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Internet Bends but Doesn’t Break Under Higher Loads

2 min read
Mar 25, 2020

The list of ways we’ve increased internet usage recently is long: remote work, video calls, gaming, and streaming, among others. Despite this, surprisingly few connection and bandwidth problems have been reported. The pipes and tubes of the internet have coped well with increased demand.

Spikes in traffic have varied considerably by location. Le Monde reported that a large internet node in Amsterdam has seen a 20% increase in traffic relative to February. Bloomberg reported a 70% increase in Italy, which they attributed to homebound students downloading and playing video games online. There were some short outages in Italy, but Telecom Italia said their network was still working fine. Demand rose at the Amsterdam node to its highest level on Sunday, but at 7.8 Tbits/s, it’s still well below the 34.6 Tbits/s capacity.

In the US, internet service providers mentioned offering access to more people, maybe even for free. So, bandwidth doesn’t seem to be a problem just yet. Individual companies have seen problems, though. According to Slate, stock trading sites such as Ameritrade, E-Trade, and Robinhood have seen spikes in outages as customers have frantically tried to access their accounts during harsh market conditions. However, this is mostly due to the fact that such trading sites need specialized infrastructure for such transactions, and that infrastructure is harder to scale up.

The robust performance is mostly due to our already large appetite for video streaming. Tired after a long day, many of us find time for “just one more episode” in the evening. Network operators had already added capacity to deal with those evening spikes, which haven’t gotten much bigger as people work from home. Most of the increase has come during the day when students play games and adults tune in to video conferences. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Many students have also started attending classes by video conference during the day.

So why the recent reduction in video quality from major streaming providers in Europe? A simple precaution. It’s better not to strain the system at a time when quarantines would make any problems harder to fix. Consequences from outages would also be far more serious than in normal times. It’s doubtful bored children and adults will complain about standard definition Netflix. It’s some of the best entertainment we have left, HD or not.

Sources: Le Monde (in French), Bloomberg, Slate