RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – The internet is slowing down under increased demand as more and more people are driven away from offices, universities and schools during the continuing spread of the coronavirus and are working or learning at home while also seeking entertainment via streaming. So far, however, providers say networks are meeting the demand. But one factor could break it.

The human factor.

At its core, the mesh of fiber-optic networks and the routers and other hardware managing the traffic still relies on engineers.

What happens if they get sick? Is it possible demand could stretch networks to the breaking point? What’s the worst-case scenario for providers?

“A big concern for internet service providers will be that their staffs are affected by coronavirus and not be able to maintain the networks,” warns Mark Johnson, an internet industry veteran of more than two decades who now runs information technology services at UNC-Chapel Hill as Assistant Vice Chancellor of Communication Technologies.

But Johnson, who has been involved in such projects as Internet2 and the building of the fiber-optic North Carolina Research and Education Network, doesn’t expect to see a full-blown crash.

“We are more likely to suffer internet brownouts than outright failures as network congestion makes some applications fail,” he tells WRAL TechWire.

UNC photo

Mark Johnson

Yet even if tech staffs remain healthy, Johnson sees other problems surfacing:

1. Telecomuting, remote education, telemedicine

One is the quick transition to telecomuting and education via the net with universities sending students home, deploying online courses, and public schools shutting down. Also, telemedicine is growing increasingly common with even Medicare now helping underwrite some costs.

“The sudden shift to working [and] education from home will expose lack of training and other deficiencies like the lack of proper equipment.,” Johnson says.

“Families may not have enough or good enough devices to support kids doing schoolwork and parents working from home at the same time. They may also not know how to use the tools they will need.”

2. The upstream challenge

Then there is the demand for interactive video which he says is going to put even more pressure on networks, especially for “upstreaming” data from home networks.

“As people respond to the COVID-19 crisis by working from home they are becoming dependent on interactive video conferencing tools like Zoom and Skype. Using those tools will stress ISP networks by needing the same capacity for upstream traffic as downstream, by using more backbone capacity, and needing low latency (delay) for decent performance.”

Commenting on a WRAL TechWire report about slowing internet speeds, Johnson points out the analysis ignores a crucial factor.

“The broadband report you wrote about only discusses download speeds,” he says. “I haven’t seen data on upload but I would expect it to be way up from ‘normal.’ In cable and DSL [digital subscriber line] systems with very asymmetric speeds upload is likely to be stressed before download.”

The Q&A

In an exclusive Q&A, Johnson talks about the internet, its backbone, and challenges providers face in delivering the data – from movies to ecommerce to web browsing – consumers and businesses want.

  • Broadband providers say they are prepared for growing demand on their networks as the coronavirus leads to more people working from home, shopping, streaming … Do you believe they are up to the task?

The following apply for reasonably modern suburban ISP networks. I’ll address the issues in rural and underserved urban areas separately.

A lot of the important tasks people need to do from home on the Internet don’t require a lot of bandwidth – shopping, paying bills, etc. The big bandwidth user is entertainment streaming.

Report: Internet speeds down 20% in Raleigh, 22% in Fayetteville, stable in Durham

The big content providers like Netflix mitigate the impact of streaming by building Content Distribution Networks (CDNs) to host the content as close to the end user as possible. This relieves stress on the backbone portions of the network.

The fact that ISPs have quickly moved to eliminate caps on bandwidth suggests they have plenty of capacity in hand. Adding capacity, if needed, for the use cases the network was designed for is straightforward and in most cases won’t require any new fiber or major changes to the underlying infrastructure.

As people respond to the COVID-19 crisis by working from home they are becoming dependent on interactive video conferencing tools like Zoom and Skype. Using those tools will stress ISP networks by needing the same capacity for upstream traffic as downstream, by using more backbone capacity, and needing low latency (delay) for decent performance.

Additional backbone capacity may not be needed because of existing streaming demands. Lots of ISP networks are also pretty low latency so that’s not likely to be a major issue.

The big challenge is the asymmetrical nature of many ISP networks. Most offer dramatically less upstream capacity than downstream. Adding upstream capacity to meet interactive videoconferencing demands will be much harder than adding backbone capacity or removing data caps.

In underserved urban and rural areas the difficulty of serving lots of new teleworkers is much greater. Where outdated technology like DSL is the only service we are likely to bump into capacity limits quickly and meeting demand will require a complete technology overhaul. Advocates for better broadband access have been clamoring for this for years. The FCC has subsidized service providers but has kept the definition of adequate service at a minimal level and not held recipients of subsidies accountable for delivering modern service. The sudden increase of teleworkers and students trying to do online classwork will expose many policy failings.

  • You’ve been involved in the Internet and growth of broadband services for decades now. The time for internet providers to live up to the promise/dreams of advocates and users is at hand – is the industry ready?

In some ways, yes.

In the Triangle region we have AT&T, Google, and Ting all providing gigabit fiber to the home service and Spectrum providing high capacity service over traditional CATV[community access teelevison, i.e. cable]  infrastructure.

Just outside the Triangle cities the options quickly degrade to DSL [digital subscriber line, a much slower technology] with very limited capacity. Within the cities, especially in low income areas, the same issue exists. State and Federal policies both need to be adjusted to ensure that everyone can get good broadband at reasonable prices.

  • How quickly can providers add capacity/bandwidth? It’s more than just lighting up dark fiber, isn’t it with lots of other equipment required?

Depending on what part of the network is involved it may be pretty simple to add capacity or require major re-engineering.

  • NCREN is an example of more and more networks embracing fiber backbones to the last mile; other service providers promise gigabit speeds to the homes – are we fortunate as a country and economy to have what appears to be a solid national network of fiber? Or do we need to do more since other countries such as South Korea – an acknowledged global leader – have done? Is the current crisis a call to arms?

There is a robust market and good supply of fiber for national backbones. At the state and regional level middle mile fiber is in decent shape. This is especially true in North Carolina where MCNC has added much fiber in recent years. The “last mile” from ISP to the home still needs a lot of work and our policy framework has not done enough to drive towards fiber. The current crisis will highlight the deficiencies. It will now be obvious that we not only have a homework gat but a work from home gap too.

  • What about wireless networks? Are the carriers ready for big jump in demand even as they gear up for 5G and true wireless broadband?

The wireless providers are working on two fronts to address the capacity issue. “5G” involves adding new radio frequencies and new mechanisms for using the radios that allow more users to use more capacity. Their rush to deploy will create and increase friction with local communities trying to manage use of public infrastructure like utility poles.