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Data From Italy, China Suggests The US Internet Isn't Likely To Choke On COVID-19 Broadband Usage Spike

from the spiking-demand dept

As millions of Americans begin to work and learn from home in a bid to slow the spread of COVID-19, America's patchy and expensive broadband networks are likely to get a workout. To be clear, the shift will certainly highlight the broken US telecom market, at least in terms of patchy availability, limited competition, and high prices. But most experts say US networks should be able to shoulder the load without too much difficulty.

As of last week, giants like AT&T and Verizon say they hadn't seen a massive surge in internet usage yet, and insisted they'd be able to shoulder any load once usage ramps up further:

"Verizon, which runs both wired and wireless networks, said it had not seen a "measurable increase in data usage" since the outbreak but that it was prepared to handle potential increases. “Verizon operates its networks every day as though it’s a snow day," Kyle Malady, Verizon’s chief technology officer, said in a statement. "While it is not clear yet how having millions of additional people working from home will impact usage patterns, we are ready to address changes in demand, if needed."

Most ISPs have taken numerous measures to make sure users can remain online, such as waiving all late fees and promising not to kick people offline if they can't pay their bill due to Coronavirus-related difficulty. They've also indicated they're going to be eliminating all usage caps and overage fees, making it clear that such restrictions -- as countless experts had long argued -- didn't actually help them manage congestion, and were little more than a tax on captive broadband customers in uncompetitive markets.

So far, data from the US, China, and Italy would seemingly suggest that while overall speeds may slow slightly, the internet itself should be able to handle the load:

"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, lockdowns 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're just under a bit of strain. That bodes well for US networks.

Granted, things could change substantially if supply chains and network engineer and support staffs become shorthanded. Satellite broadband (which is heavily capped and throttled) may be particularly susceptible to strain. But by and large by most indications the US internet should be able to handle the pandemic.

Filed Under: broadband, congestion, covid-19, networks


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  1. icon
    Federico (profile), 18 Mar 2020 @ 1:35pm

    Re: We may have Netflix to thank

    Yes, but only the need to shoulder random spikes can prepare the network to handle a sudden increase of network usage of say 50 % across the board (everywhere at all times).

    Netflix may create big peaks when it releases a new TV series, but how big are they? I'd expect them to come relatively staggered. A better stress test might be a sudden contemporary download of very big software packages, like the game download anonymous mentioned above or maybe some urgent M$ Windows software pack mistakenly triggered on millions or billions of machines at once. Even that may not suffice as comparable stress test, because the CDN (cf. https://security.stackexchange.com/a/14079/47770 ) or even tier1 provider may saturate their cables before the rest of the network does.

    I'd like to know what caused the 6.7 Tb/s spikes at AMS-IX in April and June 2019. That might be more likely to tell you who to thank for network robustness. :)
    https://www.ams-ix.net/ams/documentation/total-stats
    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commo ns/0/06/2020-03_AMSIX_yearly_traffic_statistics.png


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