No, Increased Traffic Will Not Break the Internet

Doug Brake April 7, 2020
April 7, 2020

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There has been a surprising amount of handwringing over whether the big shift to working from home under COVID quarantines will “break the Internet,” especially from some seeking more government regulation or direct government provision of broadband. In fact, there is little reason to worry—our nation’s networks are handling these changes in usage patterns with relative ease. If these challenging times should galvanize policymakers about anything, it should be to close the digital divide and ensure everyone has the broadband and devices needed to be able to work or study from home. There are enough serious problems out there to be resolved without having to make up more.

A lot of the early, alarmist reporting on this issue was fairly vague, with talk of “surging” traffic “straining” networks, without a clear indication (or perhaps understanding) of what the challenge is, or if there really is one. Those reports that did use some statistics, such as theNew York Times, relied on traffic measurement tools with bad methodologies, and even then, made a mountain out of a molehill. In cities that did see a dip in average speeds, we are talking about a few megabits per second, not any major disruptions. As Jon Brodkin at Ars Technicaadmitted “typical download speeds remain high enough to support normal broadband-usage patterns.”

Major ISPs are actually reporting that real outages are at a record low: Most problems disrupting service are caused by humans—things like accidental cable cuts or car crashes taking out poles. With most everyone at home, the Internet is humming along better than ever. I don’t mean to underplay the significance of what is happening behind the scenes. The big shifts in use are real, and I’m sure do require new equipment and additional transit links where traffic is aggregated up, at least in some areas. The new peak in voice traffic, which still requires specialized equipment distinct from the rest of the Internet, also likely saw some ISP technicians scrambling. The teleconference and other work-from-home applications that we are coming to rely on are having to dramatically scale up their operations. All of these changes can be accommodated through private technology and Internet service companies operating in well-functioning markets. Not to be too flip, but it is already clear that any changes in peering arrangements, new resources for voice traffic, etc., are being better and more flexibly provisioned that, say, the toilet paper supply chain.

What’s more, new data shows that the new daytime peak traffic patterns have stabilized, and are well within operational capacity of today’s networks. The changes in traffic, despite all the new video conferencing, are still wildly asymmetric; we continue to download far more than we upload. Even high-definition video conferencing—just a “talking head” with a static background—generally does not take up much bandwidth compared to video with shifting colors and backgrounds like sports. Thankfully the surge in traffic, although dramatic in its pattern change, was within the expected increases already projected and designed into network investments. Also, most streaming video, which is responsible for the lion’s share of Internet traffic (more than 60 percent), has adaptive bitrate encoding, which allows it to scale back its bandwidth if the network truly is overloaded. So really no major cause for alarm.

Some reporters got this right early on. Tech reporter Rob Pegorino put it well when he wrote, “The single biggest reason that your internet provider should be holding up: Coronavirus-induced traffic during the day still doesn’t exceed the nightly peaks it should have already designed its systems around.” Networks are designed to accommodate peak usage—if that is at 7 p.m. when everyone gets home from work and starts streaming the latest hit video series, or at 10 a.m. when everyone is on a Zoom video conference makes little difference, as long as it’s under the expected peak load.

Is the Internet more important than ever? Yes, absolutely. But there is a massive logical leap from noting its importance to arguing for additional government oversight or intervention. The Vergewas perhaps the worst offender here, arguing that without Title II oversight “no one knows if the FCC can step in.” Its not clear what the author means by “step in,” but doesn’t make a lot of sense to encourage a more interventionist approach under the controversial telephone-era utility regulations of Title II when it appears networks are adapting so well.

This position is especially odd, considering how it sounds like things are not faring so well for European operators. Each country is different, but generally speaking the EU takes a much more interventionist approach, like that available under Title II, including forced unbundling of physical networks to competitors, which has been shown to limit investment in new network capabilities. As the Verge itself reported, Netflix and YouTube have had to downgrade their video resolution in the EU. Thankfully, the policies in the United States have seen a much higher level of investment by broadband providers—U.S. ISPs invest roughly double their EU peers on a per-household basis. As former Obama-era FCC chairman Tom Wheeler recently explained while discussing this issue: “Credit is due to the nation’s broadband providers. The fact we can work from home is the result of hundreds of billions of investment dollars and construction and operational skill.”

Jonathan Sallet makes the argument that the FCC should be receiving daily reports from operators and sharing appropriate information with the public. This is certainly a more reasonable position than those trying to leverage this crisis to gin up support for Title II, and it is indeed important that we have a decent understanding of what is going on with these traffic shifts. But given that traffic patterns have normalized and are easily accommodated it is not clear that formalized reporting is necessary. What’s more, FCC officials have been aggregating publicly available information, and industry associations have offered dashboards of data on traffic shifts.

We are in the middle of a public health and economic crisis of historic proportions: There are all sorts of real problems that demand our attention. The FCC is already doing a lot. It stood up in remarkable speed a $200m telehealth program authorized by the CARES Act. It spearheaded the “Keep Americans Connected Pledge.” But there is still a lot more that can and should be done. Rural broadband infrastructure must be included as part of a future stimulus. Congress should also fund an expansion of E-Rate to cover devices and connections for school-age children. And, critically, state and local governments should ensure that cable and telecommunication technicians and their support staff are classified as essential employees so they can stay out in the field seeing that networks continue to function. Many other opportunities stand ready for Congress to address gaps in society’s digital readiness for social distancing. There are plenty of problems ready to be solved these days—no need to manufacture more.