Can our infrastructure handle the demands of the new normal?

Businesses across the country have shifted operations from offices to the homes of their employees, students are remote learning, and in-person social interaction is (hopefully) near non-existent at this point. The changes we’ve made to our daily lives are having a huge impact on the internet; not just in terms of bandwidth usage, but observable patterns in usage as well.

Internet traffic is spiking

In a week-over-week comparison, Verizon noted that voice traffic between March 12 and March 29 increased by 25%. That’s voice traffic, as in phone usage – something that has seen a steady decline in usage over the years.

We’re beginning to use traditional means of communication to help decrease the sense of isolation many are experiencing, and it’s a noticeable pattern change in how we use our telecommunications infrastructure.

The move to staying at home has reignited people’s hunger to stay connected, voice-to-voice. Verizon’s fiber-optic and wireless networks are continuing to meet the shifting demands of customers and continue to perform well.

Kyle Malady,
Chief Technology Officer, Verizon

The same report from Verizon shows a 25% increase in VPN traffic, mainly due to remote work, and a 22% increase in Web traffic. If we’re currently living in “the new normal,” is this increase in traffic the new normal for our telecommunications infrastructure?

The impact on remote work

Collaboration services used by remote workers to communicate and maintain business operations are experiencing strain from their surge in popularity. Last week, Microsoft’s chat and communications tool, Teams, went down across Europe for 2 hours. Just yesterday Zoom, a popular conferencing service, experienced downtime across Western Europe, with some other areas also experiencing difficulties.

Thankfully, we haven’t experienced any major outages in the United States and ISPs are assuring customers that there’s plenty of available capacity to support our needs. The majority of people working remotely are doing so because they are unable to access their offices – so while providers are observing increases in usage, it’s largely due to a change in observable patterns and not an increase in users accessing the Internet.

This is going to be an enormous stress test for our communications networks,” said Blair Levin, a former Federal Communications Commission chief of staff and author of the agency’s 2010 plan to improve internet access nationwide.

Blair Levin,
Former FCC Chief of Staff

The change in usage patterns, while they haven’t taken a toll on our ability to function, will likely reveal weak points in our infrastructure and begin to reshape the Internet to ensure our ability to communicate during situations like the one we’re experiencing now.

The impact on students

With schools closed for the foreseeable future, our educational system has quickly pivoted to an online model with tools commonly used for business, such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom, being used as virtual classrooms. The impact on students with available resources is much like the ones faced by remote workers, but there are many who do not have the resources available to continue their education online.

NYC schools are in the process of distributing 300,000 internet-enabled devices to students and systems throughout the country are doing the same to provide their students with access to the resources needed to continue their education, but reliable Internet connections will be a problem for many that cannot afford them or live in rural areas without the necessary infrastructure. has created a resource to help navigate available assistance programs and eligibility requirements while finding low-cost provider options to help families and their students stay connected in the weeks and months ahead.

Telcom providers respond to the crisis

Streaming platforms, telecom operators, and Internet service providers are taking steps to ensure a smoothly functioning Internet during the COVID-19 crisis.

Comcast has opened its network of Wi-Fi hotspots for free to everyone to help individuals stay in touch. They’re also temporarily lifting data caps and taking a relaxed view of late payment of bills.

Wireless carrier T-Mobile is providing customers with unlimited data to help keep remote workers working and students learning at no extra cost. They’re also working with spectrum holders to light up additional parts of the 600MHZ spectrum for the next 60 days, expanding network capacity for customers around the country.

AT&T is redirecting resources to provide additional services and tools for first responders, health care professionals, educators, and other essential consumers. The additional support helps to ensure that customers providing support are able to continue doing so by prioritizing public communications designed to keep the public safe.

Facebook has temporarily downgraded streaming video quality in Europe to reduce bandwidth usage, and this is a measure we may see in the United States, depending on how well our infrastructure fares in the coming weeks.

As it stands now, our infrastructure is accommodating the increased demand and changes in usage patterns, and that’s largely due to the efforts of the service providers we depend on to work, learn, and maintain some semblance of modern life in the new (temporary) normal.

Matt has spent the better part of 2 decades building systems, managing IT departments, and developing websites and applications for the education, publishing, and technical service industries. As an MCSE...

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