Residential broadband networks are creaking under coronavirus
It used to be easy to distinguish between weekday and weekend traffic, but this is no longer the case. A constant rate of activity has replaced the usually two-day bump in internet traffic over the weekend. Residential broadband networks have been particularly affected because the immediate impact of most restrictions has been to confine people to their homes.
The covid-19 pandemic has created numerous challenges for businesses across multiple industries. One of the most significant challenges for many businesses has been introducing work-from-home measures that enable their employees to access corporate networks from home. For some businesses, this has been a relatively simple change, while others have had to make rapid upgrades to their infrastructure at relatively short notice.
However, while many people enjoy working from home and find it preferable to their previous arrangements, it presents some serious challenges for the national broadband infrastructure.
During the first wave of lockdowns across Europe, streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime announced that they would be taking extraordinary measures in response to the dramatic increase in demand they were experiencing. With millions of people across the continent stuck all day indoors and working from their front rooms, streaming services saw a surge in demand that far outstripped their existing bandwidth. Their response was to limit the amount of data users could use and downgrade the video and audio resolution as necessary.
But while these measures enabled streaming services to continue offering a complete service to their users, they were not enough to mitigate the problem entirely. The overall load on national broadband networks remained the same, irrespective of how much bandwidth individual users were allocated.
Streaming services were just one source of increased load on broadband networks. The sudden increase in people sending and receiving data from their employers also played a significant role in increasing network load.
Measurable increases in traffic volume followed the announcement of new public policies such as school closures and stay at home orders. Corresponding slowdowns in download speeds accompanied these rises in traffic volume.
The good news is that these fluctuations, while dramatic, aren’t a threat to the internet’s overall health and stability. Thanks to the elastic nature of modern network infrastructure and the regionality of these fluctuations, most people haven’t noticed much change in their subjective experience using the internet.
But as time goes on and these temporary increases in network load look increasingly like permanent or at least long-term changes, many people wonder whether the internet as a whole will hold up. The good news is that the answer to this question is a resounding ‘yes.’ The quality of internet services has always varied considerably between different regions and markets. The localised nature of lockdown restrictions also means that any impacts on internet performance are similarly confined to specific areas.
Internet performance in the UK
Between February 27th and March 31st, internet traffic in the UK increased by 78.6% while download speeds reduced by 30.3%. Following the announcement of increased restrictions on travel and social gatherings on March 17th, the UK saw an increase in overall traffic of 16.3% and a decrease in average download speeds of 7.7%.
A similar pattern unfolded after the nation was put under a nationwide stay at home order on March 23rd when traffic surged by 14.5%. However, in this case, download speeds only took a 0.4% hit. This would seem to indicate that most of the population was already homebound at this point.
Is the internet up to the challenge?
Based on regional performances around the globe, it looks like the internet as a whole is rising to the challenge of increased demand. Despite the increased load persisting for much longer than many observers predicted, the global network infrastructure is continuing to hold up.
Throughout the pandemic, network load increases have occurred predictably in the immediate aftermath of public policy announcements. This trend is partly explainable by the sudden rush of people going online to find out more about the policy changes and what they entail.
Impact on residential networks
It used to be easy to distinguish between weekday and weekend traffic, but this is no longer the case. A constant rate of activity has replaced the usually two-day bump in internet traffic over the weekend. Residential broadband networks have been particularly affected because the immediate impact of most restrictions has been to confine people to their homes. Instead of using relatively high-bandwidth corporate networks for much of the working week, people use their home broadband connections for both work and leisure.
Fortunately, modern internet infrastructure elasticity means that most websites and online applications can resist these fluctuating demands. In other words, they have been designed to resist changes in network conditions and, while they have never been subjected to changes this dramatic in the past, they are proving resilient enough to handle the challenge.