Will the COVID-19 pandemic be enough to break the internet?

With social distancing pushing more people to stay home, internet traffic is exploding.

Vodafone, which operates in more than 65 countries, reported that it has already seen an uptick in data traffic by 50 percent in some markets. What we’re seeing in a matter of days and weeks, said Cisco’s chief technologist Chintan Patel to CNBC, is an “increase we would normally expect to see in a year.”

This surge in internet traffic is uncharted waters. With the end of the (and social distancing measures) nowhere in sight, will the internet be resilient enough to keep things ticking over, or will it under the pressure?

As a whole, network providers seem to be confident that there is enough capacity to cope, but governments and regulators worldwide may not be sharing the same confidence.

Australia isn’t taking any chances, and already has collaborated with five private telcos in forming a special task force to moderate network congestion and capacity issues. The EU had also called upon streaming giants to reduce streaming quality to ease up network strains.

The likes of Netflix, YouTube and most recently, the newly-launched Disney+, have since responded by cutting down bandwidth and reducing bit rates. YouTube has said that it was “committed to temporarily switching all traffic to standard definition by default,” with Netflix also agreeing to reduce its traffic by 25 percent.

Videos, especially data-intensive applications, already take up 70 percent of all network traffic. Throw videoconferencing tools into the mix, our new work-from-home lifestyle has become a massive bandwidth hogger.

Experts are cautioning network providers against false optimism. The problem really isn’t with capacity, but with the sudden spike in demand. They are “designed to cope with the peak” of web traffic, said Patel, and now the peak is at a “longer time and longer duration.”

But aside from bandwidth issues, there is another issue looming – that of capacity for maintenance. As wireless as things may seem, the fact of the matter is the internet is still made up of miles of cables that require a fair amount of maintenance. If engineers are required to self-isolate, for instance, how would these work continue smoothly?

While the current infrastructure can still cope, it is the sudden shift from corporate networks to consumer equipment that stands a good chance of ‘breaking the internet’. Employees that could previously access complex tools via business-grade connections now have to tap into them remotely, via home connections. And even if they have robust connections, business VPNs might be overwhelmed – VPNs were not built for mass usage, and adding on capacity can be difficult, costly and time-consuming.

So, the answer to whether the internet would break is no, not yet. Life could, to a certain extent. But it definitely wouldn’t hurt to pick up a book (or roll out the yoga mat) rather than binge-watching Tiger King on Netflix.

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