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As communities worldwide grapple with the reality of an extended COVID-19 induced lock-down, Internet usage has, understandably, significantly increased. As more and more countries are forced into lock-down in an effort to curb the spread of the deadly virus, the growing number of people forced into working remotely and finding online entertainment is seeing the Internet absolutely explode. In fact COVID-19 has pushed up Internet use by a whopping 70 percent in some countries while streaming services are up by more than 12 percent, figures last month revealed.
The Internet is getting overwhelmed. And, while Internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, Vodafone, Verizon and Telefónica have been building their networks for years to account for increased demand, they never anticipated it would happen quite so suddenly. Enrique Blanco, CTO at Telefónica, a Spanish telecommunications company, said that growth the industry had expected to take a year is “happening over days”, due to COVID-19.
“Increased consumption of digital content from mobile apps to free TV streaming and gaming has already been observed in China and Italy,”a statement by Omdia, the tech research arm of Informa Tech, said. “Online streaming services provided by brands such as Netflix and now Disney+ are likely to see 12% growth, while Ecommerce will be the other sector that will see a revenue boost as a result of the pandemic, adding $175 billion in revenue in 2020, which represents a 5% increase.”
But while growth is usually seen as a good thing, things in the digital space aren’t exactly golden. The Internet is buckling under the pressure of unprecedented heavy use, and some ISPs are struggling to deal with the additional demand for connectivity. ISPs look after a number of very important Internet-related things including Internet access, Internet transit, domain name registration, web hosting, Usenet service, and colocation. In other words, ISPs are the guys tasked with making sure you can access the Internet whenever you like, as well as routing Internet traffic, resolving domain names, and maintaining the network infrastructure that makes Internet use possible. Without ISPs, there would be no Internet. But amidst staggering rates of Internet use, we are beginning to see service providers strain under the pressure.
In Italy, one of the nation's worst hit by the global coronavirus pandemic, Internet traffic increased by 109.3 percent over the roughly one-month period from February 20 to March 31, while download speed decreased by 35.4 percent. In India, the mean fixed broadband speed has been steadily declining since the beginning of lock-down too.
"When networks are under usage strain like they are in this unprecedented time of lockdown in India due to COVID-19, it is natural that they experience some level of slowdown. It is important to note that while the Internet itself should handle elevated usage, there may be impacts to speed as people continue to move their daily activities increasingly online. While the core of the Internet remains stable, some ISP networks may struggle to keep up,” CEO of Ookla, a web service that provides free analysis of Internet access performance metrics, Doug Suttles, said. As per the latest Ookla's Speedtest Global Index report, the mean download speeds on fixed broadband have decreased from 39.65 Mbps in February to 35.98 Mbps in March - a direct result of increased global Internet use.
A few weeks ago, five of Spain's major operators (including Orange and Vodafone) warned that services could potentially soon collapse amidst a 40 percent spike in traffic through IP networks and 50 percent hike in voice calls. At around the same time, Netflix recognised it couldn’t continue to keep up with the growing demands of viewers while not impacting other Internet capacities, and so it reduced its streaming bit rates in a bid to support the sudden growth in streaming. Apple TV+, Disney+ and Amazon have followed suit.
Interestingly, ISPs are coping at varying levels depending on the location of traffic congestion. A recent study led by KASPR datahaus, which looked at the Internet congestion of Australia's major cities from February up until March 30, exposed huge differences in the speed from city to-city. It found that Internet speed was strongest in Perth, while Canberra and Melbourne were experiencing the worst average Internet congestion, according to data supplied by Monash University.
The good news is there are options in the ISP space. If Internet users are struggling to get speedy and efficient Internet, and they are approaching the end of a contract, it is possible to swap to a new provider free of charge. However doing that won’t necessarily guarantee enhanced quality of Internet speed.
The other good news is, current effects on Internet speed are entirely regional, and we have already seen the worst of it. Speeds are unlikely to decrease much more, as most places around the world have already been issued stay-at-home orders. In other words, the most extreme cases of speed degradation have already occurred.