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:
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:
“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.”