Undersea cables make up the majority of the world's Internet backbone connectivity
Streaming services in India have been asked to reduce bandwidth usage
Online services are likely to see sustained increases in demand
Bandwidth is more likely to be pinched at the local level than globally
Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, more people are working from home, and services that were designed for business-level connections are now being run from homes around the world. One fear that's coming up as we increasingly go online, is whether the Internet infrastructure can handle this load. What will happen if we see demand rise to a level that causes a major failure?
Many usage spikes have been reported so far during the coronavirus pandemic, including Facebook. Sudden surges in demand could temporarily overwhelm services. Global tech giants are preparing for this though, so people shouldn't worry too much. Some local government services and smaller companies might experience outages due to very high traffic.
Data from Italy and South Korea shows up to a 3x increase in the usage of communication tools, roughly double the amount of video streaming, and more frequent use of news and gaming services at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak.
EU officials have asked streaming services not to offer high-definition video to reduce bandwidth usage. Netflix has agreed to tweak its encoding to reduce data usage by 25 percent in the EU. YouTube, Apple TV+ and Amazon Prime Video have all decided to switch to serving SD video by default instead of HD.
In India, Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon Prime Video have also been asked to reduce bandwidth usage. Hotstar has said the majority of its users are on the free tier and can only stream SD content anyway.
Some experts feel that reducing bandwidth usage wasn't really necessary, and that we don't have to worry about Netflix in particular "using up the Internet" due to the way it distributes content through “hubs” at the ISP level around the world. Streaming traffic is highly localised and doesn't put huge strain on international Internet backbone links.
What's more, the growth in demand has not been unmanageable. Internet infrastructure companies such as Cloudflare are reporting increases in traffic of between 10-40 percent at key Internet exchange points in some of the more severely affected countries, but this is not beyond what they can handle.
Internet bandwidth usage spiked when people in coronavirus-affected countries watch their heads of state deliver updates, but traffic has also gone down drastically in other areas, such as an Italian university research network.
VPN service provider Atlas reported usage growth of 112 percent in Italy and 53 percent in the USA in the second week of March. This could to up to 150 percent in the USA within weeks as more people are expected to work from home, and some try to circumvent location restrictions on entertainment services.
TeleGeography, which tracks Internet infrastructure including deep sea cables, says that demand for bandwidth doubles roughly every two years and that companies are constantly investing in upgrading their infrastructure anyway. $2 billion worth of new cables will have been laid between 2019 and 2021, driving more usage and bringing costs down for operators. Many existing cables are not yet being used to their full capacities.
Can Netflix force Bollywood to reinvent itself? We discussed this on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts or RSS. You can also download the episode or just hit the play button below.