As people around the world have transplanted their lives onto the internet while trying to stay in their homes during the coronavirus pandemic, technology experts have been confident that the web will be able to handle all the traffic. More and more countries are now instituting lockdowns in a desperate attempt to flatten the curve, and the internet hasn’t exactly broken, but it is starting to creak and spark a bit. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently told the New York Times, “We’re just trying to keep the lights on over here,” as the company’s social networks try to accommodate soaring app usage rates for calls, messaging, and news consumption. If even Facebook is feeling the pressure, how is everyone else doing?
Internet speeds have been declining in various coronavirus hot spots around the world as broadband providers scramble to keep up with sudden spikes in traffic. Hubei, the Chinese province that has Wuhan as its capital, has seen mobile broadband speeds fall by roughly 60 percent since January, according to Ookla’s Downdetector, an internet monitoring service. Performance has been slowly improving in March as China reaches the tail end of the outbreak, though it’s nowhere close to fully recovering. Countries in western Europe began experiencing broadband performance issues in early March, around the time when governments there began enforcing lockdowns, though the dips have not been as dramatic as they have been in Hubei.
In the U.S., broadband declines have been negligible in some cities but dramatic in others. The broadband tracking service BroadbandNow found that 88 of the 200 most populous cities in the country experienced some amount of network degradation in the past week. Austin, Texas; Oxnard, California; and Winston-Salem, North Carolina saw download speeds drop by more than 40 percent, while San Jose, California, had a 38 percent drop. Meanwhile, there have been little to no changes in download speeds in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago.
Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services have all committed to downgrading their picture quality in various parts of the world in order to avoid putting too much strain on the internet as hundreds of millions of people stay home and binge shows in an effort to practice social distancing. Before the pandemic, peak streaming times for most households lasted four hours on weekdays; it’s now 10 hours a day, according to CNBC. Video is by far the biggest bandwidth hog; Netflix alone consumes 15 percent of the world’s bandwidth.
Netflix said on Saturday that it’s reducing traffic by 25 percent in Spain and Italy and is now reportedly applying those cuts to other European countries as well as in Latin America and India. It has yet to do so for the U.S., though users across the country were unable to access the service for about an hour on Wednesday. YouTube announced on Tuesday that it would be setting the default video quality to standard definition across the globe for a month, though people will be able to opt in to higher resolution. Amazon is also throttling its Prime Video service in Europe and the U.K. but has been tight-lipped about the specifics. Disney+, in reducing its picture quality, is cutting its bandwidth consumption by at least 25 percent overall and is delaying its launch in France by two weeks.
Similar to streaming sites, video game services have also been trying to enact measures to ease up the strain they put on networks. Sony and Steam, the virtual video game marketplace, have both committed to throttle traffic from downloading games. On Tuesday, Steam had more than 22.67 million people using its service concurrently, beating out a record it had set in early 2018 of just over 18.5 million. Microsoft, maker of the Xbox, has additionally asked major gaming companies to space out the releases of their online updates so as not to clog up any networks.
Some video game services themselves have also been experiencing outages. Xbox Live reported that users were having trouble with signing in and matchmaking, while Nintendo’s Europe division said that it was having issues with its network services. There have also been numerous spikes in reports of PlayStation Network malfunctions. And the online shooter game Fortnite said recently that it was also having problems with logins, matchmaking, and its virtual shop.
Last week, nearly 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits, surpassing records set in previous recessions by a jaw-dropping margin. The websites that states run to accept applications have been collapsing under the weight of this newly unemployed population. Last week, I wrote about how online claim portals in Oregon, New York, Kentucky, and Virginia had crashed around the same time that their governors had ordered nonessential businesses to shut down. Since then, readers from Alabama, Texas, Florida, Michigan, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Illinois have emailed me to share their frustrations with their states’ unemployment systems. Many users described websites crashing in the middle of filling out their applications and rerouting them to time out pages. Attempts to reach out directly to the unemployment offices via phone and email have gone unanswered. “North Carolina is also experiencing website timeouts and crashing making it impossible to apply for benefits online. At their Asheville location my daughter and others were turned away from applying in person and told to keep trying the website,” one reader told me. “Can they not do better for these people who are desperate for assistance because they’ve been laid off?”
For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to this week’s Political Gabfest.