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COVID-19 : The Internet is Under Pressure with Over a Billion People Under Lockdown

Social distancing and with more people working from home to avoid the coronavirus (COVID-19), will the Internet break? The short answer is probably not. The longer answer is that there may be disruptions worldwide.

An estimated 1.5 billion people worldwide are now under lockdown as countries scramble to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, which has now infected at least 332,000 people and killed over 14,510.

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During the lockdown, businesses, schools and universities are being close down. Across the developed world, millions of us are now spending more time connecting to the Internet from our kitchens, living rooms and home offices every day in the past few weeks. The Internet is recording a huge spike in usage, putting unprecedented pressures on network infrastructure, and this is expected.

Such a spike in usage means that popular contents, services and applications can very well go down without the necessary infrastructure upgrades. These include, Whatsapp, Facebook, Youtube, Google, Microsoft, Netflix, Disney+, Amazon, Facetime, Skype and many more.

Problems are likely to range from disconnections to slow downloads/loading or disrupted video feed/streaming.

Last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said they are now working on preventing an outage by doubling server capacity for WhatsApp. And yet, despite these preventive measures, there’s still a chance the instant messaging service would end up struggling to stay online once the pandemic expands.

“This isn’t a massive outbreak in the majority of countries around the world yet,” Zuckerberg said. “But if it gets there, then we really need to make sure we’re on top of this from an infrastructure perspective to make sure that things don’t melt down.”

The Facebook owner compared the usage recorded these days on WhatsApp with the one that typically occurs around New Year’s Eve when everyone uses the app to send photos or make calls.

“We are on a sustained basis well beyond what that spike is on New Year’s. Just making sure that we can manage that is the challenge that we’re trying to make sure that we can stay in front of,” he was quoted as saying. There were a 100 billion messages exchanged on New Year’s Eve.

In Europe, EU Industry Chief Thierry Breton has called on video streaming platforms such as Netflix and Alphabet unit YouTube to take measures to prevent internet gridlock caused by people teleworking and streaming at home due to the coronavirus outbreak. Many countries in Europe are already in lockdown.

Netflix has decided to begin reducing bit rates across all its video streams in Europe and India for 30 days. It is estimated that this will reduce Netflix traffic on European and Indian networks by around 25% while also ensuring a good quality service for its customers. The video streaming content provider has over 167 million users globally.

Youtube will also reduce streaming quality in Europe for at least the next month to prevent the internet collapsing under the strain of unprecedented usage due to the coronavirus pandemic. A spokesperson for Google, which owns YouTube, said: “We will continue working with member state governments and network operators to minimize stress on the system, while also delivering a good user experience.”

Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ have also taken steps to reduce network bandwidth in certain countries.

Microsoft’s chat and communications tool, Microsoft Teams, went down across Europe last week for more than two hours. The outage started just as thousands of workers started to sign into the service and attempt to work remotely amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Mobile Internet services are often the most affected by people who rely on these service at home instead of a fixed fibre broadband service that provides stable and super fast Internet speeds. However, a lot of people don’t have access to fixed fibre or just can’t afford those services.

Vodafone, which operates in more than 65 countries, says it has “already seen data traffic increase by 50% in some markets.” It added extra capacity to its core fixed, broadband and mobile networks to cope with the surge in demand. Network operators in the UK have reported significant jumps in traffic. Virgin has seen upstream traffic increase by up to 95% during daytime hours this week, while BT said that weekday daytime Internet demand was up 30-60%.

According to research by Nokia Deepfield that started from the week of March 9, networks have seen an increase of 20% to 40% during peak usage in impacted regions.

A couple of weeks ago, five of Spain’s major operators including Movistar, Orange and Vodafone signed a letter warning that their networks could soon collapse due to a 40% spike in traffic through IP networks, 50% jump in voice calls and 25% in data, urging users to use the Internet more responsibly. Some of the main cause of the congestion was video streaming and gaming.

In Malaysia, MalaysianWireless observed thousands of complaints relating to slow mobile network experience since the country went into a lockdown on March 18. As customer touchpoints and service centres have been ordered to close by Malaysia authorities, Telcos such as Celcom and U Mobile are experiencing high volume of inquiries in all channels.

Nevertheless, major telecom operators in Malaysia such as Celcom Axiata, U Mobile, Digi, Telekom Malaysia and Maxis are confident and have all committed to ensure connectivity remains accessible for all during the lockdown period.

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Digi said its first priority is to maintain the high availability and quality of its network to ensure connectivity remains accessible for all, especially at residential areas, data centres, customer touchpoints, and more.

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U Mobile highlighted that it has always been a data-centric telco and in times like these they know their customers will need reliable, consistent and sufficient data to help them tide through the days and to keep track of the developments of the COVID-19 virus. “Hence, the telco wants to assure Malaysia that U Mobile stands by their customers and it will do its best to make it easy for everyone to stay connected.”

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“As we foresee network usages to increase significantly during this period, we also ask consumers to utilise the network services responsibly for high productivity activities. Our Celcom team strives to ensure that all customers can remain connected with their loved ones and perform their jobs remotely when working from home,” Idham Nawawi, Chief Executive Officer of Celcom Axiata Berhad said.

At least for now, the Internet is holding up and hopefully, we will all be able to get through this.

About Kugan

Kugan is the founder of MalaysianWireless. He has been observing the mobile industry since 2003. Connect with him on Twitter: @scamboy
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