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Report: US net performed well during pandemic

April 6, 2021

A report from industry body the Broadband Internet Technical Advisory Group (BITAG) analysing US Internet performance over the course of the pandemic has found that that the ecosystem as a whole saw very few widespread disruptions for consumers, businesses and organisations, even as traffic reached unprecedented volume and hundreds of millions of Americans worked and learned from home.

The global Covid-19 pandemic emerged in the first few months of 2020. As work and school shifted to the home for millions of people, residential Internet services faced an unprecedented demand spike. Despite these extraordinary changes, the Internet has performed well: from user applications to content distribution infrastructure to all types of Internet access networks, the Internet proved resilient and reliable.

This is likely because of a combination of the nature of the design of the Internet itself, open and interoperable standards, competent technical execution and operational execution, network capacity upgrades during the pandemic, and significant long-term investments across the entire Internet ecosystem.

The report, 2020 Pandemic Network Performance, is focused on the US and details how increased demand affected various parts of the Internet ecosystem, and how different organisations responded to these changes. Many reports have examined particular parts of the Internet ecosystem, such as Internet exchange points and a content delivery networks in depth. This report synthesises a holistic view, explaining how the ecosystem as a whole – including Internet Service Providers (ISPs), transit providers, application providers, content providers, campus networks, and others – responded to these changes.

Overall, the available data suggests that the Internet has performed well during the pandemic, and continues to do so, despite unparalleled and rapid changes in traffic demands. Although individual end-users may have experienced isolated issues, BITAG found no data or reports that suggest that the Internet did not perform to meet the needs of the end-users (e.g., slow page loads, excessive video buffering, video conferencing sessions aborting, etc.).

This resilience is evident across many parts of the Internet ecosystem, from ISPs to content delivery networks and applications, and is a testament to the importance of continued investment in robust Internet infrastructure in all parts of the ecosystem, including access, transit, and content delivery.

The report highlights the following findings:

  • ISPs saw significant growth in both downstream and upstream traffic, increasing at least 30 per cent and as much as 40 per cent during peak business hours and as much as 60 per cent in some markets.
  • The observed increase in traffic volume was not simply a consequence of a shift from organisational networks to residential ones. The shift caused local information resources on organisational sites to become remote ones, accessible only through the Internet. Therefore, net Internet traffic increased.
  • Video conferencing traffic, while representative of a small overall percentage of traffic, increased substantially. Some networks saw more than 300 per cent increase in the amount of video conferencing traffic from February to October 2020.
  • Applications including gaming, web access and video streaming also saw substantial increases.
  • Enterprise and campus networks saw an increase in the use of VPN services, leading in some cases to VPN capacity problems. However, the increase in VPN usage, particularly to campus networks, was less than expected, partially because many of applications are now hosted in the cloud and can be accessed directly rather than exclusively through a private network.
  • Transit networks, content delivery networks, and Internet exchange points saw traffic volumes increase by 20 per cent-50 per cent.
  • Traffic over direct interconnection points also increased significantly. The extent of the increase in traffic demand varied across peers, with growth patterns ranging from modest to more than an order of magnitude or more.
  • Traffic ratios between downstream and upstream traffic also shifted as a result of greater upstream consumption, although traffic ratios remained strongly asymmetric, with downstream traffic continuing to far outpace upstream traffic.
  • The extent of growth in traffic demand tended to vary by the application or service of the corresponding peer. As a general pattern, ISPs augmented capacity to keep pace with this increase in demand.
  • The growth in traffic varied widely by application, interconnect peer, and geographic region.
  • There was a significant increase in the purchase of new consumer devices, including tablets and laptops, in some cases (e.g., webcams) outpacing supply of these devices.
  • Some providers saw modest and temporary decreases in downstream traffic speeds, especially during earlier parts of 2020. Overall median download speeds decreased by less than 5 per cent, while remaining above advertised speeds. Latency also increased modestly and temporarily for certain providers.
  • Home Wi-Fi networks, in particular those with customer supplied home gateways and/or Wi-Fi access points, experienced performance challenges often due to the combined effects of increased traffic demand, a larger number of connected devices, and outdated devices and home network equipment.

While the report aims to be as comprehensive as possible in its view of traffic demand changes, certain aspects do remain difficult to characterise. BITAG cautions that this report does not shed light on every aspect of Internet behaviour and user experience during the pandemic. In particular, the report focuses on directly observable metrics and characteristics, such as traffic demand (utilisation), as well as network performance metrics such as throughput and latency, which can typically be directly measured. Other important metrics, such as user quality of experience for specific applications, are more difficult to measure and characterise, particularly at scale. Much of that data is simply not readily available. In many cases, for clarity of presentation, BITAG has presented distributions of statistics, as opposed to individual measurements. Whenever possible, BITAG has presented the results as distributions that show the full range of performance effects for which data is available, opting for percentiles, medians, and complete distributions as opposed to averages (which can obscure outliers).

In light of the above observations, the report offers several recommendations:

  • End users should examine their home network when experiencing performance issues, particularly their devices and home Wi-Fi equipment, and consult with various online resources that contain helpful guidance on how to improve the network performance experienced in their home.
  • Home Wi-Fi equipment that uses 802.11b (or older) should be retired, and users should be encouraged to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 when it becomes widely available.
  • If they are not already doing so, operators of campus and enterprise networks should consider enabling cloud-based applications to use Single-Sign On (SSO) to allow direct, secure access to applications without requiring the use of a VPN.
  • Network operators should continue to provision network infrastructure with enough excess capacity to prepare and account for future possible systemic “shocks” and rapid changes in traffic demand patterns.
  • Finally, Internet stakeholders should continue with open communication and collaboration for the continued success of the Internet as the Internet ecosystem worked together effectively and quickly to meet the massive increase in demand for Internet access and Internet applications. This enabled many millions of people to work and learn from home, kept society informed, kept people connected to family, friends and loved ones, and facilitated access to other important services during this challenging time.

“The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in many parts of the world issuing stay-at-home orders and creating a
sudden shift to work/study from home,” noted study co-editor Matt Tooley, VP Broadband Technology at NCTA –
the Internet & Television Association. “This in turn created a dramatic shift in how consumers were using the
Internet resulting in a seminal event for network engineers to study how well the internet performed.”

“The evidence available shows our networks are resilient; from ISPs to transit providers and campus
networks,” said study co-editor Kate Landow, IEEE Senior Member, DISH Wireless. “And we can make some
assertions as to why. The design of the Internet itself, open and interoperable standards, competent technical
execution and significant long-term investments across the entire Internet ecosystem have together built a
network that can withstand unprecedented and quick surges of traffic.”

“This is good news for all of us — in the face of a completely unprecedented shock, the Internet ecosystem
held up,” stated BITAG Executive Director Douglas Sicker, “And it gives policymakers, businesses and other
stakeholders a shared set of facts, observations and recommendations to consider as we move ahead.”

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