Will the Internet hold up in the face of COVID-19?

Paul Barford

Most of us are online now more than ever. We’re working from home, taking our classes at home, watching movies at home, and connecting with our friends while at home – all of it online. The Internet is getting a work out like never before. Programs like Zoom, WebEx, and FaceTime are getting lots of attention, and computer science researchers are justifiably proud of their behind-the-scenes work in creating these multi-party communication tools and enabling them to work equally well on our laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

But what about the Internet itself? Will it hold up this surge in traffic due to the COVID-19 pandemic? Even before the many state-wide shelter-in-place orders, Paul Barford, Professor of Computer Sciences at UW-Madison, was asked for his thoughts. Barford is an expert in computer networking, including focusing on measurement and analysis of Internet data, and his research makes him well positioned to offer thoughtful insights on this topic.

Barford is reassuringly optimistic about the continued capacity of the Internet. “The research we have done suggests that for the most part, the Internet will continue to function normally. Applications like email and the web will be largely unaffected by people working from home because the Internet load will be transferred from corporate access to home.” He went on to say, “My understanding of the design and implementation of video conferencing applications such as Zoom, Skype, Chime, and Webex leads me to believe that they too will operate without much difficulty.”

What about our favorite streaming and gaming platforms? According to Barford, again, things should be ok because these technologies have delivery infrastructures that “bypass” large portions of the commodity Internet. This means content flows directly from their own data centers, mostly through their own infrastructure, and it’s only in the last mile or two that bits and bytes flow through broadband providers such as Comcast, Charter, CenturyLink, and AT&T. 

The good news is that while local carriers could experience outages, there shouldn’t be catastrophic effects, like an outage in Kalamazoo bringing down the Internet in Chicago. The bad news is that the same folks who often experience outages, especially those in communities with older or less than adequate infrastructure, will see the greatest impact. Barford adds that there may be slow-downs and unsatisfactory performance in some places, while performance next door is fine. But those problems are all localized. “The Internet by and large will be fine,” says Barford.

As with many things associated with technology, the biggest issues might be related to human capacity. Barford points out, “There are always problems and  outages in the Internet that must be addressed and fixed by people. If those people are no longer able to get out into the field, there may be local outages that persist beyond what is normal today.” 

If you’re interested in technical details, Barford thinks highly of Ookla, a company that constantly measures Internet performance and whose popular speedtest.net is widely used. Specifically Barford points to their recent COVID-19’s Impact on Global Internet Performance.