• Internet usage is up 50% in some parts of the world as more aspects of our daily lives have moved online.
  • Some remote-work platforms and services have struggled to keep up with increased demand.
  • But ISPs assure customers there should be enough capacity in the networks.

From school physical education lessons to doctors’ appointments, more aspects of our daily lives have moved online due to the coronavirus.

Across the developed world, millions of us are now connecting to the internet from our kitchens, living rooms and home offices every day – causing some internet service providers (ISPs) to see demand skyrocket.

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.

Peaks and troughs

The majority of people now logging on from home are the same people no longer doing so from the office. Vodafone may be experiencing an uptick in demand of 50%, but there aren’t suddenly 50% more people trying to access the internet.

That’s why some ISPs and tech firms are confidently saying there is plenty of capacity in the network.

The problem isn’t the lack of capacity, but the fact it can be overwhelmed by a sudden spike in demand. Mobile internet services are often the most affected by a rush of people online.

Mobile broadband download speeds declined in many Asian countries in January, although fixed broadband fared much better.

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Download speeds took a hit in many Asian countries.
Image: Ookla

Rising to the challenge

The European Commission has taken the unprecedented step of asking everyone to help.

“Streaming platforms, telecom operators and users, we all have a joint responsibility to take steps to ensure the smooth functioning of the internet during the battle against the virus propagation,” the Commission’s Internal Market Commissioner, Thierry Breton, said.

To that end, Netflix will reduce the quality of its streaming movies and TV series to reduce the load on European networks by around 25%.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Other ISPs have said they will add more capacity where needed. Vodafone, for example, is offering additional network capacity and services to hospitals and doctors in the UK.

And in the US, Comcast opened its network of WiFi hotspots to make them free for customers and non-customers alike. It's also scrapping data caps and taking a relaxed view of late payment of bills.

This isn’t the case in all parts of the world. In many developing countries, there isn’t the infrastructure to handle a significant increase in demand. Many mobile networks are still running on decades-old 2G, while wired and wireless internet connections are far from ubiquitous – all of which makes the possibility of home-working a remote one.