As people around the world quarantine en masse, the internet is being tested. Internet traffic surged by 30% by Wednesday in a locked-down Italy. It’s up 8% to 10% in South Korea and parts of the US, like Seattle, that were hit early by COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Peak usage, typically on Sunday nights, is now 11:30 a.m. on weekdays. People are streaming, video-chatting, and reading news like there’s no tomorrow. And yet despite this surge, the internet is holding up.
“We haven't seen dramatic slowdowns anywhere across our network,” Matthew Prince, CEO of Cloudflare, a web infrastructure and security company, told BuzzFeed News. “In Italy, we're seeing a 30% increase over normal usage and we're not seeing any deterioration of service across Italian ISPs. And that is an entire country that's in quarantine.”
“The likelihood that this goes down is rather low. I don't think we have to fear.”
After all, the internet was “designed to survive a nuclear blast,” Roger Entner, founder and analyst at Recon Analytics, told BuzzFeed News. “The likelihood that this goes down is rather low. I don't think we have to fear.”
People confining themselves at home will indeed challenge the web’s infrastructure. Streaming volume is up as people stay inside, according to Cloudflare’s data, and as video chats have replaced in-person meetings. These activities place an additional load on local internet service providers, which aren’t used to delivering connectivity at such a high volume to residences.
But thanks to the way the web operates today, the worst-case scenario may be slightly lower-quality streams for some people.
Streaming video, which stresses the web's ability to deliver traffic the most, may be responsible for its resilience, experts like Entner said. The rise of streaming sites like Netflix led to a surge in content-delivery networks, or servers around the world that cache web pages and video. These networks, known as CDNs, give people access relatively impervious to network disruptions and should help keep the web steady amid higher use.
“In a world before Netflix and streaming video, it might have looked different,” Entner said. “You needed to have the demand.”
Multiple engineers who work in cloud services said the CDNs should function despite the surge. “CDNs and their supporting infrastructure will enable many web services to remain online and largely functional during times of high traffic,” Joshua Briefman, a senior site reliability engineer who’s worked on cloud services for years, told BuzzFeed News, adding the caveat that their stability is only as good as the forethought that went into their design and deployment.
If a website loaded all its stress on one data center, for instance, its site could be hurt by potential bottlenecks as local internet service providers struggle to meet greater demand.
“You have a one-inch pipe that supplies water to the entire house,” Briefman said. “That works great for your house. But now let's say you decided you wanted to turn your house into a neighborhood. When we plumb this place out for eight families, and we need water and showers for those families, that one pipe is not going to be able to supply enough water.”
Sites trying to manage significant data loads without proper infrastructure, like CDNs, could find themselves left to the mercy of the ISPs that host them. That may be a risk. “Can the existing networks handle it? I doubt it,” one person who works at Amazon Web Services, a cloud services provider, told BuzzFeed News. “They will fall over.”
David Belson, senior director of internet research and analysis at Internet Society, told BuzzFeed News he expected the ISPs to hold up, but not without challenges. “The most significant problems, I think, will be seen in the last mile,” he said in an email. “Those in ‘connectivity deserts’ may find that their meager connection is insufficient to handle more than the most basic tasks. (But frankly, that same issue existed before all of this happened.)”
The ISPs, for their part, said they’re ready for the deluge. “We work hard to make sure we have enough capacity and it’s still early, but our network is performing well,” Comcast spokesperson Joel Shadle told BuzzFeed News. “We have seen some shift in usage patterns toward more daytime usage in some impacted areas, but so far things are still similar to what we normally experience during primetime hours.”
An AT&T spokesperson pointed BuzzFeed News to a statement on the company’s website. “Our network continues to perform well,” it said. “In cities where the coronavirus has had the biggest impact, we are seeing fewer spikes in wireless usage around particular cell towers or particular times of day because more people are working from home rather than commuting to work and fewer people are gathering in large crowds at specific locations.”
For his part, Entner did not seem overly concerned. “Push comes to shove,” he said, “we’ll watch wonderful movies in standard definition.”