So, we’re working from home. Can the internet handle it? What is the impact of coronavirus on the internet and your broadband service?

With millions of people working and learning from home during the pandemic, internet and broadband networks are taking strain. Most people rarely had problems with their home internet service — until last week. That was when we began working from home because of the coronavirus.

Broadband and internet services will be tested as we experience one of the biggest mass behaviour changes that the world has ever known.

These work-from-home requirements are set to strain the internet’s underlying infrastructure. The burden is likely to be most felt in two areas: the home networks that people have set up in their residences, and the home internet services that those home networks rely on.

That infrastructure is accustomed to activity peaking at specific times of the day, such as in the evening when people return home from work and go online. However, work and learning have shifted to people’s homes and will drive home internet use to new heights. Many users will be sharing the same internet connections throughout the day and using data-hungry apps that are usually only accessed at schools or offices.

This may challenge last-mile services: the cable broadband and fiber-based broadband services that pipe internet into homes. These internet services are very different from the enterprise-grade internet broadband services available in offices and schools.  If the enterprise connection is a big pipe carrying internet traffic, the home internet connection is a garden hose.

On top of that, home networks — such as the Wi-Fi routers that residents set up — can be finicky. Many consumers have broadband plans with much lower capacity than in the workplace. When many people are accessing a single Wi-Fi network at the same time to stream lessons or to do video conferencing, that can cause congestion and slowness.

The use of bandwidth-hogging apps and games has already shot up in places where the coronavirus has taken hold. In Italy, housebound youngsters playing PC games pushed up internet traffic by more than 90% over one local landline network, Telecom Italia SpA. In parts of Europe last week, traffic to Webex, a video conferencing service run by Cisco, soared as much as 80%, the company said.

In Seattle, which has been a centre of the virus outbreak in the United States, internet traffic started spiking nine days after the first positive case of the virus in the area. Traffic was primarily generated by people accessing news and using chat apps, according to security company Cloudflare. 

Cogent Communications and Zayo, which provide internet services to big companies and municipalities, said they had also seen recent spikes in traffic from banks, retailers and tech companies in the United States to their remote employees.

In response, local internet suppliers said they were confident they could meet the demands placed on their home internet services including cable broadband, fibre-based broadband, mobile LTE services and Wi-Fi hotspots. They added that they were taking measures to ensure steady access for people who were working and learning from home.

The entirety of the internet infrastructure — home networks, last-mile services, private networks run by companies, the points of interchange between networks and the backbone superhighway at the core — was (and continues to be) stress-tested by the coronavirus pandemic.

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