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The Web Didn’t Break Under Quarantine

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The Web Didn’t Break

The assembled wise men told us the internet would break. A massive spike in usage, we were told, must certainly follow the forced quarantines and the temporary (?) layoffs induced by panic over the Pulmonary Pox. With millions of us spending much more time at home, we were sure to spend far more time online. This skyrocketing usage would overtax the internet’s capacity, and it would fail under the strain.

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The predictions of an explosion in web usage proved accurate. The prophecies of its failure did not.

Why didn’t the internet fail?

In some areas, data usage has surged by 60% or more since February. Overall, usage is up more than 25%, most of the increase fueled by online work and downloading of video. So, how have the internet service providers (ISP) kept their networks from collapsing under the escalated load?

Several factors account for the web’s survival and almost normal function. To start with, the largest online video platforms have helped by streaming in lower resolution than before. For 4K video, YouTube, NetFlix, and Amazon Prime have been streaming in conventional HD, sometimes even Standard Definition.

This, though, has only limited the growth in data usage. It hasn’t eliminated it altogether. And despite conservation efforts, the recent deluge in web traffic is undeniable. We have to account for ISP ability to handle a sudden spike in data volume averaging nearly 40%.

How much difference does preparation make?

Since the FCC abandoned so-called ‘net neutrality’ three years ago, overall broadband capacity is up 70%. Without Uncle Sam’s heavy boot on its neck, almost every ISP expanded its networks massively, and the additional capacity was in place in time to absorb the Covid-19 fueled spike in traffic.

In addition, high-traffic websites spread their web-hosting functions among multiple server locations. So they’re not relying too much on a few servers. And every major ISP has built redundancy into its networks. ISPs can function reasonably well because they prepared for worst-case scenarios.

How have streaming video services helped?

Video streaming platforms are among the most data-hungry of all web services. Their behavior, then, disproportionately influences overall internet function.

Fortunately, most video platforms have been responsible. The biggest, including NetFlix and YouTube, have been throttling their video streams. They’ve reduced resolution from 4K to conventional HD. If data demand continues to skyrocket, they may reduce it further, to SD. (SD is Standard Definition.)

If the current crisis continues long enough, this could become the norm. Until next year, you might have to get used to watching TV and movies in SD. Still, the web is unlikely to break completely.

So far as we can predict, the internet will always function more or less adequately. Next year, maybe, it will even function well.

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