Harvard affiliates studying the impact of COVID-19 on the internet have concluded that while the Internet has thus withstood additional pressures amid the pandemic, the long-term consequences of skyrocketing demand remain unclear.
Though the Internet has successfully handled increased usage, people working from home may still experience connectivity issues, Minlan Yu, an associate Computer Science professor at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, wrote in an email.
“We have a much higher volume of traffic (video calls, games, etc.) from a much broader set of places (homes instead of a few offices),” Yu wrote. “Fortunately, the Internet works just fine in that we do not see major large-scale outages due to the surge of usage.”
“However, people do experience network congestion at home too. We may not have enough bandwidth to carry all the traffic in the local network,” she added.
Yu added that she thinks the novel coronavirus pandemic will change the way people use the Internet, anticipating heavy traffic will persist.
“Before, we were worried that online meeting or large-scale video conferencing may not be as good as in-person meetings,” Yu wrote. “But if the Internet can sustain this growth of usage and give people good experiences online, then these behaviors will become permanent behaviors, which means we will see such large volumes of traffic after coronavirus as well.”
Harvard Business School student Daniel J. Park, who took Yu’s course Computer Science 145: “Networking at Scale” this spring, studied the impact of COVID-19 on cloud providers for a class project. He noted increased professional demand for applications such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Slack, as well as an uptick in users watching Netflix or playing games online.
“The good thing for companies like Zoom or Netflix is that they’re running their applications on cloud providers, and they have elastic compute,” Park said. “That means if their systems detect an increase in usage, then they just automatically get that increasing capacity that they need without even having to ask for it. They are sort of protected from increases in demand, but then the work falls on the cloud providers.”
Park focused his research on three cloud providers: Google Cloud Platform; Amazon Web Services, which supports Zoom, Slack, and Netflix; and Microsoft Azure. These providers were able to handle the pandemic-induced demand surge smoothly because they had already prepared extra capacity for worst-case scenarios, according to Park.
He added, however, that he wonders how long these cloud providers can continue to handle this intense capacity strain.
“If something other than COVID happens, if something additional happens, we don’t know how prepared they are,” Park said. “They need to build more capacity, but this is not something that you can do overnight. Building a data center takes more than two or three years.”
Xiaojing “Annie” Yang ’14, another Business School student in Yu’s course, conducted research on wireless community networks and broadband connections in the United States. Coverage drops in traditionally underserved and rural areas have motivated study of novel ways to connect people to the Internet, according to Yang.
“One of the things that some communities are doing to address this is actually looking for alternative solutions, one of which is known as wireless community network,” Yang said. “The idea there is that you’re kind of doing what’s known as [peer-to-peer] network sharing, so pretty much sharing your Wi-Fi bandwidth with your neighbors.”
“There’s also other projects out there, like municipality Wi-Fi, that’s separate from wireless community network,” she added.
Yang said the differential impact of remote-work expectations underscores the infrastructure requirements that will need to be examined moving forward.
“I think this just highlights a little bit of what are already known to be problems, at least within the U.S. in terms of broadband capabilities,” Yang said.
James H. Waldo, a computer science professor at SEAS, wrote in an email that he has been most surprised by how well existing infrastructure — including his personal gadgetry — has scaled to meet present demands.
“I’ve run a physical cable from my home router to my office which is significantly more robust than wireless,” Waldo wrote. “But the network itself has survived, even with an increase in load that my local provider (Comcast) has publicly stated at around 350%. This for a technology that is about 50 years old.”
—Staff writer Brie K. Buchanan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Elizabeth X. Guo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @elizabethxguo.