With everyone at home, the stress to Canada’s Internet infrastructure is beginning to show some faults. Many people are working from home, most for the first time. With so much new and unusual demand on the internet, we are seeing some signs of overloading of networks and over capacity of business and entertainment platforms.
Millions and millions of people are home due to the coronavirus (COVID-19), either working from home or just enjoying some time off with a movie online. More and more people are using their smartphones, tablets, laptops, and computers. More people means more data being used.
The internet can be thought as water pipes and the bigger the pipe, the more information that can go through it. So, when you displace workers and send them home, the pipes at their houses, are generally not as big as the pipes at their work. This shift in the place that we work is placing unexpected burdens on the internet.
Last week on a voice conference call, the voice bridge provider’s systems overloaded and the participant’s audio quality deteriorated to the point where others could not comprehend what they were saying. We tried hanging up and dialing back in again, but without success. Too many people are now using these business platforms and it is resulting in failed meetings.
America’s internet infrastructure is likely to struggle under the weight of coronavirus-related traffic but will ultimately be okay, according to data from China and Italy analyzed by Ookla Speedtest, the company famous for measuring speed and performance. That does not mean your working and schooling from home is going to go smoothly, though, because the internet is more than pipes.
Ookla analyzed internet performance data in China, Italy, and the US over the past several weeks. In Hubei, China, the population was locked down on Jan. 22-23, but internet speeds began to decline the week of Jan. 13. In Italy, lock-downs started on March 9, and Ookla saw notable speed declines in both the province of Lombardy and in Italy as a whole that week.
These are speed declines, though, not crashes. The networks are holding up, they are just under a bit of strain. That bodes well for US and Canadian networks.
And I think the China data is especially good news for us. In China, the declines started before COVID-19. That does not look like COVID as much as people taking off before Chinese New Year, when millions of people go home and stream Korean soap operas for hours while avoiding their grandparents. COVID just extended the effect of that holiday period.
Our home network infrastructure is designed for the 8 p.m. hour, when everyone’s playing games and streaming movies. If your home can handle watching The Mandalorian while someone upstairs plays Call of Duty, it can handle a bunch of daytime Zoom conferences. However, you are going to experience some trouble, but it is not likely to come from your wired internet line clogging up.
Cellular and wireless connections offer greater challenges compared to hardwired connections. In the UK, three major mobile networks went down under what service provider O2 said was the strain of people working from home.
I do not know enough about UK networks, but here in the North America, wireless carriers have been reducing 3G voice capacity for years as they have switched their networks over to 4G. 3G calling does not scale as well, or have as many options for network management, as 4G calling does. Now would be a good time to go into your phone’s network settings and turn on “advanced calling” or “voice-over-LTE.”
If we see a similar uptick on 3G voice calling, I can definitely see those deprecated networks crashing under the strain. As for 4G networks, we have never seen people using them as primary home internet connections en masse (and the service plans are designed to prevent people from doing so.) T-Mobile is laying on massive new capacity using 600MHz spectrum borrowed from partners, but this crisis is definitely going to be a test of the mobile data networks.
So, it all boils down to data rate, latency, availability, and reliability. The over-provisioning of the residential infrastructure is a point of concern, but it is more an issue of frustration. We will all need to exercise some patience as we work from home.
Now unlike the network connections, many cloud based business and entertainment services platforms are in much worse shape compared to the networks as they are being called upon more than ever before. Social distancing means many people are now at home doing new and different applications on their home connections. And school closures means that some families have more free time than ever. This is changing the way we use the internet – Vodafone told The Sun Newspaper (UK) that it had seen a 30% increase in web traffic.
Importantly, the peak ‘rush hour’ traffic between 6pm and 8pm is ballooning outwards to between noon and 9pm, one insider revealed.
Now experts say that large-scale “internet rationing” projects could eventually go ahead.
This would not involve limiting users to specific amount of data.
But would mean prioritizing important data over, say, entertainment – like movie-streaming or gaming.
“In some cases it will be paramount to prioritize mission critical communications,” said expert analyst Paolo Pescatore, of PP Foresight, speaking to The Sun.
