According to all the warnings from Net Neutrality advocates, the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown had all of the requisite conditions for Internet catastrophe. Suddenly, millions of people had to connect from home, traffic was skyrocketing, and the demand for high-volume traffic in video applications exploded exponentially. Traffic spiked 20% overnight — and actually increased from there.
And … it all worked. Users didn’t get rationed, and neither did providers. No one had their streams choked. And while bandwidth has at times been inconsistent for brief periods, widespread outages haven’t occurred. What gives? A massively flexible design combined with proper investment and preparation for disasters have proven itself in the crisis, wrote Charles Fishman at The Atlantic last week. The Internet and its backbone providers turn out to be far more resilient and responsive than those who advocate for government control claimed:
In the United States, internet traffic carried by AT&T, one of the nation’s largest internet providers, rose almost immediately by 20 percent starting in mid-March. By the end of April, network traffic during the workweek was up 25 percent from typical Monday-to-Friday periods in January and February, and showed no signs of fading. That may not sound like much, but imagine suddenly needing to add 20 percent more long-haul trucks to U.S. highways instantly, or 20 percent more freight trains, or 20 percent more flights every day out of every airport in the country. In fact, none of those infrastructure systems could have provided 20 percent more capacity instantly—or sustained it day after day for months.
Yes, there have been hiccups. Freedman notes that “we are seeing an increase not only in traffic, but in short-duration outages.” Your laptop—or the apps you’re trying to use on it—may well be advising you, from time to time, that your internet connection is weak. But that’s hardly surprising, or alarming, Freedman says, given that we’ve taken growth “that would happen over a year or two and compressed it into six weeks.”
The story of how that happened may not involve the sort of life-threatening heroics we’ve seen from medical personnel in New Orleans or New York. But amid so much highly visible dysfunction in the American response to the coronavirus, it’s worth appreciating the internet as an unsung hero of the pandemic. It has stayed on because people out there are keeping it on. The internet’s performance is no accident, but rather the result of long-term planning and adaptability, ingenuity and hard work—and also some characteristics that have become part of the personality of the internet itself.