Surging Traffic Is Slowing Down Our Internet

With people going online more in the pandemic, internet traffic has exploded, which is taking a toll on our download speeds and video quality. (Alvaro Dominguez/The New York Times) -- NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY VIRUS INTERNET SURGE BY CECILIA KANG and DAVEY ALBA and ADAM SATARIANO FOR MARCH 26, 2020. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. --

Cecilia Kang, Davey Alba and Adam Satariano

c.2020 The New York Times Company


WASHINGTON — In late January, as China locked down some provinces to contain the spread of the coronavirus, average internet speeds in the country slowed as people who were stuck inside went online more and clogged the networks. In Hubei province, the epicenter of infections, mobile broadband speeds fell by more than half.

In mid-February, when the virus hit Italy, Germany and Spain, internet speeds in those countries also began to deteriorate.

And last week, as a wave of stay-at-home orders rolled out across the United States, the average time it took to download videos, emails and documents increased as broadband speeds declined 4.9% from the previous week, according to Ookla, a broadband speed testing service. Median download speeds dropped 38% in San Jose, California, and 24% in New York, according to Broadband Now, a consumer broadband research site.

Quarantines around the world have made people more reliant on the internet to communicate, work, learn and stay entertained. But as the use of YouTube, Netflix, Zoom videoconferencing, Facebook calls and videogaming has surged to new highs, the stress on internet infrastructure is starting to show in Europe and the United States — and the traffic is probably far from its peak.

“This is totally unprecedented,” said Thierry Breton, a European Union commissioner who oversees digital policy and was a chief executive of France Télécom. “We have to be proactive.”

To head off problems, European regulators like Breton have pushed streaming companies such as Netflix and YouTube to reduce the size of their video files so they do not take up as much bandwidth. In the United States, regulators have given wireless carriers access to more spectrum to bolster the capacity of their networks.

Some tech companies have responded to the call to ease internet traffic. YouTube, which is owned by Google, said this week that it would reduce the quality of its videos from high to standard definition across the globe. Disney delayed the start of its Disney Plus streaming service in France by two weeks, and Microsoft’s Xbox asked gaming companies to introduce online updates and new releases only at certain times to prevent network congestion.

“We really don’t know how long we’re going to be in this mode for,” Dave Temkin, Netflix’s vice president of network and systems infrastructure, said in a webinar Wednesday on how the coronavirus could affect internet infrastructure.

Internet service providers like Comcast, Vodafone, Verizon and Telefónica have been building out their networks for years to account for increasing demand. But company officials said they had never seen such a steep, sudden surge. Growth that the industry had expected to take a year is happening over days, said Enrique Blanco, chief technology officer at Telefónica, a Spanish telecommunications company.

“In just two days we grew all the traffic we had planned for 2020,” Blanco said.

On Monday, traffic on AT&T’s networks was up 27% compared to the same day last month, and last week Verizon experienced a 22% increase in traffic on its wireless and fiber broadband service. Wi-Fi calls doubled from their normal volume, the carriers said.

In Europe, internet traffic into homes over fixed lines was up more than 30%, according to Telefónica. Activities like online gaming and video conferencing have more than doubled, while messages over WhatsApp have more than quadrupled.

So much traffic and stress on internet networks has slowed the speed of downloading webpages and apps, according to Ookla.

“Congestion is higher,” said Adriane Blum, an Ookla spokeswoman. “We’re all at home and the activities we’re doing in this unprecedented time are not low-bandwidth usage, which means a lot of activity on a network.”

Cisco said demand for its WebEx teleconference service had tracked the spread of the coronavirus. Demand first surged in Asia, then in Europe, and last week it soared 240% in the United States. The demand has pushed up failure rates delivering video conferencing, said Sri Srinivasan, a Cisco senior vice president in charge of WebEx.

“I don’t know if we’ll soon see a peak, not for weeks to come,” he said. “The reason I say that is because we aren’t seeing traffic in Asia slow down even now.”

To prevent clogged networks, Europe has taken the most aggressive steps.

Last week, Breton, the EU commissioner, discussed reducing the bitstreams of videos with Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix; Sundar Pichai, the chief executive of Google; and Susan Wojcicki, the head of YouTube. The companies agreed, as did Amazon for its Prime Video streaming service and Twitch, its online gaming platform.

Many of the companies then went further. On Tuesday, Netflix decided to switch its high-definition video streams in India, Australia and Latin America to slightly lower quality to reduce the traffic they create there by 25%, and YouTube said it would make all global streams standard definition.

“We continue to work closely with governments and network operators around the globe to do our part to minimize stress on the system during this unprecedented situation,” YouTube said in a statement.

While U.S. regulators said they did not plan to follow Europe in asking for streaming and social media companies to degrade their services, they are taking other steps. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission granted Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile temporary access to more airwaves.

“The FCC has been coordinating closely with network operators to ensure those networks remain up and running,” Ajit Pai, the agency’s chairman, said in a statement.