An Update on Internet Performance during the Pandemic
By Douglas C Sicker, PhDNov 23, 2020
Earlier this year, I presented a vlog for IRLE on how the Internet had performed through the first few months of the pandemic. Here, I update that presentation and provide some additional thoughts and findings.
The COVID pandemic hit the US in the beginning of 2020 and soon completely disrupted our daily lives in more ways than most of us could have imagined. A direct consequence of the pandemic was the transition to working, schooling, socializing - essentially living - from home; and this transition happened for most of us over the course of a weekend in March. With this transition we became immediately dependent on broadband access and the many services of the Internet, and not surprisingly this meant a huge surge in traffic across the networks. The good news is that the Internet has responded well to this surge. As a result of (1) the resilience of the Internet’s design, (2) the policies that have encouraged investment, and (3) a rapid effort by Internet service providers to address the gaps and shortcomings of the networks when the virus hit, millions of people were able to rapidly shift their daily activities online. This isn’t to say that there aren’t gaps; indeed we have seen (1) performance issues in some parts of the network, (2) unavailability of access to broadband services, and (3) unaffordability of service for parts of the population. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of us have been successfully reliant on broadband access to the Internet for the last nine months to support critical aspects of our everyday life.
I have just used three terms that I think are worth briefly considering – resilience, dependent, and critical. We are now dependent on access to the Internet for critical parts of our daily life. So far, this infrastructure has shown resilience to the unexpected shift that has occurred. If anything, the pandemic has shown just how much of a critical infrastructure the Internet is for our society, and going forward, it is clear that policymakers need to double-down on their efforts to ensure that all of us have adequate, accessible, affordable, reliable access to the Internet. When I worked on the National Broadband Plan a decade ago, we saw these gaps in access. While the gaps are now arguably smaller, the criticality of the Internet is much higher, suggesting the need to revisit the Plan.
Looking across the many parts of the Internet, we have seen a broad range of impacts [Most of the findings discussed here will be presented in more detail (with data and references) in the next BITAG report. I’m co-editing this report with Matt Tooley and it is due out in January. www.bitag.org]
We are seeing more traffic and more users on the network earlier in the day and staying on longer into the evening; we are also seeing more devices simultaneously connecting from each home; and we are seeing a shift to video conferencing apps and other high data rate apps. A result is a general 20% to 60% increase in traffic on the network. One interesting (if not disturbing) finding is that this shift has included higher network use on the weekends.
At the user level, people quickly realized that existing devices were inadequate, such as not having a camera for video conferencing or simply older and poor performing devices, and as a result demand increased and supply diminished. For months it was difficult to even find devices online such as tablets and cameras. For the most part, supply is recovering but demand remains high.
At the level of the home network, the demand for broadband access did highlight one issue, inadequate WiFi for covering the now more demanding and dispersed (throughout the home) user base. As a result, some consumers have adopted mesh WiFi systems to improve coverage while others have simply upgraded to newer, higher capacity WiFi access points.
At the level of broadband access, not surprisingly demand has increased. Data downloads and uploads increased significantly across all access networks. Cable, fiber and DSL providers saw 20 to 60 % increases in download traffic and a 20 to 40 % increase in upload traffic. Cellular providers saw initial growth, but this leveled out quickly, which correlated with less mobility of consumers as they spent more time at home on fixed broadband networks. For the most part, this increase in traffic was handled fairly well on the access network. However, some subscribers have needed to upgrade broadband access plans, which happened in waves in the spring, summer and at the start of the school year this fall. While most users have not seen an increase in the latency (i.e., the delay of data traveling across the network), there have been pockets of increase, which has impacted delay sensitive services like video conferencing.
In a subsequent blog, I plan to discuss the rest of the network, including the transit networks, network interconnection points, content delivery networks, the Cloud and application providers. Not surprisingly, each of these parts of the Internet experienced similar stress in response to the pandemic. A much deeper dive into these technical findings will be presented in the next BITAG report, “Pandemic Performance”, which should be published in January 2021 (www.bitag.org).
As I mentioned in my vlog a few months back, one of the biggest issues to arise out of this whole shift to remote everything has been the impact on individuals without access to broadband (whether this be because of their ability to afford the service or simply because adequate broadband is not available). Broadband access has shifted to an absolute necessity for almost everyone, and policymakers will need to explore how to ensure that accessible and affordable broadband exists for all of us. I think that more than anything, the pandemic has shown that access and adoption of broadband infrastructure is critical to our society. Those without adequate connectivity will be left behind. The good news is that the Internet service providers have been stepping up with programs to help meet this need (and yes, some of these ISPs are obligated to provide this service, nonetheless it is happening). As we hopefully turn the corner on the virus in the next 6 to 12 months, it is important that we “mind the gap”.
To close, I simply want to point out how very different things could have been for all of us if broadband access didn’t exist during this pandemic. Even 10 years ago, the Internet would have been far less able to handle this shift to home. It’s not too dramatic to say that the Internet has saved our economy by keeping most of us at work and at school (albeit remotely) and has saved many lives by helping to slow the spread of the virus. It is difficult to comprehend where we would be now without this critical infrastructure.