America’s internet infrastructure is likely to struggle under the weight of coronavirus-related traffic but will ultimately be okay, according to data from China and Italy analyzed by our sibling company Ookla Speedtest. That doesn’t mean your working and schooling from home is going to go smoothly, though, because the internet is more than pipes.
Ookla analyzed internet performance data in China, Italy, and the US over the past several weeks. In Hubei, China, the population was locked down on Jan. 22-23, but internet speeds began to decline the week of Jan. 13. In Italy, lockdowns started on March 9, and Ookla saw notable speed declines in both the province of Lombardy and in Italy as a whole that week.
These are speed declines, though, not crashes. The networks are holding up, they’re just under a bit of strain. That bodes well for US networks.
And I think the China data is especially good news for us. In China, the declines started before COVID-19. That doesn’t look like COVID as much as people taking off before Chinese New Year, when millions of people go home and stream Korean soap operas for hours while avoiding their grandparents. COVID just extended the effect of that holiday period.
Our home network infrastructure is designed for the 8 p.m. hour, when everyone’s playing games and streaming Netflix. If your home can handle watching The Mandalorian while someone upstairs plays Call of Duty, it can handle a bunch of daytime Zoom conferences. You’re going to experience some trouble, but it’s not likely to come from your wired internet line clogging up.
There’s one exception: satellite providers. HughesNet and Viasat most notably did not sign up to the FCC’s “Keep Americans Connected” pledge. They already throttle their users to manage the limited capacity of their satellites, and if their users start trying to work a lot more at home, there are going to be a lot more connections tightly throttled down to unusable levels.
3G Is a Weak Spot
Meanwhile in the UK, three major mobile networks went down under what service provider O2 said was the strain of people working from home. Okay, what happened? This story from Sky News explains that the crash has to do with 3G voice calling.
I don’t know enough about UK networks, but here in the US, wireless carriers have been reducing 3G voice capacity for years as they have switched their networks over to 4G. 3G calling doesn’t scale as well, or have as many options for network management, as 4G calling does. Now would be a good time to go into your phone’s network settings and turn on “advanced calling” or “voice-over-LTE.”
If we see a similar uptick on 2G and 3G voice calling in the US, I can definitely see those deprecated networks crashing under the strain. As for 4G networks, we’ve never seen people using them as primary home internet connections en masse (and the service plans are designed to prevent people from doing so.) T-Mobile is laying on massive new capacity using 600MHz spectrum borrowed from partners, but this crisis is definitely going to be a test of the mobile data networks.
It’s Not the Pipes, It’s the Plans and the Apps
The biggest problem in the US isn’t the pipes; it’s the plans and the poverty. While most Americans have theoretical access to fast broadband, an April 2019 Microsoft report shows that half of Americans aren’t using the internet at speeds of 25Mbps or higher.
This is both a rural and an urban problem. According to the US Census American Community Survey, 35 percent of households with incomes under $20,000 in my urban county of Queens, New York, don’t have internet. Spectrum Cable’s lowest-cost mainstream plan here is 100Mbps, but it’s also $50/month. A lower-cost “Lifeline” plan is available, but it isn’t heavily advertised and needs documentation to prove you qualify.
Some cable ISPs, including Spectrum and Comcast Xfinity, are offering free broadband service for 60 days to families with K-12 or college students. Check my previous article for a list of resources.
While the pipes may be ready, the apps may not be. Few video chat apps are truly peer-to-peer; almost all have some sort of central server that handles addressing, routing, and indexing. That includes Skype, Zoom, Google Meet—pretty much everything you’re about to use. Those servers are about to be tested like never before. The application providers say they’re all able to bring new servers online, but unlike the ISPs with that Netflix-and-gaming hour, this is an unprecedented event for them.
So I think we are going to see the internet fail—it’ll just come in the form of overloaded servers rather than overly clogged pipes. We’ll continue to track the situation with Ookla.