Articles - 26th March 2020

Will the COVID-19 lockdown break the internet?

Words by Joe Williams
Illustration by Will Francis

With the UK government’s announcement on Monday 24 March of a nationwide lockdown to delay the further spread of COVID-19, a lot more of us are going to be spending much more time at home and online. But will this increase in usage break the internet?

Anyone who’s been without an internet connection for even a day knows just how much we take it for granted. According to  Ofcom, 87% of UK households had internet access in 2019, ‘with 82% of people using home broadband and 70% using a 4G mobile service to get online.’ In September 2018, adults spent an average of 3 hours, 15 minutes a day online, and ‘Children and young adults spent much more time online than they did watching television.’

Under lockdown these numbers are bound to go up: with more students and employees than ever working from home, more families communicating through social media and video calling, more of us using online shopping and delivery services, a brave few still reading and watching the news, and so little else to do other than binge-streaming games, TV, and films.

With this increase in your daily household usage, you may be worried about or have noticed a drop in your connection speed. But that doesn’t mean that the internet is reaching any kind of capacity, or that you’ll lose your connection any time soon.

To understand why, it’s helpful to consider briefly what the internet actually is. Despite the daily use of the term ‘the cloud’ to describe online storage, the internet doesn’t actually exist as some omnipresent but invisible force floating above our heads. It’s tempting to think of it that way, as we all – or 82% of us at least – have wireless routers at home, which use radio waves in the air to send and receive information to and from our devices.

But that isn’t all of ‘the internet’ – that’s just how the information is communicated within a wireless network. In reality, the internet is a very material thing: information stored electronically on physical servers across the globe, which all communicate with each other in a ‘network of networks’. These servers communicate through a combination of physical subterranean cables and wireless transmissions.

To read this article, your computer has sent a request through domain name servers (DNS) – often described as the internet’s ‘phonebook’ – and has been directed to the target server, which holds this article on the UnderPinned website. The target server then sends the file back in pieces called ‘packets’ to your computer, using your IP address, where they are arranged into the right order.

But crucially, unlike water in a pipe, these data packets do not follow strict pathways, and they don’t even have to travel back the way they came. Instead, like water through a rock, the information travels by the path of least resistance, redirecting wherever necessary. This flexibility greatly reduces the chances of any traffic jams or bottlenecks, because – unless you physically cut the cable that serves your home or street – there is no single point of failure.

However, you may well have noticed a decline in the speed or quality of your service already during the lockdown. If you have, there are two fairly mundane explanations. Firstly, your home wifi network is limited by whatever tariff you’re on, so any increase in usage spreads the connection more thinly between the devices, therefore slowing every connection down. This happens all the time, but under normal circumstances we rarely notice the difference.

Secondly, and especially if you’re working or studying from home, it’s worth bearing in mind that any perceived decline in the quality of your video calls or your upload and download speeds might simply be because your office or campus network is much larger and faster.

Unless you cut a deep sea cable, a global or national blackout is thankfully very unlikely. But a local outage – covering a few roads or an entire neighbourhood – isn’t impossible. And what would that mean? For a start, no more emails, online assessments, video calling or Netflix – even if you think of these as luxuries, such disconnection during a lockdown would be a serious problem for the 7.7m people living alone in the UK.

An increasing number of NHS patient records are now stored digitally, but in the short term, an online outage at a hospital wouldn’t be as disastrous as a total electricity failure. The NHS has withstood worse in the recent past: the 2017 WannaCry cyber attack affected dozens of hospitals, led to 19,000 cancelled appointments, and cost the NHS £92m. It was a huge national disruption with many ramifications, but the NHS and its hardworking staff have bigger problems right now.

Internet providers are confident that they can withstand any increase in traffic. The BBC have reported that Openreach, who run much of the UK’s online infrastructure, ‘said the existing network is already built to handle peak demand.’ Similarly, BT have stated that ‘The additional load… is well within manageable limits and we have plenty of headroom for it to grow still further’.

It’s worth noting as well that any surge in usage caused by working and studying from home will of course be offset by the corresponding reduction in usage at those workplaces, universities, and schools that are being avoided, meaning that the overall national usage may well remain about the same. Netflix have announced that they will be reducing their playback quality by 25% in Europe for 30 days, but the motivation behind this will be to prevent their website from being overwhelmed, rather than to protect your wifi.

But even if internet service providers can cope, the logistical headache that coronavirus has started won’t go away. The social changes brought about by the need for social distancing may well set a precedent in the workplace, with more of us being allowed to work remotely in the future. Our global internet infrastructure will need to work hard to stay ahead of any long-term increase in demand.

The real problem for users will be when devices break: UK technology shops will be closed as long as the lockdown is in place, and after it’s lifted, the supply chains may well continue to be affected – so please, no drinks without lids.

In short, can the internet withstand the increase in traffic? Yes.

Will you notice a drop in speed or quality in your home? Possibly.

Is there anything to panic about? Absolutely not.

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