Hundreds of millions of people – from South Korea to the UK – are in lockdown. Depending where you are in the world, people have been ordered to stay inside to help limit the spread of coronavirus.
This, inevitably, means everyone is spending a lot more time online. In some cases, dramatically. However, despite there being multiple short-term outages for some of the most popular web services, there’s no chance of coronavirus breaking the internet as we know it.
“It’s as if the tide has come in on the internet and it has just risen up,” says John Graham-Cumming, the chief technology officer of web infrastructure and security company Cloudflare. “Usage of the internet in general, day and night, has gone up quite a lot in areas where the lockdowns have happened or effectively happened.”
The amounts that internet usage has jumped by varies from country to country. In the US city of Seattle there have been increases of around 40 per cent when compared the pre-Covid-19 times; Italy has seen a rise rise of around 30 per cent. But in some locations, such as South Korea, overall usage hasn’t jumped by as much: the Asian country only saw five per cent increases, according to data published by Cloudflare. Internet speed testing company Ookla says that overall it has seen an increase of around 12 to 15 per cent.
So where is all the extra browsing coming from? “There’s been a shift of traffic away from corporate and university networks,” Graham-Cumming says. This has happened as more people have left the centres of towns and cities – where they often spend hours a day working or studying – and taken-up permanent residence in their suburban homes.
Generally, sustained internet usage is at its highest during the working day – weekends see decreased numbers of people online – when more people spend time browsing at their desks. This hasn’t changed now we’re living with coronavirus. “There’s a spike of traffic around seven or eight in the evening when people go home and watch movies and listen to music,” Graham-Cumming. “We’re used to peaks, what we’re not so used to is a general increase.”
It would take more than a sustained increase in internet usage to bring the entire system down. The internet’s backbone is made-up of hundreds of connected networks that are owned by a mix of governments, commercial providers and academic institutions. This internet exchange map shows the myriad of internet exchanges that support the backbone – these are connected, in part, through thousands of miles of subsea internet cables.
“If you turned off television in London and asked the internet to carry everything that’s over the top – the internet would explode in London,” explains Avi Freedman, the CEO of network analytics firm Kentik. “That the internet could not handle, there is not enough bandwidth at many levels. But if we were to double 20 per cent of the services on the internet, for the most part everything will be fine.”
As people have shifted from offices to their homes, many online services have seen vast jumps in the amount of people accessing them. Users have flocked to video conferencing services, gaming and streaming platforms as their commutes have dwindled and their children are spending more time at home. “We reported an increase of more than 70 per cent of internet traffic over our landline network, with a big contribution from online gaming such asFortnite,” one executive of Telecom Italia said in a conference call with analysts.
Steam has reported its highest ever number of concurrent users, with more than 20 million people being logged on at once. Food delivery apps have seen a spike in downloads. And according to data from app analytics firm AppAnnie, there has been a surge in the download of business apps, telemedicine apps and those dealing with education.
In response to a request from the European Commission, Netflix has agreed to reduce the quality of its streaming service in Europe for 30 days. The company says lowering picture quality would reduce Netflix data consumption by 25 per cent. Netflix and other video services already use a method called adaptive bitrate encoded streaming that automatically lowers video quality when there isn’t enough capacity on networks.
But the increase in people using these types of services doesn’t put that much stress on the internet’s backbone, Freedman says. Instead the pressure is placed on individual services and their capacity to stay online. The shift in online behaviour has already seen some casualties. Both Xbox Live and Nintendo Online have been unavailable for sustained periods and Microsoft’s collaboration tool Teams has also been down. Mobile networks in the UK have also faced some connectivity issues but executives from the companies have said this wasn’t related to an increase in use because of coronavirus.
In response to concerns about networks not being able to cope with the demands being placed on them, BT has said it has “confidence” that it will be more than able to cope with people spending more time at home. The group says the highest peak its ever seen in demand hit 17.5Tb/s – during coronavirus there’s been a 35-65 per cent increase in daytime traffic but the highest peak has only been 7.5Tb/s. BT has also seen a five per cent decrease in mobile data – because people are connecting to their home Wi-Fi networks – and an increase in voice calls.
“The analogy of what I would think of is: what we’re seeing today is not anything systemic but accelerate six months of normal outages into three weeks,” Freedman adds. “It’s not that there’s anything surprising breaking but when things go rapidly, sometimes there are issues.” To put it bluntly: web services crash all the time, we’re just seeing more of them at the moment.
Where issues do happen, they’re largely to do with individual services rather than larger infrastructure problems. “Anybody who is working on a service that is popular right now, is working on scaling it,” says Graham-Cumming. A large majority of online platforms use Microsoft, Amazon or Google’s cloud services to host their systems: these can automatically add new servers when demand increases. Video conferencing service Zoom, which has been one of the big winners of Covid-19 so far, has said its engineering operations teams have been adding servers inside of all of its 17 data centers.
“If there are going to be congestion scenarios, so far I am seeing that it is isolated,” Luke Deryckx, the chief technology officer of Ookla explains. “It’s more on the individual networks, at maybe a town or neighbourhood level, rather than Amsterdam Internet Exchange or London Internet Exchange getting overwhelmed.”
Yet, people have complained their internet connections at home have appeared to slow down. The likely reason? More people in households are now logging on to stream or video call at the same time, resulting in lower local speeds. “There’s potentially more of an impact to speed and performance on fixed wired connections than there are on mobile,” Deryckx says.
The connections in people’s homes can be very dependent on home Wi-Fi routers, which can be notoriously unreliable. Deryckx says: “A lot of consumers, if something is not working quite right, will jump to blame their ISP. But there’s this whole wildcard out there that often the weakest link is inside the consumers’ home.” For that you’ll need to fix your terrible Wi-Fi connection.
Matt Burgess is WIRED’s deputy digital editor. He tweets from @mattburgess1
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