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Time to Panic? The Effects of COVID-19 on the Internet.

April 16, 2020

Richard Caira - Information Technology Attorney - Lawyer Raleigh NC
Insight by Partner Richard Caira

Given the social distancing guidelines and broad stay-at-home orders necessitated by the global COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, organizations and schools around the world have been forced to reevaluate the way they conduct their day-to-day operations. As a result, those organizations and schools have shifted to telecommuting and remote learning, which has placed a major strain on the Internet’s infrastructure. Though it is difficult to conceptualize the Internet as a monolithic entity, this new model of remote productivity raises concerns as to whether it’s sustainable in the long term.  At least for now, it appears it may be.

To be clear, a catastrophic and complete loss of the Internet is virtually impossible. More likely are disruptions in service – particularly among home broadband networks – as the strain increases. Issues can include slower download and upload times, difficulty streaming video content, and spotty or downright poor connections on video-conferencing platforms such as Skype, Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Cisco WebEx, the use of which has proliferated at a hockey stick-like growth rate since around February in proportion to the spread of the Coronavirus. Systems can and have become overloaded with the increased usage, and major ISPs are reporting a double-digit upswings in data traffic. These companies have been adding increased bandwidth to help cope with the demand, but some areas of service may still be affected.

Lower bandwidth areas and regions serviced only by copper wire connections will likely be hardest hit by the infrastructure strain. With the equivalent of peak Internet hours now occurring throughout the day, the focus for ISP companies shifts from major network nodes at business locations to underserved residential areas. In some cases, service bottlenecks might occur in places where multiple networks converge. For now, though, most providers seem confident in their ability to field the added demand, with the caveat that outdated technology such as DSL may struggle to bear the weight in rural areas not accustomed to traffic spikes. And although the Federal Communications Commission has subsidized service providers for years, it has not offered incentives for providers to guarantee modern service to all of their customers.

Potentially more disruptive is the need for human engineers to maintain the components of the Internet’s networks, including servers and switches. If engineering personnel are themselves physically affected by the Coronavirus, it may compound the issues already created by the shift in network demand. The human impact on the Internet can be seen in other ways, as well, such as staff inexperience in transitioning to online tools and services. A challenge for organizations (including within the already-overburdened healthcare industry) is to educate staff on the finer points of remote work while equipping them with the devices and networking capabilities they need at a moment’s notice. Additionally, many families put in a position to oversee the online continuation of their children’s education may be hard-pressed to afford the necessary tools to do so, especially in households where parents are also bearing the burden of their own remote work.

Overall, ISP providers eliminating bandwidth caps for their customers suggests that they already have the infrastructure in place to manage the influx of traffic. Apparently, though, a more difficult problem requiring resolution is the hurdle of upstream performance since residential networks are more likely to receive data than to send it, with existing bandwidths adjusted accordingly. Low latency in upstream performance is also important for the many video conferencing services relied on more by organizations that have moved online during quarantine measures. It’s clear ISPs have been scrambling to compensate for the change in network usage brought on by stay-at-home orders and quarantining in general, but for the most part, the transition so far has been relatively seamless. However, as stay-at-home orders lengthen, expect to see an expansion of services to help compensate for the adjustment as capacity shifts. There doesn’t currently seem to be a reason to fear a mass and catastrophic disruption of the Internet, but it’s important to realize that, among many other aspects of daily life, “business as usual” no longer applies to how the Internet is utilized.