Working from home data surge a 'balancing act' for ISPs: tech expert

A technology expert says he is impressed at how well Canada’s internet is holding up given the massive data-load its infrastructure is under amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Internet usage patterns have drastically changed since pandemic was declared, Mark Wolff says

Canada's internet has been coping well as more Canadians work from home because of the coronavirus, Mark Wolff says. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

A technology expert says he is impressed at how well Canada's internet is holding up given the massive data-load its infrastructure is under amid the COVID-19 pandemic — but dealing with the strain is becoming a balancing act for ISPs who have to choose between taking away some services or "giving hope."

The way in which internet traffic patterns have drastically changed over the past month is concerning, said Mark Wolff, chief technology officer for CANARIE, which maintains digital infrastructure for Canadian research and academic institutions. 

"People aren't at work, they're at home and the traffic follows where the people are. So the trick is, how do you handle the fact that where the traffic is moving to-and-from has changed," he told Spark's Nora Young. 

Wolff added that while the nation's internet infrastructure has been "beefed up" over the last 10 years with the advent of video streaming services like Netflix and YouTube, only a certain amount of capacity was built-in.

But he says the good news is that unlike some other situations, such as an ice storm, there hasn't been any loss of infrastructure. 

Prior to the pandemic, data usage was "very predictable" because everyone would come home after school or after work, start using services and other laborious programs until bed, then usage would shrink, he said. 

The issue now is that there are more people "competing within households" for service outside of normal peak hours, he said. 

"What's happening is that there's new congestion points. This is happening most where houses are fed together into larger pipes, which allow traffic to flow. And these pipes are getting congested."

Both ends of network 'stressed'

Another weak point is at the other end of the system on the provider-side, he said. 

"[Their] connections are obviously very good in order to be able to handle normal traffic volumes, but they may not also have sufficient [ability] to handle the amount of traffic that they're seeing happen now.

"So both ends of the network are stressed right now."

Bell, Rogers and Telus all acknowledged their networks are experiencing higher-than-normal traffic. And the telecommunications giants have pledged their infrastructure can handle the sudden surge.

Rogers spokesperson Sarah Schmidt said the provider was "working with other carriers to minimize any intermittent issues."

Bell says home internet usage is up to 60 per cent higher than usual during the day and 20 per cent higher at night. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Home internet appears to be the service seeing the biggest jump in traffic, with Bell spokesperson Nathan Gibson saying usage is up to 60 per cent higher than usual during the day and 20 per cent higher at night.

Deprioritize data-intensive traffic? 

A remedy could be to deprioritize data-intensive traffic — like real-time games and video streaming — in order to ease the strain on the entire network, Wolff said. But he cautioned that a problem with this solution was deciding who has the power to prioritizes what traffic. 

In Europe, Netflix announced it would lower bit rates, which determine the quality and size of its audio and video files, across all its streams for 30 days after a request from the EU. On Friday, Netflix Canada announced a similar reduction in video quality.

"We estimate that this will reduce Netflix traffic on European networks by around 25 per cent, while also ensuring a good quality service for our members," the company said in a statement.

"We're all inside at the moment and that's a very difficult environment. It's a balance between taking things away, but also giving people some hope," Wolff said. 

Written by Adam Jacobson. Produced by Adam Killick. With files from Thomas Daigle.


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