The concern is that the growing number of people stuck at home watching streaming videos and playing videogames during the pandemic will overwhelm internet infrastructure and make life harder for those who need to use the internet to consult with physicians, keep in touch with vulnerable family members, work from home, or finish school assignments.
In Europe, video providers including Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+, are also slashing streaming quality to avoid internet congestion.
Nokia's network analytics business Deepfield told WIRED earlier this month that it has seen internet traffic peaks at 20 percent to 40 percent higher than usual over the past four weeks in areas highly impacted by Covid-19. The bulk of that increase comes from streaming services like Netflix, with the company's traffic increasing by 54 percent to 75 percent in some places.
So far, internet infrastructure has held up to increased demand. Connection speeds have declined in areas heavily affected by Covid-19, according to data collected by internet analysis company Ookla. But in some of the hardest-hit areas, average speeds were still faster this month than they were in December. That's starting to change in places like Italy and Malaysia, where speeds continue to decline; but other places, like the Seattle metropolitan area, are holding steady. It's also not clear whether the slower speeds are the result of overwhelmed infrastructure, or from home Wi-Fi routers struggling to meet the competing needs of entire households using the internet at the same time.
Deepfield CTO Craig Labovitz warned WIRED last week that although broadband providers have the capacity to handle traffic surges, if demand continues to grow at its current pace, networks could run out of capacity.
Reducing the bandwidth needed for streaming services might help with that. But, according to Labovitz, upload speeds may end up being a bigger concern than download speeds. Most home broadband services cap upload speeds at a much lower rate than download speeds. As more people use videoconferencing for work or video chat apps to keep in touch with friends and family, those upload caps could become more of a burden.