“In these uncertain times, users should consider having a back up connection whether that be another SIM or data only plan.
“This will help them tether to their other connected devices in the home.”
Reports emerged on Thursday that Thierry Breton, Internal Market and Services Commissioner at the European Union (EU), had reached out to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings asking the company to reduce streaming quality from high definition (HD) to standard definition (SD) – particularly during periods of peak demand – in order to take the strain off the infrastructure and prevent internet outages.
Breton, whose office oversees a population of over 450 million, said late Wednesday he’d had “an important phone conversation” with Hastings. “Teleworking & streaming help a lot but infrastructures might be in strain,” he tweeted. “To secure Internet access for all, let’s #SwitchToStandard definition when HD is not necessary.”
Netflix responded on Thursday saying that it reduced bit rates on all streaming video across Europe. “We estimate that this will reduce Netflix traffic on European networks by around 25% while also ensuring a good quality service for our members,” a Netflix spokesperson said in a statement.
Employees who are not used to working alone at home can feel isolated, less productive, and distracted by constant news around the coronavirus. Support from the HR department is important. That should include continuous communication with staff, with updates around payroll operations, benefits and other aspects that affect employees’ personal lives. Self-serve HR tools can help employees gain easier access to information they need, and project management tools offer better communication between staff and their managers.
Companies should support unified communications tools, such as Slack or Teams, to allow team members to communicate – even if it is just to share the occasional GIF for a laugh – to improve the remote employee experience.
Cisco Systems Inc., the biggest maker of gear that directs internet traffic, said its Webex collaboration service is experiencing a staggering jump in use as companies look to find a way to securely connect workers confined to their homes.
Webex daily meeting volume has more than doubled since the beginning of March and expanded 2 1/2 times from February. At peak hours, volume is up 24 times where it would be normally, the company said.
Cisco’s conferencing business is the biggest provider of such services to companies with revenue many times the size of newer rivals such as Zoom Video Communications Inc. Demand for these services from home-bound employees during the Covid-19 pandemic indicates that work practices will probably change permanently, said Sri Srinivasan said, who heads the company’s collaboration unit.
“We will never go back,” he said. “The way we work is going to change forever. Employers are going to be able to hire workers from wider geographic areas because staff won’t have to come to the office as much, he added.
Employers are advised to relax expectations around availability during the pandemic as employees juggle demands of caring for themselves and loved ones. But expectations must be clear, Hewitt (a Forrester Research analyst) said.
“Employees are not going to be always on, always available in the same way you would expect them to be,” Hewitt said. “You want to be a little bit more flexible, but … set the expectation that if an employee is going to be leaving an office for an extended period of time that they communicate that with their manager and across their teams.”
Detailed instructions for how to access tech support are also important for remote employees to ensure they can access the tools they need.
Botelho, B. (2020). Guide to telecommuting during the coronavirus pandemic. TechTarget. Retrieved on March 24, 2020 from, https://searchmobilecomputing.techtarget.com/Guide-to-telecommuting-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic
Keach, S. (2020). UK internet capacity could be RATIONED to prioritise ‘critical’ apps and websites, experts reveal. Sun Newspaper: News Group Newspapers Limited. Retrieved on March 24, 2020 from, https://www.thesun.co.uk/tech/11232963/uk-internet-rationed-prioritise-apps-websites-traffic-speeds/
Segan, S. (2020). COVID-19 Isn’t Crashing the Internet … Yet. Ziff-Davis LLC. Retrieved on March 24, 2020 from, https://www.pcmag.com/news/covid-19-isnt-crashing-the-internet-yet
Vena, S. (2020). Will Netflix Break the Internet? Nasdaq, Inc. Retrieved on March 24, 2020 from, https://l3.evidon.com/site/6555/23525/1?lang=en-us
About the Author:
Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for applications that use broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies.
He is a business and technology consultant. A recent contract was with Wirepas from Tampere, Finland as the Director of Business Development. Over the past 15 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX).
Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V).
He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology.
He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario. For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section.
He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 15 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.