#SXSWCorona: NO, COVID-19 will not break the internet. It was built to withstand a global nuclear war

Country after country goes into lock-down. City after city grinds to a halt. Businesses migrate from the office parks into the living rooms of countless workers. While fiber connected, high speed internet wired office buildings are now populated by skeleton crews, most of the internet users are now connecting from the -safer- confinement of their homes.

Millions of students are banned from schools, colleges and universities, and are confined at home, with severe restrictions to their mobility. While they are supposed to be studying and attending online classes and courses -and, we are sure they are 😊-, they also connect massively to more re-creative uses of the internet.

With a population of 60 million clustered at home, Italy saw its internet use go through the roof. Online access to goods, news, work and entertainment accounted for a massive pike in the country’s internet use.  Collaborative platforms, streaming movie services and online gaming platforms (especially Fortnite and Call of Duty) found their way towards the hesitant bandwidth of the Italian homes.

Disconnected. Connected. Repeat.

Thousands of people complained about faltering connections and difficulties to connect to the world wide web. Telecom Italia, “We reported an increase of more than 70% of Internet traffic over our landline network with a big contribution from online gaming.”

Bloomberg said 48 hours later that: “Telecom Italia’s network is working perfectly and with higher volumes compared with previous days, the issues reported affected temporary just some applications and the internet.”

Similar scenarios in Spain, France, Belgium, the USA, the UK… where the lock-downs become more real, the internet usage dramatically changes -and increases-.  Co-working tools struggle, connections seem slower than usual in lots of cases.  

Demand for online video and chat tools, from Slack to Zoom to WebEx, is also increasing. The traffic to Cisco’s videoconferencing went up to 70% even 80%, the company said. Video conferencing service GoToMeeting admitted that “it was experiencing unprecedented traffic for our product during peak starting times,” causing its services to falter.  Even Microsoft’s Teams collaborative software suffered outages this week. The Seattle based company scrambles to address the issue, and to keep pace with the growing demand.  VPN use was up 53% in the U.S. last week, and more than doubled in Italy, according to AtlasVPN.  Pornhub proudly reports double digit increase in all lock-down areas, and World of Worldcraft sees massive gatherings on its servers.

The tougher guidelines in the US, limiting groups to  10 people (5 in some States), multi-week school closures, and enforced social distancing,  are expected to increase the home internet use 10-fold.

Will we break the Internet?

The glitches, and perceived slowing down of the internet highway is causing some concern, up to downright panic that the Internet will break, cutting our lifeline with life and business-as-we-used to know it.

Matthew Prince, CEO of Cloudflare, a Internet infrastructure and security company is convinced that the Internet can handle the extra load:  “The Internet was really designed from the beginning to respond to literally a nuclear emergency.

DARPA: redundancy and dynamic rerouting

The current internet, also known as the World Wide Web is built on, and intertwined with the old military (D)ARPANET. Based on a concept first published in 1967, (D)ARPANET was developed under the direction of the U.S. (Defence) Advanced Research Projects Agency ((D)ARPA).

In 1969, the idea became a modest reality with the interconnection of four university computers. The initial purpose was to create a redundant and dynamic reroutable web between military installations, and by extension a communication web between users and connected institutions that was next to impossible to take down.  ARPANET took advantage of Vint Cerf’s  new idea of sending information in small units called packets that could be routed on different paths and reconstructed at their destination.  Cerf coined this dynamic rerouting development in the TCP/IP protocol that still governs the internet, that network of networks, today.

The internet at its very basic is just a very large number of computers all networked and connected. A large office building with a couple of thousand computers connected in a network to allow file sharing between employees, is connected to the internet via a cables/connections. Severing that cable, the building’s connection to the outside world (the internet), would go down, but not the building’s intra-net. A cell phone modem could reconnect the building to the rest of the world. You could theoretically segregate a whole country or area of a country from the rest of the internet if you severed all the possible routes between that area and the rest of the internet. As long as one line is open though, communications will re-rout.  To “destroy” the internet, you would have to destroy every server and every service provider, every connection point. Considering that they are located throughout the entire world and there are literary millions of them, it seems unlikely that somebody or something could destroy the internet faster than it can be repaired or rerouted.

Prince is right: it was built to withstand a full-on nuclear war.

The weakest link: your homegear

While the internet will be all right, your home connection might not. Offices are routed on high capacity nodes, most households are using throttled down internet access (squeezed down by the internet provider in your contract’s commercial restrictions), and lower capacity/slower routers, switches and Wi-Fi radio’s.

In short: most homes are (not yet) wired for a full blown, all guns out, full family 24/h internet use at the same speed as the big office parks/buildings are able to provide. Routers are slower. WiFi is often slowed down by too much concrete at home, and not enough WiFi relay stations, older (slower) cables, etc.

At home, an internet connection of 30 megabits per second will normally be enough, linked to a lower to mid-tier Wi-Fi router.  But when you, the kids, and your partner connect to a single Wi-Fi network at the same time to stream or host video conferencing, keep digital TV up, and some connected gaming… the system congests, and the more data hungry apps will collapse under their weight.

Providers worldwide are now scrambling to upgrade house internet speeds to a guaranteed 50 megabits per second, resulting in faster speeds and more bandwidth.

The “O Shit” VPN

Another weak link in the system might be your company’s VPN, VPNs are virtual private networks. Companies and organizations use them to let workers securely access their systems, even if they’re not in the office. It allows centralized security, and control.

You can think of it as almost a castle and moat strategy where all the employees and all the secrets of the business are in the castle and the bad guys are kept out through the moat,” Cloudflare’s Prince said in an interview with NPR: “VPNs are like drawbridges that let certain people into the castle, such as employees who are on the road or working remotely. A lot of companies never built it  to accommodate the entire workforce being outside of the castle.”

Go easy

You can help to bridge the gap, avoid peaks, and speed your web up:

  • Work offline. Go to the server, take your doc, log-off, work local, put the revised document back on the server
  • Avoid video conferencing. Honestly, most of the time voice is enough. Or send a document around to amend. Highly efficient. Avoid screen and document sharing on a low  speed line: send the presentation in advance, so people can follow if their connection is slower.
  • If you must do video: 360 pix is enough. Nobody needs to see your pajamas in 4K.
  • Buy a faster home modem, or switch from WIFI to cable (faster)
  • Switch off your TV, your Spotify and kick your kids from your home router 😊.

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