By now, it’s no revelation that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an unprecedented global shift to remote work and online learning, but global internet use patterns are also emerging and not surprisingly, have spiked. NETSCOUT, a provider of network and application performance monitoring tools, delved into recent worldwide traffic patterns and found a major jump to “an instant 25% to 35% increase in internet traffic” in mid-March when the majority of the world shifted to remote work.
“You may be thinking that a 25% to 35% jump is not that much but keep a few things in mind,” wrote Tom Bienkowski, NETSCOUT’s director of product marketing, in a blog post. “First, this is an approximate worldwide average from the data we have received. Second, in some cases these percent increases were on networks running at tens to even hundreds of terabits per second.”
Additionally, the average was impacted by variations in traffic growth across internet service providers, which is likely a reflection of geographic variations in pandemic impact, Bienkowski said.
By country, the US, saw an average traffic increase of approximately 25% in mid-March, he said. This has remained a sustained increase. Similar trends occurred worldwide. For example, an analysis of traffic from 20 ISPs in the Latin America region “shows some startling numbers from the five countries with the largest growth percentage.”
For example, Mexico saw growth of 73% and in Argentina, 60%. They were followed by Brazil with a 35%) spike; Chile, 20% and Columbia, 13%.
In the Asia Pacific region, three ISPs from China cited total traffic growth of 30%; 54%; and 80%, respectively, while a Japanese ISP told NETSCOUT that “traffic rapidly increased around 30% after Feb. 1. In Thailand and Laos, the increase was in the 10% to 15% range.
Meanwhile, an ISP in Taiwan told NETSCOUT that it saw “no dramatic increase with steady traffic usage.” The ISP attributed this to the fact that Taiwan had not been on lockdown so far, and most people were still working normally, Bienkowski said.
A South Korean ISP indicated that traffic increased by approximately 20% as the number of infections increased in late February. Then in late March, after the government implemented social distancing programs, this traffic dropped by 10%, “nonetheless, this was 10% higher than in the beginning of February, Bienkowski said.
VPNs have been a savior
Virtual private network (VPN) technology is crucial for giving remote workers access to corporate resources, and multiple US-based ISPs reported “a striking pattern of work-week peaks and weekend valleys…consistent with data from throughout the US and the rest of the world,” he said.
For example, multiple US ISPs reported an increase in VPN traffic of between 60% to 90%. “The notable drop-off on weekend use makes it pretty clear that this traffic is due to work/learn-from-home activity,” according to Bienkowski.
This same traffic phenomenon occurred worldwide. For example, in Latin America, one ISP saw a 220% percent increase in VPN traffic, while an ISP in EMEA reported that VPN traffic rose by 67%.
“Unsurprisingly, we also saw a jump in the use of video conferencing, another mainstay of the remote-work warrior,” he said. A US-based ISP reported “a whopping increase of between 1,000 and 5,000 percent in video conferencing traffic—somewhat staggering numbers, but pretty representative of what we saw from other US-based ISPs,” Bienkowski said.
The usage pattern was initially the same as it was with VPN traffic, with the weekend drop-offs indicating that it’s mainly for business, he noted. “But we then see an increase on weekends after the lockdown in mid-March, most likely due to personal video communication.”
There was a slight drop off in late April weekday/weekend traffic. “Does this mean we’re all getting a little tired of video conferencing?” he said.
There were similar traffic patterns in other parts of the world. One Latin America-based ISP experienced an increase of more than 11,000%. Voice over IP (VoIP) traffic, which is often used during video conferencing, also saw traffic growth. One EMEA-based ISP indicated a 66% increase in such traffic, while an ISP in Japan told NETSCOUT that “since April 1, 2020, conference bridge traffic has increased around 800 percent from the norm.”
Leisure time use
When it came to video streaming, a US-based ISP reported an increase in traffic that peaked at 60% in mid-March. “People seemed more interested in weekday watch parties; traffic dropped on weekends,” Bienkowski said. “We also see a downward trend occurring in April. Is the April drop-off indicative of too much binge-watching? Or is the combination of spring weather and cabin fever driving people to the great outdoors?”
This pattern repeats itself elsewhere in the world, with some slight variations, he said. For example, a Japanese ISP reported a 250% increase in streaming traffic, including a popular in-country content provider.
“While streaming video saw dramatic growth, people at least took breaks,” Bienkowski said. “That does not seem to be the case with online gaming—a perennial favorite, particularly for younger folks.”
However, one US ISP reported “that unlike with other traffic patterns we have shown thus far, gamers do not appear to differentiate between weekdays and weekends. The gaming traffic just continues to increase regardless.”
COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the way people live and work, but the figures illustrate just how starkly usage patterns have been, Bienkowski said. “It’s a testament to how hard the ISPs of the world have worked that we can rely on this connectivity to maintain some semblance of ordinary life and business continuity.”
He added that ISPs successfully managed this massive increase in “legitimate network traffic while simultaneously battling unprecedented increases in DDoS attacks.” NETSCOUT saw more than 864,000 attacks between March 11 and April 11—the largest number of attacks the company has ever seen in any 31-day period, he said.