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Can the Internet Break From Overuse?

internet network
Can the internet shut down from overload, like a power grid can? Dong Wenjie/Getty Images

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The coronavirus pandemic (and its self-quarantine measures) is keeping adults and kids at home and on their computers and smartphones for work, school or recreation, making unprecedented demands on the internet. In fact, Netflix and YouTube are reducing streaming quality in Europe to prevent internet overload. The changes came after EU officials asked streaming services and individual users to stop using high-definition video "to prevent the internet from breaking," as CNN put it on March 20.

This news has a lot of us asking: With so many people at home using huge amounts of data, could the internet suddenly just stop working?

You can rest easy. Outright internet failure is possible but unlikely, say experts who observe technology and internet usage around the world. Cyberattacks or the physical cutting of cables under the sea that carry enormous amounts of internet traffic are more likely to disrupt the internet than too much activity.

"Nothing, including the internet, is invulnerable to overload. But the internet has an enormous amount of redundancy and backup in its systems," says Paul Levinson, professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University. "This means that although one app or system can go down, it's unlikely that the whole system will collapse. Also, given that the people who work on the internet are used to working from home, many of them are already in place to work [this way], even in this time of crisis."

Ookla chief technology officer Luke Deryckx says the real concerns are not the internet infrastructure but rather the increased numbers of end users all sharing the same WiFi system (such as family members). His company analyzes internet traffic patterns and provides speed tests to people who want to understand how fast (or slow) their online connections really are.

Ookla detected slowdowns in residential internet speed in early March, specifically in places like New York and California, where COVID-19 has either struck hard or caused shelter-in-place orders. Other nations that suffered early in the virus outbreak, like China and Italy, experienced noticeable slowdowns, too – but China, with its dwindling number of reported illnesses, is on the rebound.

Internet service providers (ISPs) are, however, seeing a shift in the demand for their services. According to Cloudflare, a web security company, in the U.S., peak demand for the internet was typically around 7:30 p.m., as families settled into their nightly routines, which included watching streaming channels. Now, the peak demand is around 11:00 a.m., and it lasts longer than normal, another sign of shifting lifestyle patterns.

For now, though, in most places, "the bottom line is that the networks are holding up," says Deryckx.

That's not necessarily the case for individual apps and websites.

"Beyond the ISPs, there are also the service platforms that people are using," he says. That's why even though your ISP might be working just fine, Netflix or Zoom might struggle to keep up with high traffic volume." For instance, they might not have enough servers to handle the increased traffic.

At the moment, video conferencing services, which are useful for remote learning, meetings and even entertainment, are experiencing some intermittent sluggishness. Financial market trading tools stopped working repeatedly as the stock market plunged repeatedly in early March. And Facebook is struggling to deal with both the massive increase in traffic and the fact that its 45,000 employees are all working remotely for the first time.

Preventing Internet Overload

You can monitor the slowdowns and outages of various services by searching on Down Detector. At the time of publication, video game Call of Duty, video conferencing service Zoom and food delivery service Doordash were all suffering from intermittent issues, a clear reflection of current events.

To prevent the same kind of thing from happening to the internet at large, communications companies are already hard at work.

"The best way of preventing an overload crash is not to limit usage, but make sure the systems are robust, and even put in new backups into the system," says Levinson. Deryckx echoes that sentiment, saying that right now, engineering teams all over the world are scaling up their baseline network infrastructure to support their increasing user volume.

"We're witnessing an unprecedented shift in human behavior, not just internet trends. And I think that the internet in our everyday lives is just becoming more and more essential," says Deryckx. "And you can see that happening day to day; it is a really interesting thing to be a part of."

If the pandemic continues for 18 months or more, which some experts believe is possible, online services will be incredibly critical for every aspect of our lives. In turn, this scenario could widen America's so-called digital divide, a term used to describe the fact that many Americans don't have reliable access to high-speed internet.

For those unfortunate citizens, education, work and other life fundamentals will be harder than ever to pursue. That's especially true for Americans who make less than $30,000 per year – a third of them don't have smartphones, and nearly half don't have broadband internet or even a regular desktop computer, according to Pew Research Center.

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