27 September 2023

Net demand: Can the internet cope with so many of us at home?

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Professor Thas A. Nirmalathas and Professor Elaine Wong* ask what the risks are to our internet from the increased usage during the pandemic.

As the COVID-19 crisis forces us to socially isolate, the internet is emerging as a lifeline to many of us.

Without the internet, we can’t work from home or access our doctors online, we would be devoid of the arts and the entertainment we habitually now source online, and we may even struggle to keep active under the watchful eyes of our personal trainers.

When more than the half the world’s population is expected to rely on the internet during these unprecedented times, can it meet our expectations?

How our internet works

The internet itself spans a number of separate network domains, or islands of connectivity, as it completes the end-to-end connection to our packets of information.

These packets are short bursts of information about the destination and source of the information.

Unsurprisingly, every island of connectivity in the path of our internet packets impacts the way our internet experience is shaped.

Starting in our home, many of us use either a Wi-Fi network for our portable devices and/or direct cable connections for desktop (our home network) to access a router, which then connects us to our broadband service.

Each one of us may access different types of broadband, which interconnects with the internet router with the ISP (the Internet Service Provider or “access network”).

The ISP has its own backbone network.

This helps to interconnect the different parts of the access network with their network gateways, to the core network.

Alternatively, it can use other network providers to pull together all the traffic from the many hundreds of users and then carry that large volume of traffic via the core network (the network interconnecting cities and regions) to an internet point of presence — a gateway to the global internet.

At this point, your traffic is handed over to the global internet, which is another complex web of often privately owned and operated fibre optic networks using over-the-land or undersea cable networks.

Once you reach that gateway, your internet packets will then travel over more islands of networks to get you connected to your workplace network or to a streaming service network, for example.

Much the same way as our workplaces have their own network and systems supporting our work, our entertainment services have their own complex networks moving their content around the world.

So, our online experience can be impacted by any one of these islands of networks.

Closer to the home

As those of us who can work from home now do so, the network design choices your broadband network provider and the ISP have made will impact your experience.

This is because our networks aren’t designed for a “similar usage pattern among users”.

Instead, they have been designed to exploit the difference in our usage patterns to provide the service with much, much lower capacity in the backbone than required otherwise.

This approach — which provisions capacity by assuming a lower bandwidth requirement when looking at all the different streams of traffic and then exploits different patterns in the expected demand (known as statistical multiplexing) — is used across every parts of the internet.

The pandemic load

If we take an average Australian household of two adults working remotely with two children accessing online education, this home now has very similar internet needs to a home with four adults all working remotely.

Compared to their pre-COVID patterns, now everyone in the household is vying for the same access to the internet.

This creates not only symmetrical traffic in both up and down links, but also generates substantial traffic as a result of things like video conferencing or interactive education tools.

The household’s habits and routines might also become very similar, with adults and kids working roughly the same hours, accessing entertainment and training along with video calls or conferencing.

This creates an unusual load on our network across different islands of connectivity.

Depending on our usage patterns, many of us may need to upgrade our broadband service plans to ensure that our data plans are sufficient and the speed of connectivity can keep up with our “new modes” of use.

Extra capacity

There’s been growing recognition of the need for backbone capacity among the network operators and service providers.

Some Australian operators are moving to provide extra capacity to allow service providers to cope with rapidly changing load and usage patterns.

A few of Australia’s biggest providers have announced plans to provide extra data for their mobile broadband plans as part of their coronavirus response.

News reports indicate that the NBN is currently coping with the load and it has provided additional capacity to cope with the demand, but we’ll have to wait to get an accurate picture of people’s experience.

As many of us work from home, our workplace’s information technology and service provision teams are also adapting as traffic now flows in and out of their network, and less within their local area network, that typically interconnects offices.

Likewise, most entertainment platforms are upgrading their service delivery networks as well as strategically placing more popular content closer to the changing user base.

While larger companies are well-equipped to respond to the need to upgrade their internet and network capacity, it could be a painful transition for many medium to small-sized organisations.

With many parts of the world facing a slowing economy, this kind of agile upscaling of network infrastructure is difficult and could also be impeded by the unavailability of the right equipment for upgrades.

Given the level of investment in building the global network behind the internet over past few decades, we are now benefiting from this excess capacity as well as the ability of the network operators to route large volumes of traffic dynamically.

But as we look down the barrel of self-isolation for many more weeks to come, our reliance on the internet and our new demands may require a reset in our own habits and work patterns so the internet can keep up.

* Professor Thas A. Nirmalathas is Head, Electronic and Photonic Systems Research Group, and Professor, Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Melbourne School of Engineering, University of Melbourne. Professor Elaine Wong is in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Melbourne School of Engineering.

This article first appeared at pursuit.unimelb.edu.au.

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