Could Covid-19 cause a connectivity collapse?

Gareth Spence
Hands typing on laptop

It's day 10 of my family's self-isolation. As I write this, my children are both on separate Zoom calls with their schools. They're video conferencing and sharing their desktops along with around 50 other students. Later, they'll be joining live Skype and YouTube sessions for physical education and dance, and then this evening, there will be the inevitable online Xbox gaming with their friends in the UK and the US.  

Meanwhile, I'm busy on Skype for Business and on all the other online tools that are part of a modern and connected company. And when I finish work this evening, I'm sure there'll be some Netflix or Disney+ thrown into the mix.  

And, as of last week, this is the new norm. No school runs, no after-school clubs, no commuting, no foreign travel.

What’s clear is that as schools and businesses across the globe continue to shut their doors, and as we all adjust to life on some degree of lockdown, our dependency on networks has never been greater. 

But as you've no doubt seen in the media over the past few days, people are starting to ask some serious questions about whether networks will be able to cope with the sudden surge in demand.  

There have already been announcements from Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube that they're reducing their streaming quality. This comes partly at the request of the European Union commissioner Thierry Breton, who implored us all last week to switch our video streams to standard definition when HD isn't necessary. 

However, this request has been met with a mixed response, especially on social media, with many asking to see hard data that networks are struggling. 

So, what type of traffic surges are we talking about?

Spain's Telefonica has seen a 40% increase in IP traffic and a 50% upswing in mobile usage. Although they're confident they can meet this demand, they did publish a list of recommendations to their customers, including using voice rather than video for conferencing, downloading large files at off-peak times and not sending large files over email.

US service providers, including AT&T, have also noted large spikes in traffic but have yet to wave any red flags. However, it's interesting to note that Verizon has agreed new partnerships with Northstar and SNR to temporarily loan their AWS-3 spectrum licenses to provide additional network capacity.   

Many analysts believe that what's happening now will rapidly accelerate society's digital transition and they expect to see additional spending on networking equipment. In fact, some service providers have already pledged to increase their investments.

But who knows how this is all going to develop over the next few months and how Covid-19 will permanently change our lives?

There are far-reaching questions to be discussed here, especially in regard to government spending. Consider the UK's current investment in HS2. Will Covid-19 alter anything? Will money shift from mass transport infrastructure buildouts to improved network connectivity?

Let us know on social media what you think about this and please remember to stay safe.

Gareth Spence

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