As countries around the world are dealing with the current COVID-19 pandemic, the internet and overall telecommunications infrastructure is playing a crucial role in helping people, companies, governments and health organizations stay in touch and continue to function under difficult conditions.
This article provides a forward-looking discussion that blends existing trends and the current stress factors to help readers understand the big picture of coming changes in the internet infrastructure, along with an overview of the key technologies that will be enabling needed future performance levels.
Background on Current Crisis-Driven Stress Factors
Over recent weeks, all of us have experienced rapid and unprecedented stress on the current communications infrastructure, with millions of people sequestered at home and a large percentage of those continuing to work from home. Video conferencing, streaming services, e-commerce, home-delivery platforms and supply chain logistics management are all operating at record high levels that are straining capacity. Some regions are even taking special steps to mitigate impacts of the surge in digital traffic, such as the European Union working with streaming services like Netflix to curtail usage of 4K video delivery in order to conserve overall bandwidth.
Many video conferencing platforms that were previously primarily targeting businesses are now being rapidly repurposed by new market segments such as remote schooling, telemedicine, work-from-home arrangements, family communications and other innovative uses. An example of such a platform is Zoom, which saw a surge in daily meeting participants from 10 million in December 2019 to 200 million in March 2020. As a result, such platforms are having to quickly adapt to the need for expanded reach, more robust performance and enhanced security.
On-going Internet Growth and Usage Patterns
These unique crisis-driven pressures are giving us better insights to help guide the overall infrastructure improvement planning processes that had already been underway prior to the crisis.
It is quite clear that the internet already is a massive enabler in how people, businesses, and governments communicate and conduct daily activities throughout the world. Some key statistics shown below bring this phenomenon into clear focus:
- Out of the 7.77 billion people in the world (Worldometer), 4.54 billion are active Internet users (Statista).
- Internet usage varies throughout the world with Asia home to half of the total users, followed by Europe — a breakdown of percentages by region:
- Asia: 50%
- Europe: 16%
- Africa: 11%
- Latin America: 10%
- North America: 8%
- Other: 5%
- The United States has the third highest number of Internet users by country, with 293 million (Statista).
- People of all ages use the Internet; however, a greater percentage of younger users are online (percentages below are for the U.S.):
- 100% of 18- to 29-year-olds
- 97% of 30- to 49-year-olds
- 88% of 50- to 64-year-olds
- 73% of 65-year-olds and older
Changes from Recent Crisis Impacts
Over the past few months, internet usage has gone up by over 50% in some parts of the world, as more aspects of our daily lives have moved online. As a result, some remote-work platforms and services have struggled to keep up with increased demand.
Vodafone, which operates in more than 65 countries, says it has “already seen data traffic increase by 50% in some markets.” Tech news website The Register reported that a number of collaborative working platforms — such as Microsoft Teams and the video conference platform Zoom — were struggling to keep up with users’ demands.
However, despite the surge, the internet is not likely to break anytime soon. The problem isn’t so much the lack of capacity, but rather that the network can be overwhelmed by a sudden spike in demand. Mobile internet services are often the most affected by a rush of people online. For example, mobile broadband download speeds declined in many Asian countries in January 2020, although fixed broadband fared much better.
New Enabling Technologies will Help Expand and Enhance Performance
Coming out of the current crisis, internet upgrades will need to span the entire infrastructure — from backbone systems to regional switches to last-mile connectivity. In addition, the transition of the mobile infrastructure with upgrades to 5G wireless and higher performance user-end devices will need to be factored in because it will place consistently higher demands on backbone networks.
Key areas that will need to be addressed include:
- Enterprise and network servers
- Video-streaming, audio and conferencing platforms
- Hard drives and storage systems – more powerful, more compact and of higher capacities
Addressing these areas will require advances in enabling technologies, including:
- Interconnects (higher density, robust, automation-friendly)
- Connectors (solder-free, customized, modular, etc.)
- Enclosures (power sources, cooling and thermal solutions, rack-mount, etc.)
- Module-level integration
The internet has been put through one of the toughest tests imaginable, and the good news is that it has served us quite well. Given the rapidly unfolding crisis and the requirements for millions of people to stay at home while simultaneously needing to stay abreast of government updates and key information sources, none of this would have been possible without the ubiquitous internet.
However, from this crisis, we have learned a lot about how and where these stresses had the most impact, so we now have key insights to help target future upgrades. We have also learned a lot through ad-hoc traffic demands and application innovations about how the internet can best serve the “new normal” that we will experience going forward.
By building on these learnings and addressing the weak points identified, the thought leaders in the internet industry and applications designers can work together to improve both the on-going level of performance and the surge capacity to handle future unexpected events when and if they occur.
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