Designed for Demand: How Networks Keep Your Data Flowing
By Jonathan Spalter
When the COVID-19 pandemic began compelling widespread workplace and school closures across the country, there was some speculation the atypical traffic demands would crash, clog or otherwise overwhelm American broadband networks. Networks in some European countries had already shown significant increases in usage following movements to quarantine or shelter in place, raising red flags about the risks of congestion.
But one month in, the data shows that U.S. networks are more than prepared to accommodate a prolonged reliance on telework, distance learning, and other forms of high bandwidth communications.
The reality: America’s broadband networks are reliably keeping us connected with each other — and the rest of the world — during this emergency. This ability to connect over broadband helps us maintain, even if virtually, our sense of community while staying home and socially distancing.
Even with substantial growth in use as more and more Americans stay home, U.S. communications networks have managed this increase in traffic without a hiccup. Americans can still connect, work, watch, and play substantially in the same way as before we shifted to home-based lifestyles.
Americans can still connect, work, watch, and play substantially in the same way as before we shifted to home-based lifestyles.
USTelecom members are reporting traffic increases — some significantly so — over what the world looked like prior to mid-March. But importantly, the ability to absorb this additional traffic isn’t just good luck or the avoidance of a worst-case scenario. It is, in fact, a design feature of America’s modern broadband networks.
Here’s how digital communication over the internet works:
Broadband networks send messages via streams of independent packets that do not require a dedicated chain of circuits to be in place for the complete duration of the communication. Rather, each packet follows routes that are the least congested. This flexibility serves several important functions.
First, if some individual link in the chain of circuits from A to B breaks, packets are automatically rerouted onto alternative paths to their destination.
Second, if no superior reroutes are available, new fiber optic technology makes it much quicker to add to existing circuit capacity than old copper technology. These expansions can sometimes be completed in just a few hours.
Third, if in spite of engineering’s best efforts, congestion does appear, network technology and its underlying software directs the sender of the packets to pace its rate of transmissions in order to prevent packet bottlenecks from building-up. Congestion in today’s increasingly virtualized networks no longer means blocked calls or a connection failure.
Finally, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is playing a big role in helping stabilize the network if congestion occurs, allowing network operators to understand changing traffic characteristics and balance the traffic load. AI helps to remotely troubleshoot and diagnose problems, proactively finding the root cause or helping to identify the source of the congestion. It even helps to plan for potential future events to handle traffic surges similar to COVID-19.
There are other factors that contribute to the resiliency, security and stability of the networks. The most significant is that America’s broadband providers have invested heavily and consistently over the last several decades to ensure our networks have the capacity to handle the ever-increasing demand for data, especially during peak times of day.
America’s broadband providers have invested heavily and consistently over the last several decades to ensure our networks have the capacity to handle the ever-increasing demand for data, especially during peak times of day.
Evening hours typically represent the peak demand time in residential networks, with a small handful of streaming services such as Netflix, Google’s YouTube and Amazon Prime accounting for 60–80 percent of all broadband traffic during those hours. During these peak hours, traffic is commonly 3–5 times higher than during an average hour of the day, which means huge amounts of unused traffic capacity are regularly available during the off-peak hours.
The traffic increases associated with telework, telemedicine, and distance learning tend to occur mostly during daytime hours — when unused traffic capacity is the greatest. As a result, these COVID-19 increases in traffic have been readily accommodated by U.S. broadband networks allowing the lines of news, public safety, healthcare, daily communications, and entertainment to remain open and running smoothly.
Translation: the capacity exists — even under these extraordinary circumstances.
To be sure, this ability to serve the increased internet demands created by COVID-19 did not come without cost.Building the broadband networks that have proven capable of flexibly handling these traffic demands required over $1.7 trillion in network operator investment over the past 23 years, with providers large and small spending millions of dollars more to augment capacity during the crisis, while also pledging not to terminate service due to the inability to pay, and to waive late fees for residential and small business customers.
For context, this investment outpaces the spending in other parts of the world such as the EU, and in addition to a smarter and more modern regulatory approach, is one of the most important reasons there has not been a need to reduce the quality of streaming services in the U.S. to keep up with demand.
Broadband is the 21st century’s indispensable resource, never more so than when COVID-19 is reshaping the way we interact with our families, colleagues and fellow citizens.
During these challenging times for our country and global community, innovative broadband providers and technology partners remain committed to connectivity and the principles of network preparedness and resiliency.
Jonathan Spalter is president and CEO of USTelecom | The Broadband Association.