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Pressure map shows coronavirus stress on internet infrastructure

"Theron Martino" (2020-04-08)

Internet infrastructure is being put under huge pressure globally due to government-imposed lockdowns during the coronavirus crisis, new data shows. 

Australian researchers created a 'global internet pressure' map that reveals the strain COVID-19 is putting on internet as people are forced to stay at home.

The software behind the map, developed by data company KASPR Datahaus, collects and processes billions of internet activity and quality measurements daily. 

KASPR Datahaus says that any bandwidth-intense activity, such as HD video streaming and graphic-intensive online gaming can contribute to congestion.

'More people at home means more people online - with big bandwidth appetites,' said Professor Paul Raschky, an economist at Monash University in Melbourne and co-founder of KASPR Datahaus.

Global pressure map shows spikes in pressure on internet infrastructure in Malaysia, Italy, Spain and Sweden

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'This situation is not dissimilar to a family trying to make their way through a crowded subway tunnel. 

'Your streaming video or video upload during teleconferencing is made up of small packets of information - these packets need to find their way down copper and fibre-optic cables across vast distances.

'The more streaming packets trying to make the journey at once, the more congested the pathway and the slower the arrival time.'

The team examined how each nation's internet was performing amid the rapid escalation of home-based entertainment, including gaming and streaming films, as well as video-conferencing and other online communication.





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They observed changes in internet latency that emerged between March 12-13, around the time several countries including France, Spain and Italy entered government-imposed lockdowns, compared with February 13-14.

'We call this difference measure, between the first days of the lockdown period and the baseline period in early February, 'internet pressure', since if it is greater than zero, it exposes latency, or speed, issues, starting to affect millions of internet users across these regions,' said Dr Raschky.

'While the values may seem relatively small, such as three per cent or seven per cent, such a difference is far from normal, and indicates that many users are probably experiencing bandwidth congestion.' 

The team focused on countries with at least 100 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of 13 March, as these are the most likely to have undertaken significant social distancing activities.

The map - which is publicly available and lets users download data for individual countries - reveals pressure on internet networks is being particularly felt in Italy, Spain, Sweden, Iran and Malaysia, while Australia's is just holding up.

In the UK during this period, there was an increase in internet latency between mid-February and mid-March of around 4 per cent.   

'In most OECD countries that are affected by COVID-19, internet quality is relatively stable, although regions throughout Italy, Spain and somewhat surprisingly Sweden are showing signs of strain,' said Professor Raschky. 

The team also created a graphic that shows internet pressure during workdays over a slightly extended period - February 12-14 to March 18-20. 

The image above breaks down the internet pressure changes between Feb 12-14 and March 18-20 measured as a percentage increase

KASPR Datahaus said governments and network providers could limit some online services, making it unlikely that networks would grind to a halt due to traffic spikes. 

Eoin Keary, founder and CEO of computer security company Edgescan, said the switch to corporate internet service providers (ISPs) to home ISPs could cause problems.

'The traffic is routing through different systems and providers, some of which are not designed for bandwidth,' he told MailOnline.

'When capacity management is planned, typical usage patterns, peaks and trough times are considered, but the work-from-home and social distancing model has changed this pattern of usage dramatically.'

In the UK, broadband providers including BT and 가전 Sky have insisted they can support millions of people working from home during the pandemic, despite experts previously warning that the networks 'won't cope' with the extra traffic.

BT says that across the whole of the UK network currently deals with far higher traffic between the hours of 6pm and 10pm - when it handles about 10 times as much data during a normal working day.

This peak capacity shows that the company's broadband network is built to withstand a fifth of the country's workforce working at home, it says.

Netflix on Thursday said that it would be reducing bit rates — which determine the quality and size of its audio and video files — across all its streams in Europe for 30 days. This will, in effect, cut its traffic on European networks by around 25 per cent

'Leading operators have given assurances that there is sufficient capacity to cope with far higher day-time demand than we are currently seeing,' said Kester Mann, director of consumer and connectivity at CCS Insight.

'Indeed, levels of traffic during the day on BT are still well short of the evening peak and there is additional capacity that can be added should volumes shoot up another couple of notches.'

So far, the highest peak BT has seen in evening traffic - about 17.5 terabits per second - was driven by video game updates and streaming football, while daytime usage during working hours is about 5 terabits per second, he said. 

Last week, a video game expert and columnist urged video game players to reduce the time they spend playing games online during working hours to reduce the network strain - a suggestion that provoked outraged responses from gamers on social media.

But Mann said that, should traffic exceed anticipated levels, operators may have to prioritise certain types of service, like access to important healthcare or education resources.

Streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon and YouTube have agreed to lower the streaming quality of their services in Europe to reduce the risk of network overload, as per the recommendation of EU industry chief Thierry Breton.

But should networks start to strain under growing usage, governments could step in and enforce further measures, Mann said.