection to the World Wide Web is provided by a mosaic of datacenters and delivery networks underpinned by internet service providers (ISP) that are essential to the internet infrastructure. Besides adapting to increased traffic demands, these companies are now trying to adapt to changing usage patterns. Ensuring the network runs optimally means knowing where the traffic demand will originate from – where it aims to travel – and place the network capacity accordingly. The people connecting from home are the same people who are no longer doing so from the office. Vodafone’s 50% increase in demand doesn’t mean there are suddenly 50% more people trying to log in and go online. That’s why ISPs and dot-com companies are confident there’s sufficient capacity.
Cloudflare – a business that operates data centres in 200 cities across the globe – has visualized our connection habits. Exemplified with the maps of London and Paris, the green areas indicate growth in traffic and the red areas indicate where it has decreased between early January and late March 2020.
Whereas before, thousands of users connected through one high-speed connection, now there are thousands of them connecting from home. Usage patterns have shifted from a large amount of centralized traffic coming from business centres or universities to a more distributed model with traffic increase scattered evenly in residential areas. If these changes turn out to be more than just a short-lived phenomenon, and coronavirus permanently alters our working, learning and entertainment habits, internet providers need to forecast when and where to build additional infrastructure.
Besides traffic, the early days of quarantine also saw a surge in voice calls and volumes of data. Fearing that the internet and social media could collapse due to over-usage during the lockdown, Germany’s Federal network agency has issued guidelines to handle unexpected overload situations. In Poland President of the Office of Electronic Communications issued a letter to every network provider requesting them to take all the necessary steps to ensure continuity of data transfer. A similar story unfolded in Austria and Spain. EU commissioner Thierry Breton called upon video streaming companies to reduce the quality of their streams in Europe. To increase public awareness he started the #SwitchToStandard hashtag on Twitter, recommending lower definitions when HD is not necessary, in order to lower the pressure across networks. The UN’s International Telecoms Union has launched a global platform to help policymakers, regulators and relevant stakeholders keep networks operational and available to all. These efforts include developing emergency plans, setting up monitoring systems, and providing emergency telecommunications equipment.
Despite all the worries, the internet seems to be chugging along just fine; these were all just-in-case measures to make sure we avoid the worst. Covid-19 is far from bringing the internet to its knees. Quite the contrary; the pandemic is genuinely driving the biggest virtual infrastructure development in years.
ISPs are increasing traffic capacity as well as reallocating capacity according to measured traffic loads, streaming services are making their servers more widely distributed, teleconferencing companies like Zoom are partnering up with local broadband providers to optimize their connection. Network monitoring company ThousandEyes has released a real-time internet outage map to show the level of strain across the network. According to their report network outages are down more than 40% globally, compared to the spikes in March. Imagine if any other public utility such as electricity, water, or transportation were forced to cope with such unprecedented growth, probably none of them would have done half as good job as the internet did.
Non-profit network coordination centre RIPE has organized the Internet Health Hackathon, which consists of ongoing open data analysis with regards to network delays during national lockdowns. The aim was to monitor and study congestion that could occur in large eyeball networks during mass quarantines. Eyeball networks refer to access networks whose primary users use the network to look at things (browse the internet, read emails etc.). Data shows a delay to the Google network, AS (autonomous system is a network or a collection of networks that are all managed and supervised by a single entity or organization), internet exchange point (IXPs represents physical infrastructure through which internet traffic is exchanged), namely Amsterdam IXP.
Graphs display delays before, during, and after the lockdown. The delay is measured in Round-trip time (RTT) representing the time it took for a signal pulse or packet to travel from source to a specific destination and back again. (if you’re unsure what you’re looking at here, watch this 3 minute eli5 explanation of how the internet works)
|Visegrad countries experienced a comparable delay during the lockdown. Slovakia can serve as a perfect case in point. Complete data for operators in other V4 countries is available here.
In general, the delay during the lockdown in the region oscillated around the same value lines as it did in the pre-COVID delay measurements, pointing to a mild slowdown throughout the lockdown period.
Other parts of the world went through more severe traffic delays during lockdowns. Sweden was the most effected EU country, with a delay increase of over 10% compared to pre-COVID speed.
Funny side note: instead of following the government established web korona.gov.sk, the Slovak digital footprint leads to a different place. It is unclear why Slovaks have resorted to using this particular search engine for Corona-related content. Nonetheless, it remains an interesting research subject for future historians.
- Good News Everyone, the End is Nigh
Many V4 residents have received a message from their operator on their company phone, making them aware of the activation of unlimited data on their device. This kind of developments seen in mobile networks is also true for fixed-line networks.
With so many people working and learning from home, network providers in V4 such as Orange, o2, T-Mobile, UPC and others are boosting the bandwidth for homes with a slow connection, suspending data caps, or providing additional data. All of this free-of-charge without the need to request activation from the customer side. Imagine the bad rep a company would get for charging its customers with high over-usage fees because they had to work from home for weeks and exceeded their data cap. Cutting of essential service during an emergency is irresponsible, but making additional money out of it is downright toxic. Putting up some sort of waiver policy in place to avoid such a faux pas seems like a reasonable thing to do.
We’ve already established that capacity is not an issue, but if the providers and operators are able to even temporarily to take off the data caps, that only further proves the point. The fact that data limits can be lifted and traffic-heavy activities such as streaming TV channels are exempted altogether speak volumes about the concept of data caps.
If there is plenty of capacity, why do we even have to deal with these artificial restrictions in the first place? ISPs would argue that malevolent actors and users will use it as an attack vector and abuse the system, causing overload and slowdowns. This might have been true in the past, but nowadays, with hundred-megabit connections becoming common, customers are having trouble maxing out their own connection.
- Coronavirus Has Claimed Another Victim
Developments across the globe are materializing a new faster internet in front of our eyes; entire countries are now using unlimited data with bumped up internet speed. India’s largest wired broadband provider has increased the speed for every user to 300Mbps free of charge.
In the USA, 723 telecommunications companies have signed the Federal Communication Commission’s Keep Americans Connected pledge, easing their data usage limits. Main internet providers in the UK removed data caps on fixed-line broadband. Similar stories are unfolding in Lebanon, Mexico, Qatar, and plenty of other countries. Thanks to the pandemic, we are seeing an acceleration of the internet earlier than previously planned. The measures taken all around the globe indicate that cap amounts are completely arbitrary and in no way represent actual limits on available bandwidth. Lockdowns have served as a perfect testbed for pushing the bandwidth boundaries upwards, and while we’re at it why don’t we let the old internet die on this testbed? ISPs will have a hard time finding grounds on which they can re-establish pre-COVID restrictions. So once everything returns to normal, we should still be able to enjoy the fast and highly available internet services brought to us by Covid-19.
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