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How can the internet cope with COVID-19?

So far the large U.S. network providers have not reported major disruptions to their network. But that may quickly change as more people are required to work from home.

Felix Hassebroek waving to his classmates, who he has not seen in 2 weeks through a livestream video meet up in Brooklyn, New York.
Felix Hassebroek waving to his classmates, whom he has not seen in 2 weeks, through a livestream video meet up in Brooklyn, New York.
REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

The possibility of millions of people all coming online at the same time for meetings, classes, shopping, streaming and more raises serious concerns about the congestion and slowdowns that internet users will likely experience.

So far the large U.S. network providers — like Verizon and AT&T — have not reported major disruptions to their network. But that may quickly change as more people are required to work from home. What can network providers do to alleviate potential issues?

My research has shown that one way to reduce peak congestion on the internet is to create incentives to spread out the demand over time. For example, users can be given a discount on their monthly bill if they use the internet in less-congested hours. The network provider can use dynamic discounting, based on a user’s activity during peak vs. non-peak hours to offer a reward.

A second approach is to use complementary networks to offload data traffic from the primary one. For example, a wireless service provider operating in a rural area can use the help of satellite network providers to divert some of the traffic and reduce congestion. Satellite networks can play an important role in increasing connectivity as needed in sparsely populated areas where it may not be financially viable for a landline or cellular network operator to roll out additional capacity.

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A third approach is to temporarily introduce throttling of data traffic during the peak hours from certain types of applications that are deemed less critical, for example, video gaming, movie streaming, and torrent. This may be controversial from a net neutrality standpoint, but is worth considering.

Soumya Sen
Soumya Sen
In addition, network operators are already introducing some measures to reduce the financial burden on users and have signed on to the Federal Communication Commission’s Keep America Connected Pledge. These network providers will waive any late fees and not terminate service to any residential or small business customers if they are unable to pay their bills due to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.

These are all appropriate steps to help those who have internet access but face economic hardships. But there is also a huge portion of the population who do not yet have reliable internet connectivity – either because of their geographic location or their socio-economic status.

This pandemic is laying bare the need for the U.S. federal government to adopt a more aggressive “digital first” strategy to connect all residents to the internet and train them in information technology to compete better in a digital economy. This is particularly important for creating employment opportunities in economically depressed areas of the Midwest, which have declined in manufacturing industries due to automation. This moment of crisis could be a moment of reckoning with our infrastructural weaknesses and could help plan remedial measures to prepare us for a better future.

Soumya Sen, Ph.D., is a McKnight Presidential Fellow and an associate professor of Information & Decision Sciences at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. His expertise is in internet technologies, data communications, electronic commerce, cloud technology, network security and broadband data pricing.

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