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Why COVID-19 Didn’t Break the Internet

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Luis Monzon
Luis Monzon
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In the face of a rapid worldwide traffic explosion from private, public and government entities all across the world, there was some worry from experts that the increasing surge in bandwidth would be too much for the internet’s infrastructure to maintain.

Now, with all indications hinting that there have been a few hot spots, the Internet has seemingly held its own through it all. Something that Network World believes is a silver lining of sorts during this time.

In terms of increased traffic, the evidence speaks for itself:

  • Video on Verizon’s network is up 41%, VPN usage is up 65%, and there’s been a tenfold increase in collaboration tool usage, says Andrés Irlando, president at Verizon’s public sector division.
  • Downstream traffic has increased up to 20% and upstream traffic has up to 40% during the last two months, according to Cox Communications CTO Kevin Hart. “To keep ahead of the traffic we have been executing on our long-term plan that stays 12-18 months ahead of demand curves. We’ve had to scramble to stay ahead but 99% of our nodes are healthy,” he said.
  • The DE-CIX (the Deutsche Commercial Internet Exchange) in Frankfurt set a new world record for data throughput on in early March hitting more than 9.1 Terabits per/second. Never before has so much data been exchanged at peak times at an Internet Exchange, the DE-CIX states.

So just how is the Internet handling this pandemic? Well, put simply, it was designed to.

Network planning, traffic engineering, and cutting-edge equipment can take most of the credit for the Internet’s ability to adjust in times of need.

“IP was built to last through any sort of disaster, and the core was built to live through almost anything,” says Jonathan Davidson, senior VP and GM of Cisco’s Mass-Scale Infrastructure Group.

“Over the years there has been a tremendous amount of infrastructure and CAPEX spending to build out this massive network. We are no longer in the days of the wild west of years ago; the Internet is a critical resource and the expectations are much higher.”

Indeed, the principle of over-building capacity is one of the key reasons the Internet has performed so well. “Network capacity is critical. Our network team and engineers have been able to keep the same amount of capacity or headroom on our networks during this crisis,” says Verizon’s Irlando. “We continue to augment capacity and connectivity.”

“There was some anxiety as traffic began to ramp up at the start. We’ve seen a 35% increase in traffic – but ultimately the networks have handled it quite well,” says Andrew Dugan, chief technology officer at CenturyLink.

It seems that Internet planning actually took into account the demands a pandemic would place on the network, says Dugan.“CenturyLink and other providers began developing pandemic plans more than a decade ago, and we knew that part of the response would rely significantly on our infrastructure,” he continues.

People who build large IP networks engineer them for unexpected congestion, he said.  Dugan pointed to three factors that are helping the Internet successfully support the increased volume of traffic:

  • Networks are built with redundancy to handle fibre cuts and equipment failures. This means creating capacity headroom to support sudden disasters.
  • Network monitoring helps operators anticipate where congestion is occurring, allowing them to move traffic to less congested paths.
  • ISPs have been building out networks for years to account for increasing demand, and planning specifications help prevent networks from reaching capacity

Other attributes have helped the Internet’s performance as well. An important one in question is AI. US telecom and ISP, AT&T, says its artificial intelligence is helping remotely troubleshoot problems with customer equipment and identify issues before they become problems.

“We’ve expedited deployments of new AI capabilities in certain markets that will allow us to balance the traffic load within a sector and across sectors to help avoid overloading specific cells and improve the experience,” AT&T states.

There is one overarching problem the COVID-19 crisis is shining a light on, however, and that is the digital divide. For an estimated 3.7 billion people worldwide, Internet access is either unavailable or too expensive, and that is palpable when connectivity to the outside world becomes essential.

“The Internet is moving from huge to absolutely massive. It’s moving from being critical to being essential to economies, businesses, and governments,” Cisco’s Davidson says. “As a result of COVID-19, we’re getting a glimpse of what the internet of the future is today,” he concludes.

Edited by Luis Monzon

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