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Slow Internet? The Pandemic is Probably to Blame | SignalWire

Slow Internet? The Pandemic is Probably to Blame

It should come as no surprise that internet speed has slowed down across the world. With stay-at-home orders keeping people in the house and online, internet usage has exploded. Not only is remote working and schooling causing a spike in video conferencing usage, but video streaming services and gaming platforms are a huge source of entertainment like never before.

A pattern popped up immediately in January when China locked down in certain places to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. People were stuck at home and went online, clogging the networks and causing certain provinces to have broadband speeds fall by more than half. In February, as the virus spread across Italy, Germany, and Spain, those countries also saw a deterioration in internet speed. In March, as stay-at-home orders rippled through the US, broadband speed dropped 5%, and median download speeds dropped as much as 38%. Demand for services like Cisco Webex basically tracked the spread of coronavirus, spiking in Asia, then in Europe, then soaring 240% in the US.

We are all reliant on the internet now more than ever. Working from home, educating from home, friend and family video calls, entertainment – YouTube, Zoom, Netflix, video gaming – it’s all causing a strain on internet infrastructure that’s unprecedented, and we probably haven’t even seen the peak of it yet. Internet and telecom companies have to account for more traffic in a matter of days instead of the year they had planned for, with traffic up by 20-30%. WiFi calls, video gaming, and video conferencing usage have doubled. Messages over WhatsApp have more than quadrupled.

Internet infrastructure is accustomed to handling certain spikes in activity on any given day, such as in the evening when most people are arriving home from work and getting online. The busy period for streaming would normally last for about 4 hours on a regular weekday, but now it’s as long as 10 hours. And with multiple users on any given network constantly cycling through data-hungry apps, last-mile services will be challenged. These are cable broadband and fiber based broadband services that channel internet into homes, and are different from what’s available in schools and offices. Many such schools and offices can handle the kind of internet traffic a typical home wouldn’t be used to. Especially when many people are on a single WiFi network at once, all streaming movies or video conferencing, things can get congested and slowed down. What may function for a married couple working separately in the same home at once may simply not be enough when two or three students in video classrooms are added to the mix.

Internet providers are feeling confident that they can handle it though, and have taken a few steps to try to help. Some companies are automatically upgrading customers from basic broadband packages so these users can have faster speed and more bandwidth. Others are lifting data caps on data plans so people won’t be penalized for using more data than their current plans support. Big companies like AT&T, Verizon, and Charter have been preparing to upgrade the capacity on their networks as needed, with more equipment like emergency roll-in cell towers that would normally be used to keep people online during natural disasters. Meanwhile, big streaming services like Netflix and YouTube have globally taken their video file quality down a notch to reduce the amount of bandwidth they take up.

In the US, dozens of telecom companies are also taking steps to help people financially, like not cutting off internet access over unpaid bills, waiving late fees, and opening public WiFi hotspots. Some companies are boosting free data allowances for schools and students. A pledge was made to keep up such aid for 60 days, but if the virus rages on, it remains to be seen if it will be extended. It’s so important for everyone to have access to the internet right now, not only for school and work, but for telehealth purposes – connecting patients to hospitals.

So is it possible that internet infrastructure could fail entirely? It doesn’t seem likely. So far, with broadband networks adapting to the surging amounts of traffic, telecom is an industry that’s doing alright amid the pandemic overall. There have been outages in countries like Italy, but connection is able to be restored. Individual services and websites can also crash for a few hours at a time.

In the worst case scenario, providers can resort to “data throttling,” the practice of shoving bandwidth-hungry video and gaming platforms into a data slow lane to prioritize more important traffic when networks are at risk of overload. Such actions are usually banned under net neutrality to ensure equal treatment and access for all internet users, and hasn’t widely been used yet. Though some companies are voluntarily throttling bandwidth usage, governments could step in and ask operators to prioritize certain services over others during specific times if things get bad enough.

Additionally, physical networks require a certain amount of upkeep, and if workers like engineers are mostly self-isolating, it could make it difficult to maintain equipment to deliver broadband. Luckily, the internet isn’t just one huge monolith; it has many different parts, like a living being. If one part of it gets cut off and goes down, the rest of it will still be alive, and the injured part can be revived. For now, a grainy YouTube video or a frozen Zoom call isn’t an indication that the internet as a whole is failing. The situation differs all over the world. Internet speeds in some parts of Europe can be half of what’s standard in the US, for example. Overall, home internet connections are the ones that are under the most stress for everybody, especially for homes with aging infrastructure. If your internet keeps going down, you’re certainly not alone. The biggest struggle for this industry, as for most, is simply the uncertainty of how long the pandemic will last.