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Why the internet (probably) won’t break during the coronavirus pandemic

America’s internet can handle this huge surge in traffic. Your favorite website might not be so tough.

A woman uses a laptop on a roof in New York City.
A New York City school teacher conducts a remote learning session from her roof.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
Adam Clark Estes is a senior technology correspondent at Vox. He’s spent 15 years covering the intersection of technology, culture, and politics at places like Gizmodo, Vice, and the Atlantic.

If you’ve been working from home during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, you’ve probably noticed a tech glitch or two. Maybe your coworker’s face froze in a Zoom meeting, or you watched a YouTube video that seemed grainier than normal. These might seem like telltale signs that the internet in the US is struggling to support a sustained and unprecedented surge in use from millions of homebound computer users. The actual story of what’s going on is more complicated than that.

There’s been a surge in internet traffic in recent weeks, only part of which is due to more people working from home. That was happening on a smaller scale before the pandemic. As state and local governments have imposed lockdowns across the country, people are now doing everything from home, and a lot of it’s online. People are playing video games online; they’re doing video calls; they’re watching nerve-wrenching press conferences; and yes, they’re surely working part of the time. All that bandwidth adds up.

Despite the internet being an American invention, the US does not have the world’s best internet. So as more people started using the internet more often during the pandemic, it’s warranted that some — tech journalists, internet enthusiasts, and, to a much lesser degree, engineers — have been wringing their hands over whether our network infrastructure can handle a huge spike in traffic. Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted this week that his company, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, is “just trying to keep the lights on” as usage on its apps and platforms soars to record highs. But there’s a distinction between what’s happening on the internet as a whole and what’s happening on platforms like Zoom, YouTube, and Facebook.

The internet itself is an incredibly robust and resilient network that was specifically designed to adapt to huge spikes in traffic just like the one we’re living through. The platforms and apps that make the internet useful, however, are less tested. So the good news is, America’s internet is better prepared for this pandemic than you think. The bad news is that Mark Zuckerberg and others are worried that their platforms might not be able to handle this. Lucky for you, many experts think that everything will be fine.

Yes, internet traffic is up

On a normal weekday three months ago, internet traffic in the US looked like a series of waves. For home connections, you’d see crests in the evening when millions of people snuggled up to watch their choice of streaming entertainment service. But after companies started asking folks to work from home and local governments issued shelter-in-place orders in recent weeks, the amplitude of those waves went up. Some new crests also emerged just before lunchtime as more people were using their home connections during the day.

All things told, from January 1 to March 22, internet traffic is up 18 percent in the United States, according to data from the internet performance and security company Cloudflare. That’s not unlike what you might see during the Super Bowl, except that now traffic is staying sky high, day after day. But the internet was built to accommodate these spikes in activity. Matthew Prince, the co-founder and CEO of Cloudflare, explained to Recode that because the internet can survive a few hours of Super Bowl traffic, it should be able to handle a sustained spike “for four weeks or four months or however long this heightened period of time happens.”

“It’s also not something that wears out,” Prince said of the internet. “It’s not like, if you run your car for a high rate of speed for an extended period of time, it’s more likely your car’s gonna die. Networks don’t work that way.”

The rise in traffic is worldwide, and it’s sustained. Based on recent data Cloudflare shared with Recode, internet traffic continues to rise, and when it falls during slow periods, like the middle of the night, the traffic doesn’t fall as low in those toughs as it did two months ago. In Seattle, where traffic is up 25 percent since the beginning of the year, the nighttime troughs in March were actually higher than the daytime peaks in January.

Even still, so far it looks like performance hasn’t noticeably suffered. Ookla recently published a dataset that shows the mean download speed in the US on March 22 was actually about the same as it was on December 15. In the past few days, it has been trending down slightly, but we’re talking 10 megabits per second of difference. Just for context, the average download speed for fixed broadband in the US is about 140 Mbps, so that variation is pretty insignificant.

Other countries’ internet infrastructures haven’t been so dependable. Italy, specifically, has seen a sharp decrease in speeds since its government issued lockdown orders, but internet speeds in Italy and many other European nations are less than half what’s standard in the US, partially due to older infrastructure. The situation is worrisome enough in Europe that Netflix is actually reducing its traffic there by 25 percent and YouTube promised to limit quality in order to to free up bandwidth for other services. That means that Netflix users might notice a slight decrease in the quality of the video on the platform, but that might also mean that their local bank website still works properly.

Internet speeds in Europe are bound to improve eventually. The internet is highly scalable, and as traffic increases, the network can route that data in different ways to keep everyone’s connections humming along at a decent clip. It’s not unlike steering cars around a traffic jam, except the internet equivalent of cars is packets of data. In fact, major players like Netflix and Google have their own content delivery services that shorten the distances their data has to travel over the internet, which makes their services run faster.

All of this activity is happening on the higher tiers of the internet, however. The internet is actually structured based on a hierarchy of infrastructure. Tier-1 internet service providers (ISPs) essentially run the interstates, the routes through which most internet traffic must eventually flow. (Big international telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T are Tier-1 ISPs.) Tier-2 ISPs handle more regional traffic. (Cox Communications is a Tier-2 ISP.) The lowest tier is Tier-3, also known as “the last mile,” and that’s the ISP that delivers internet to your home or office.

No, your home internet is not invincible

The “last mile” is where you might start running into some problems right now. It’s the part of the internet infrastructure that consumer-facing ISPs like Spectrum or Comcast control. If there’s going to be a bottleneck for traffic anywhere, there’s a good chance it’s either going to be along the last mile or even inside your home.

