How the coronavirus is changing internet usage patterns worldwide

School closures, remote workers, and social distancing are rapidly changing how, where, and when the internet is being used.

As more home-bound people self-isolate in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, the coronavirus, they are changing internet traffic patterns and consumption in a major way. 

According to Cloudflare, a provider of internet optimization, security, and availability services to 10% of the world's websites, demand for video conferencing, streaming services like Netflix, news, and online shopping coming from residential broadband networks is surging. Traffic originating from businesses and universities is slowing.

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"Overall, use of the internet has gone up, and peak utilization has gone up," said co-founder and CEO Matthew Prince. "When we look at how the network is performing, the internet was designed for this. What's been remarkable about this is, even though we've had substantial switch of people working in offices to working from home … we see that work continues to go on. This is the largest work-from-home experiment ever to be conducted in human history, and we're going to see what works and what doesn't."

Depending on where you live, however, you may be experiencing localized performance issues. This is because the internet service provider (ISPs) networks that provide connectivity to most US households were never designed to handle the volume and type of traffic they are seeing right now, said Lisa Pierce, vice president of research for Enterprise Networking at Gartner.

"The total demand is different, and where they're going with the traffic is different," she said. 

There are two main issues that are causing connectivity problems. The first is the architecture of the consumer ISP networks. Usually, when businesses purchase broadband internet access, upload and download speeds are the same; there is parity. 

Home-based broadband is different. Upload speeds are typically just a fraction of the download speeds because the networks were designed primarily for downloading entertainment and information, not for sending large volumes of data back and forth between applications or hosting multi-party video conferencing calls, for example. And, with kids accessing classes online (and likely playing video games to pass the time), that adds extra load that these networks were not designed to handle.

"There will be some circumstances where … you might see some increased latency pushing traffic from home users back up," Prince said.

The infrastructure that services businesses versus residential areas can also be very different. Unless there is fiber-to-the-curb (typically provided by a telco instead of a cable company), most residential internet service in the US is delivered via copper coaxial cables (coax) or digital subscriber line (DSL). Many businesses are supported by high-speed, high-throughput, and high-bandwidth fiber cables. 

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"If it's coax back to the cable head-end, then the infrastructure is older and it's not built to have as much capacity," Pierce said.

Another issue that may impact performance is local ISPs do not have the same type of no-charge peering arrangements that the big Tier1 internet backbone providers like AT&T, CenturyLink, and NTT have with each other. These peering agreements allow Tier 1 providers to tap into each other's networks as needed to handle surges in demand, Pierce said.

Local ISPs also have these types of arrangements but they need to be set up ahead of time and there is typically a fee for sending traffic over each other's networks. If these arrangements are not already in place, this could be causing localized slowdowns and service interruptions. 

Usage patterns driven by current events
Over the last few weeks, as the Coronavirus pandemic unfolded, Cloudflare identified novel usage patterns centered around specific events and news. 

When President Trump announced a state of emergency on March 13, for example, Cloudflare's US data centers served up 20% more internet traffic than usual. While on Sunday, March 15, when the Netherlands announced via radio that non-essential businesses would be closed, regular Sunday internet traffic dropped off dramatically. And when French President Macron made two national announcements on March 12 and March 16, traffic dipped by half only to be followed by a spike in demand.

What's interesting about these latter two events is when the leaders of the Netherlands and France were speaking, people stopped their online activity to listen to the broadcast. This is opposite of what happened in the US.

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At first Prince and his team were not sure what was going on, he said, but then they realized that in this time of crisis people in Europe were turning to more familiar and, perhaps, comforting sources to get their information.

"In certain crises it's traditional media that people turn to," he said. "The most interesting thing was we saw this weird drop off in France. Our first thought was, 'Did our logs drop off or did something break?' A little later we saw the same drop off Italy and we finally put it together. What we realized was this was when public health officials went on TV or radio to talk about what is going on."

Since Italy went into lockdown in early March, Cloudflare noted a 20% to 40% increase in daily traffic as well as a 10% to 20% increase in traffic over internet exchange points (IXs) in Amsterdam (AMS-IX), London (LINX) and Frankfurt (DE-CIX). (Internet service providers and content providers use IXes to exchange data directly instead of using a third party.) A similar spike occurred at Hong Kong's IX (HKIX) in January. Cloudflare attributes this spike to when the city at the epicenter of the pandemic, Wuhan, was put under quarantine.

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