The ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic and the strong measures taken by governments, businesses, and schools to slow the spread of the virus have led to unprecedented circumstances that have affected how we live, work, learn, and play. While the burden of COVID-19 on the healthcare system is undeniable, the pandemic is also placing strain on the fabric of our society, including our places of work, our schools, and our recreation.
At the core of this fabric today is the Internet, whose designers are, by many accounts, doing a victory lap right now. Many interesting recent studies show that, overall, the Internet has sustained the changes in traffic load quite well, although peak usage has now extended from “prime time” to all day (9 a.m. to 9 p.m.) and is up almost 40 percent in some parts of the network.
Still, the Internet itself is being tested like never before. Much of the workforce is now working from home; more students — from preschool to college —are engaged in remote learning. All of these activities rely on internet usage, placing unprecedented demand upon broadband network infrastructure and potentially deepening existing inequities in access to reliable, high-speed Internet.
To understand how these challenges are testing, more than ever, both the Internet’s technical foundation and the society that relies on it, CDAC is launching a new initiative to deploy our expertise and collaborative relationships towards studying how this pandemic has affected the Internet network — how it is responding globally, and how well local communities are able to make use of it.
In response to a variety of funding calls from the government and industry, we’re initiating projects to study the Internet’s response under crisis, based on an unprecedented coordination of data about network traffic load through granular measurements, proprietary data-sharing agreements, and user experiences, as well as extensive baseline data spanning over ten years.
Using these tools, we aim to study how the existing Internet infrastructure can sustain exogenous “shocks,” such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, that dramatically shift the location, nature, and scale of network traffic.
This question entails both technical and societal implications. On the technical side, we will explore how network traffic patterns have changed under pandemic “stay-at-home” orders, and how the performance of both networks and popular web applications have responded. These findings can help Internet service providers, content providers such as YouTube or Netflix, and application developers better respond to future surges and shifts in demand, as well as understand how different parts of the network, from the access links to the interconnects, respond to global stresses.
But as the pandemic and its consequences have powerfully demonstrated, the performance of the Internet is not a purely technical question — rather, it has vast and broad societal implications for the economy, for education, for innovation, and for how we interact with each other as members of society, both at at work and at play. Even before COVID-19, experts at the Federal Communications Commission and elsewhere have long decried the “digital divide” and “homework gap” between families and students with reliable high-speed internet at home and those without such access.
According to the FCC, as of 2018, 21 million Americans and a quarter of US households with children under 8 years old have no access at all to high-speed Internet; 12 million children in the US are affected by the homework gap, and 18% of students currently lack Internet access at home. Low-income or rural students often rely upon public sources of internet connectivity, such as schools or libraries, to complete assigned work that requires online resources. At a time when even these institutions must close and all schoolwork is homework, inequities in access to digital and online resources are poised to exacerbate these disparities.
Understanding broadband Internet performance in crisis situations will yield important insights about how government policies to close schools and rely on remote e-learning may affect the broader population. We also need to better understand how the increased strain on the Internet affects other critical application areas, such as medicine and public health, remote caregiving, and online legal or political processes. A lower-quality streaming movie is irritating, but the inability to support a doctor-patient video visit could be life-threatening.
We’re excited to already have several partners from industry and government agencies providing data and expertise on network usage and broadband access both before and during the COVID-19 crisis. Yet, the implications of connectivity are far reaching, with implications in fields including economics and social science, education, medicine, and more. If you’re interested in working with us on this critical and urgent research project, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.