Let’s start with what could go wrong on the last mile. If you work for a big company, there’s a good chance that your office internet is a fiber connection that theoretically has unlimited bandwidth. Your work computer might even get gigabit speeds for downloads and uploads, which is plenty fast enough to have a high quality Zoom call.

The situation at your home is different, however. Most residential broadband connections link the larger internet, which is fiber-based, to your home through an aging cable infrastructure. This cable system was designed to carry TV signals into your home, not carry information out of it. That’s why, if you’ve got a cable connection and run a speed test, you’ll see a huge difference between your faster download speeds and your slower upload speeds.

“I think that if there is going to be one place that we do see bottlenecks, especially in the US or other markets that are primarily served by cable operators, it’s going to be in that upload capacity,” Prince said.

Upload capacity is key to video conferencing services. So if your Zoom meetings aren’t going so well, you might be maxing out what your old infrastructure can handle. But if you’ve got a fiber connection, you should ask your ISP about getting symmetrical upload and download speeds. Verizon Fios and Google Fiber are a couple of ISPs that offer this.

Now, even if we assume you have unlimited bandwidth, you still might run into problems at home. Network congestion is an obvious consequence of increased usage, and that can lead to latency, which is the amount of time it takes for a packet of information to get from its source (a server) to its destination (your computer). A stuttering or out-of-sync video chat, for example, is a sure sign of high latency, which means that packets of data are probably getting backed up along the way. This might be because those packets have to travel through multiple routers before arriving at the one in your house, and due to congestion, each of those stops slows it down by a few milliseconds. In keeping with the highway metaphor, think about cars trying to get off a highway at a crowded exist. So even though you may think you have plenty of bandwidth and should therefore have fast internet, there’s a chance your connection just feels slow because high congestion is causing latency issues.

“The thing that I’m more concerned about with the load on the internet that we’re seeing right now is not that it’s going to stop working or even that we’re going to get low quality videos,” Justine Sherry, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, told Recode. “What I am worried about is that we’re going to see higher and higher latencies from these queues building up in the network, making it harder to do things like video conferencing.”

If you think you’re experiencing latency problems, the first thing to do is check how many devices are connected to your network. If you’re streaming Netflix on your smart TV, someone else in your house is streaming video gameplay on Twitch, and someone else is having a FaceTime conversation at the same time, you might have a problem. More connected devices doing high-bandwidth tasks typically means more congestion on your home network, and, therefore higher latency.

These latency issues can happen at either side of the connection. While big internet companies like Amazon and Facebook have sophisticated server setups that route and reroute traffic in real time, smaller operations can easily get strained by a surge in traffic. Sherry offered the example of her local library website grinding to a halt in the early days of the pandemic as the entire neighborhood tried to check out books at the same time. So if you’re dealing with smaller websites like these, you might just have to be patient.

God bless the cloud

Chances are, if you’re working at home, you’re using a lot of tools made by those big internet companies. And they’re probably holding up, for now. However, considering that the pandemic could last many more months, the future of internet connectivity seems uncertain. If we’re to believe the network experts and precedents, the internet itself is resilient enough to adapt to and support the spikes in traffic. The apps and platforms that depend on that infrastructure, however, seem a bit shakier.

This is surely why companies like Netflix and Google have lowered the quality of streaming videos as demand for bandwidth continues to surge. Facebook recently did the same thing with Facebook Live videos, which it says are seeing record traffic. In fact, the social network said in a blog post that “usage growth from Covid-19 is unprecedented across the industry” and that it’s “experiencing new records in usage almost every day.” This has apparently left Mark Zuckerberg feeling trepidatious.

“It really is a big technical challenge,” Zuckerberg told the New York Times. “We’re basically trying to ready everything we can.”

Meanwhile, the cloud — the network of machines humming in the background that are keeping a lot of these online websites and apps running — seems to be handling all of this new traffic rather well. Amazon Web Services (AWS), the world’s largest cloud computing company, is designed to adjust to growing capacity, much like the internet itself. Many of its servers can be run remotely and automatically scale up or down. So if there’s a surge in traffic, AWS can spin up extra servers that then handle the surge in data and accommodate for the increased demand.

In a statement that contrasts with Zuckerberg’s recent quotes, an AWS spokesperson told Recode, “We have taken measures to prepare and we are confident we will be able to meet customer demands for capacity in response to Covid-19.”

Then there’s all the collaborative cloud-based software that’s become essential since everyone started working from home. Microsoft recently revealed that its Teams software, which is designed for messaging, collaboration, and video conferencing, grew from 32 million to 44 million users between March 11 and March 18. That’s 37.5 percent growth in a single week. (Slack, another popular work messaging platform, reported that it’s seen a 40 percent increase in paid subscribers this quarter.) But starting right after that spike in users, Teams started seeing almost daily outages, according to Downdetector. (Slack has been fine.) Still, experts seem confident that big tech companies like these will work out the kinks, eventually.

“I wouldn’t be worried about the big services,” Professor Sherry from Carnegie Mellon said. “Amazon deals with Black Friday every year; they know what they’re doing. They have so many servers that they even rent out their infrastructure to other people. They’ve got it.”

Of course, we should all remember Prime Day 2018, when Amazon’s website actually crashed not long after the company’s proprietary version of Black Friday started. That should serve as a reminder that even when the experts and the executives are confident that these products are built for the most trying times, apps and websites have a bad habit of breaking at important moments.

The internet itself, however, is supposed to be bombproof. There’s an old adage about how the internet was built to survive a nuclear war — which is a bit of myth, though the sentiment holds up. Whether it was designed to survive a nuclear apocalypse or not, it will take a lot more than a few million more Zoom meetings and Netflix streams to bring down the internet. So at least there’s one bright side to this mess.

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