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Go Ahead, Stream All You Want. The Internet Is Fine—for Now

Netflix says it will lower the quality of its video streams in Europe in an effort to preserve bandwidth for more essential online activities. But early data shows that most US broadband providers, and many elsewhere, are standing up to the surge in internet traffic generated by the many people stuck at home amid the Covid-19 pandemic. At least for now.

Companies that monitor internet traffic have seen a surge in internet activity in recent weeks. As traffic has increased, internet speeds have decreased in some areas. But only slightly, and in many places speeds were actually faster in mid-March than they were in mid- to late December.

According to internet analysis company Ookla, residential internet speeds in places like Westchester County, New York—which has been hit hard by Covid-19—and San Francisco decreased between the week of March 2 and the week of March 9. Speeds in countries like Italy and China also declined as Covid-19 spread, but have been improving in China as the outbreak has reportedly been contained.

Ookla CTO Luke Deryckx says the slower speeds might not have much to do with overloaded internet infrastructure. The problem could be closer to home. Entire families are sharing home Wi-Fi networks as kids turn to online learning resources, parents conduct meetings over Zoom, and everyone watches more video. It could simply be that home Wi-Fi routers are getting bogged down. Ookla measures the speed of an end user's connection, not the speed of network infrastructure itself, so Deryckx can't say for sure where the bottleneck lies.

Figuring out why speeds have declined is complicated by the fact that mobile internet speeds did not change much, or even increased, in San Francisco as the region reported more Covid-19 cases. That could be because people stuck at home are relying more on their home broadband networks. However, in other hard-hit areas, such as China and Italy, mobile internet speeds dropped alongside home broadband speeds.

According to security company Cloudflare, internet traffic in the US is up between 10 and 20 percent since early February, with peak internet usage up about 13 percent. Nokia's network analytics company Deepfield has seen an even larger jump, with peaks 20 percent to 40 percent higher than usual over the past four weeks in areas highly impacted by Covid-19. Dane Jasper, CEO of the San Francisco area broadband provider Sonic, says the company has seen a traffic increase of around 25 percent.

Most of the increased traffic comes from consumer video services, according to Deepfield, with Netflix traffic increasing by 54 to 75 percent in some places. Teleconferencing saw a 300 percent increase in Deepfield's analysis and online gaming saw 400 percent growth.

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Following a request by European Commissioner Thierry Breton, Netflix said it will cut the quality of its video streams in the region. "We estimate that this will reduce Netflix traffic on European networks by around 25 percent while also ensuring a good quality service for our members," Netflix said in a statement.

Jasper says Sonic, which mostly serves residential customers, hasn't seen issues with congestion. But that could change if demand keeps growing. People working from home during the day haven't really posed much trouble for the company, Jasper says, because daytime demand is still well below the sort of traffic Sonic sees in the evening. But as people stay indoors and watch streaming videos or video-chat with friends, the network is also seeing increased usage in the evening as well.

That's required the company to upgrade its networks. "We build our networks for peak capacity, and that peak going up by one-quarter in a week is pretty amazing," Jasper says. "An upgrade we were going to do six months from now we just had to do last week." The upgrade involved adding or replacing equipment, not doing new construction.

Networks usually see traffic grow around 40 to 50 percent every 12 to 16 months, Deepfield CTO Craig Labovitz says. Now broadband networks are seeing similar growth over the course of weeks. "What will happen a week from now? Has traffic has peaked?" he says. "There's enough capacity, but there won't be if we continue to see this kind of growth."

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