By Therese Poletti, MarketWatch
MarketWatch photo illustration/iStockphoto
In 1962, a computer scientist named J.C.R. Licklider wrote a series of memos in which he envisioned a global network of computers — a “Galactic Network,” he called it — in what was the first written description of the internet as we know it today.
In the 58 years since that concept — from a Defense Department-funded research project a few years later called ARPANET, to the introduction of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s — the internet has grown into exactly what Licklider described: a globally interconnected set of computers through which everyone could quickly access data and programs from any site.
Today, in this global COVID-19 pandemic, the internet is our lifeline to the outside world.
But it is also being put to its greatest test, as users spend all day working from home, live-streaming videoconferences and distance-learning during hours when internet service providers are used to having excess capacity, when people were previously at work or school.
“The numbers are staggering,” said Mario Milicevic, a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, or IEEE, and a communications systems engineer. “Millions of professors and students going online. In one household, you might have a piano lesson and a videoconference call going on at the same time. These are demands that we didn’t have a month ago. This is traffic that is new and happening simultaneously.”
The internet’s vast infrastructure has, for the most part, been holding up so far. There are hiccups, such as a video buffering, but if the worst issue is latency or freezing up of video chats, then consider this test a success.
All internet service providers are reporting big double-digit jumps in their daily traffic.
Executives at cable and broadband provider Comcast Corp. /zigman2/quotes/209472081/composite CMCSA -0.12% said in a media briefing this week that its peak traffic is up 32% from before the onset of the coronavirus outbreak, and traffic has increased 60% in some markets where the virus has hit especially hard, such as Seattle, Chicago and San Francisco.
AT&T Inc. /zigman2/quotes/203165245/composite T -1.04% said its core network traffic, which includes business, home broadband and wireless usage, was up 24% as of Monday, compared with the same day a month ago.
Verizon Communications Inc. /zigman2/quotes/204980236/composite VZ -0.44% said in its weekly report on Monday that its Fios TV service had an increase of 49% in usage, compared with the week before. Sonic Inc., a privately held Santa Rosa, Calif.-based internet service provider, said its traffic is up about 25%-30% from early March.
See also: The 5G rollout is already behind, and coronavirus could slow it even more
Milicevic noted that the internet was designed to balance massive loads, and so far it is handling the onslaught. The internet is designed to prioritize certain types of data packets, such as video, with a lower priority for data packets such as email, to keep video flowing smoothly, but that’s not always possible when so many consumers are accessing their providers at the same time. Cable providers are the most vulnerable to regional congestion, with potentially hundreds of homes sharing the same node on a network.
The worst time for consumers still is the peak evening hour, between 9 and 10 p.m., according to Sonic, typically a busy time for streaming videos and playing games, but now there’s a spike in those activities, plus friends and families gathering for videoconferences to stay connected.
A recent evening Zoom video chat I had with a couple of friends started getting very wonky toward the end, with frames freezing and a lot of delays in the conversation.
And during business hours, one company in San Francisco — Synapse, a product design company — said it recently hosted a lunchtime company meeting with 133 people working from home in three cities across the U.S. that went amazingly well on Zoom.