Internet infrastructure is getting a workout these days. According to a recent article in Vox, internet traffic in the US is up 18 percent from Jan 1 to Mar 22, 2020. But as the article points out, we are unlikely to break the internet…
The internet itself is an incredibly robust and resilient network that was specifically designed to adapt to huge spikes in traffic just like the one we’re living through. The platforms and apps that make the internet useful, however, are less tested. So the good news is, America’s internet is better prepared for this pandemic than you think. The bad news is that Mark Zuckerberg and others are worried that their platforms might not be able to handle this. Lucky for you, many experts think that everything will be fine.
In fact, overall performance hasn’t suffered…
Even still, so far it looks like performance hasn’t noticeably suffered. Ookla recently published a dataset that shows the mean download speed in the US on March 22 was actually about the same as it was on December 15. In the past few days, it has been trending down slightly, but we’re talking 10 megabits per second of difference. Just for context, the average download speed for fixed broadband in the US is about 140 Mbps, so that variation is pretty insignificant.
That’s good but it turns out that what we experience at home might not reflect this not-much-change status…
The “last mile” is where you might start running into some problems right now. It’s the part of the internet infrastructure that consumer-facing ISPs like Spectrum or Comcast control. If there’s going to be a bottleneck for traffic anywhere, there’s a good chance it’s either going to be along the last mile or even inside your home.
Let’s start with what could go wrong on the last mile. If you work for a big company, there’s a good chance that your office internet is a fiber connection that theoretically has unlimited bandwidth. Your work computer might even get gigabit speeds for downloads and uploads, which is plenty fast enough to have a high quality Zoom call.
The situation at your home is different, however. Most residential broadband connections link the larger internet, which is fiber-based, to your home through an aging cable infrastructure. This cable system was designed to carry TV signals into your home, not carry information out of it. That’s why, if you’ve got a cable connection and run a speed test, you’ll see a huge difference between your faster download speeds and your slower upload speeds.
“I think that if there is going to be one place that we do see bottlenecks, especially in the US or other markets that are primarily served by cable operators, it’s going to be in that upload capacity,” Prince said.
Upload capacity is key to video conferencing services. So if your Zoom meetings aren’t going so well, you might be maxing out what your old infrastructure can handle. But if you’ve got a fiber connection, you should ask your ISP about getting symmetrical upload and download speeds. Verizon Fios and Google Fiber are a couple of ISPs that offer this.
Now, even if we assume you have unlimited bandwidth, you still might run into problems at home. Network congestion is an obvious consequence of increased usage, and that can lead to latency, which is the amount of time it takes for a packet of information to get from its source (a server) to its destination (your computer). A stuttering or out-of-sync video chat, for example, is a sure sign of high latency, which means that packets of data are probably getting backed up along the way. This might be because those packets have to travel through multiple routers before arriving at the one in your house, and due to congestion, each of those stops slows it down by a few milliseconds. In keeping with the highway metaphor, think about cars trying to get off a highway at a crowded exist. So even though you may think you have plenty of bandwidth and should therefore have fast internet, there’s a chance your connection just feels slow because high congestion is causing latency issues.
“The thing that I’m more concerned about with the load on the internet that we’re seeing right now is not that it’s going to stop working or even that we’re going to get low quality videos,” Justine Sherry, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, told Recode. “What I am worried about is that we’re going to see higher and higher latencies from these queues building up in the network, making it harder to do things like video conferencing.”
If you think you’re experiencing latency problems, the first thing to do is check how many devices are connected to your network. If you’re streaming Netflix on your smart TV, someone else in your house is streaming video gameplay on Twitch, and someone else is having a FaceTime conversation at the same time, you might have a problem. More connected devices doing high-bandwidth tasks typically means more congestion on your home network, and, therefore higher latency.
These latency issues can happen at either side of the connection. While big internet companies like Amazon and Facebook have sophisticated server setups that route and reroute traffic in real time, smaller operations can easily get strained by a surge in traffic. Sherry offered the example of her local library website grinding to a halt in the early days of the pandemic as the entire neighborhood tried to check out books at the same time. So if you’re dealing with smaller websites like these, you might just have to be patient.
I’ve often heard people say, download is for consumers and upload is for producers. The Minnesota broadband speed goal (100 Mbps down and 20 up by 2026) is an example of assuming greater consumption. I remember when they talked about the discrepancy, many people noted that the upload they selected was asymmetrical abut that 20 Mbps should suffice for most users. It will be interesting to see, if/as we spend more time online – working, learning and keeping ourselves entertained, whether that 20 Mbps still seem sufficient.