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We’re Online More Than Ever Right Now. Can the Internet Itself Keep Up?

7 minute read

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the world, forcing major cities and entire countries to enter a state of indefinite lockdown, many people are being encouraged or ordered to work or learn remotely, conducting meetings, conference calls and classes online in isolation. But is the Internet itself ready for the sudden surge in activity? And what about the millions of Americans who lack high-speed Internet access in the first place?

First, the good news. Yes, there’s been a sharp uptick in traffic from homes around the country over the past few weeks — web use is up 35%, according to Andrew Dugan, CTO of networking company CenturyLink. But luckily, that spike in use doesn’t threaten to strain the core infrastructure of the web itself, as it can be augmented with extra capacity to handle the increased activity.

“We have seen a few hotspots, but in the core of the network that’s pretty easy to deal with,” says Dugan. “Particularly for larger carriers like us that have a fiber-based network, we can add capacity to our internet backbone reasonably quickly.”

That said, some places may have more challenges than others to keep the speeds up, Dugan says, especially in lower-population areas. The internet infrastructure outside major cities isn’t typically as robust or built to accommodate such a dramatic rise in traffic all at once. A particular issue are the local connections to people’s individual homes — a stretch referred to as “the last mile” — that are serviced by Internet Service Providers (ISPs), like Verizon and Comcast. It’s the last mile that could suffer the most during busy business hours or peak evening times, when everyone is home streaming video, playing games, or just messing around on the web.

As of now, most ISPs are handling the uptick in traffic just fine, with many seeing an uptick in traditional communications like voice calls. Verizon’s latest network report shows a huge increase in voice calls — up to 800 million per day, double the call volume compared to its busiest call volume day, Mother’s Day — as a result of the pandemic forcing people to stay socially distanced from others. The use of collaboration services (like videoconferencing software or online learning services) has also risen by 47% compared to the week prior, with usage dropping off during the weekend. A Verizon spokesperson said this week that the company handled 218,009 terabytes of data, the equivalent of 106 million hours of streaming video.

Still, with so many people online, home Internet speeds have slowed down just slightly due to the increased network congestion. That’s largely thanks to videoconferencing software, a kind of Internet usage that doesn’t mesh well with most residential internet services, according to Morgan Kurk, CTO of networking firm CommScope. He says that while home internet services offer plenty of download capacity — good for surfing the web or streaming movies — they tend to have slower upload speeds. That means sending data — like a video stream to your collages — takes a backseat. “It’s so much uplink traffic that didn’t exist before,” says Kurk.

Some ISPs, like Xfinity and Verizon, have relaxed their data overage rules or increased data caps free of charge. That’s good news for your monthly bill, but might incentivize more use, leading to slower speeds due to network congestion — further explaining why your recent video conference calls might not look as great as the one you made a few months ago.

Even if the Internet itself is mostly fine, some individual platforms may have demand-related issues. Earlier this week, Microsoft’s workplace collaboration tool, Teams, suffered an hours-long outage, leaving many in a lurch, unable to connect to colleagues. On Thursday, some Google services were down temporarily, according to Ookla’s DownDetector site, which reports on outages from a variety of services based on user response and social media trends. It’s unclear if either outage was directly related to extra coronavirus-related use, but it’s safe to expect some downtime for your favorite services here and there. “It’s important to remember the internet is not a single entity,” says Ookla CTO Luke Deryckx. “It’s a series of interconnected networks, each with their own potential bottlenecks and potential scalability issues.”

Major digital platforms should be able to handle isolated incidents pretty easily, meaning such episodes may not affect a vast majority of users. Leaders of the services that many of us are relying on, like the videoconferencing platform Zoom, are confident they’ll rise to the challenge. “Scaling is in Zoom’s DNA as a company,” says Zoom exec Janine Pelosi. “Our ability to continually and proactively manage the demand on our platform has allowed us to deliver at this all-important moment in time.”

Still, you might soon notice that your movies and shows don’t look as good as they usually do, especially if you have a high-end TV and you’re used to 4K resolution video. Companies like Netflix, Facebook and YouTube have already agreed to reduce the quality of video streams in Europe as a way to reduce the overall strain on the networks. “If you are particularly tuned into video quality you may notice a very slight decrease in quality within each resolution,” Netflix executive Ken Florance said in a company blog post. “But you will still get the video quality you paid for.” Whether streams in the U.S. will be subject to this quality degradation has yet to be established. “On the ISP side, some partners in regions such as Latin America want us to reduce our bandwidth as soon as possible,” writes Florance. “But others want to continue with business as usual.”

Even if the Internet itself stays stable, that won’t help the millions of Americans who depend on their schools or workplaces for a connection. Many Americans don’t have home broadband at all, particularly in low-income areas or rural communities. While the Federal Communications Commission says over 21 million Americans lack access to high speed broadband, an independent survey from BroadbandNow puts that number closer to 40 million, nearly double the FCC’s figure, based on self-reported data from ISPs. Microsoft’s estimates are even more alarming; it says an estimated 162 million Americans lack broadband internet at home. All this highlights the nation’s “digital divide,” or the stark contrast in broadband internet access between different communities.

“We should celebrate that so many people have the ability to [work remotely], but we have to recognize that there are disconnected among us who don’t,” says FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, an advocate for fixing the broadband gap. “We’re going to get to the other side of this, and when we do we’re going to recognize that broadband is essential infrastructure, like water, like electricity, and that we all need to have access to it. We should recognize this moment for what it is, and that’s a clarion call that everyone in this country needs internet access to function in modern civic and commercial life.”

What should you do if you’re having trouble with blurry video calls or slow downloads? If you’re using your wireless router to get online, keep in mind your other devices are competing for that same slice of internet your video meeting constantly requires, leading to in-home network congestion. You may want to consider directly connecting to your router with an Ethernet cable to free up wireless bandwidth, or simply turn off devices that aren’t in use until you’re done. You can also consider “timeshifting” your online activity, says Commscope’s Kurk.

“We all seem to start things like WebEx meetings on the hour or on the half hour,” says Kurk. “That means that everybody is contacting the same servers at the same time. That might not be the best experience, and so if you offset this by even five or 10 minutes, you might have a better experience.”

As for your movies and TV shows? There’s always Blu-Rays.

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Write to Patrick Lucas Austin at patrick.austin@time.com