Will the Coronavirus Break the Internet?

Not figuratively, but literally!

The internet is fritzing.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Sabri Tuzcu on Unsplash.

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the globe, more people are working from home, navigating the tanking financial markets, and attempting to keep in touch while engaging in social distancing. That’s a whole lot of internet use, much of which usually takes place in offices, and the infrastructure of the web is already showing signs of strain. “We’ve definitely noticed a wave of outages/issues correlated to coronavirus traffic spikes,” Adriane Blum, the communications director for Ookla’s outage-reporting site Downdetector, told me in an email on Wednesday. Meanwhile, other corners of the web, like videoconferencing services, are bracing for impact.

Could the coronavirus actually break the internet? Maybe a little bit. Here are some of the ways we might feel it.

Video Conferencing: Probably Fine

More and more people stuck working from their couches are likely to start using services like Zoom and Skype for virtual meetings. Colleges like Stanford and the University of Washington are also holding lectures using video conferencing software since in-person classes have been canceled. Video already accounts for about 70 percent of network traffic—and there will certainly be more people going on Netflix binges as they avoid activities outside the home—so there are concerns that adding conferencing to the mix might overload some networks.

Roger Entner, founder of consulting and research firm Recon Analytics, notes that people are likely overestimating how much bandwidth business-related video traffic will take up during the day. Video consumption is already fairly high at night with people watching Netflix and YouTube, so networks are already built to sustain heavy traffic. In addition, many of the services themselves rely on major cloud providers that are built to handle huge spikes in traffic and aren’t likely to fail. “They should be on an elastic cloud service from Amazon or Microsoft or Google and dynamically get that bandwidth,” says Entner.

In the event that you do end up running into connectivity issues, Entner recommends either downgrading the image resolution or cutting video entirely. “Do you really need to see the pretty faces of your colleagues? An audio conference uses 40 kilobits per second. It’s so small it’s a rounding error.”

Stock-Trading Sites: Not Fine!

According to Downdetector, stock sites like Ameritrade and E-Trade have been seeing spikes in outage reports this month as financial markets melt into goo. Robinhood has been struggling in particular due to perpetual account malfunctions and has gone dark for up to an hour in recent weeks. Web-based trading services often have issues with atypical spikes in traffic because they don’t often use outside cloud providers due to the financially sensitive nature of stock transactions. These sites typically prefer to develop their own systems in-house to make them more secure, but they often don’t have capacity that you’d get with a major cloud service. “Going down because of excessive volume is a forgivable problem for a chief information officer. Going down because of a security lapse that somebody else made—that’s difficult,” says Entner. It’s also expensive for trading services to set up systems that can handle extraordinary events like a pandemic. “It’s tough to financially justify building a system that can sustain a one in every 20 year event.”

Corporate VPNs: Maybe Not Fine!

Companies around the world are temporarily closing down their workplaces to help slow the spread of the virus. Prominent firms like Amazon, Twitter, JPMorgan Chase, and Procter & Gamble are already asking some or all of their employees to work from home. As more and more offices close their doors, larger portions of the workforce will have to start using virtual private networks, which allow employees to remotely transmit private data with their companies. Normally, though, companies set up their VPNs for a subset of remote and traveling workers, rather than their entire staffs. An overloaded VPN can lead to slowdowns and packet loss, which refers to data that’s lost en route.

If people do run into problems, it’ll likely be because their employers didn’t make adequate preparations. “The question is: ‘Have the companies spent the money to prepare for this in advance, or did they just spend the minimum to accommodate the traffic they thought they would have in a given time?’ ” says Daryl Plummer, vice president and Gartner fellow at the advisory firm Gartner. When companies set up their VPNs, they do anticipate the possibility that they’ll exceed their loads, but rarely would they expect an emergency scenario where they would have to double or triple it. Companies should conduct various stress tests for their VPNs, like determining how many connections can be made through the network. Load tests can also simulate sending different kinds of content over the VPN. Yet, Plummer notes that companies aren’t often prioritizing this quality assurance. “It is not the highest on the list. The bigger concern that I have is that most of the corporations I talk to don’t seem to know about this.”

Video Games: Not Fine!

Internet networks in Europe have seen sizable surges in traffic as people turn to their computers for entertainment while staying home. Schools in Italy, for instance, have shut down, leaving many kids cooped in playing video games. During a call with analysts on Wednesday, the Telecom Italia CEO Luigi Gubitosi reported that its landline network saw a traffic increase of more than 70 percent, leading to a flood of lost internet connections. Gubitosi attributed the spike to “online gaming such as Fortnite,” which takes up more bandwidth than most remote work services.

Have you noticed a part of the internet breaking? Let us know.