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Global lockdowns put pressure on internet infrastructure

With COVID-19 resulting in many countries going into lockdown, more people are transitioning to working and studying remotely, putting more pressure on internet infrastructure around the world.

Researchers at Melbourne’s Monash Business School Economists at Melbourne’s Monash Business School and cofounders of KASPR DataHaus, a Melbourne based alternative data company, have conducted research on large volumes of global internet activity data, looking at how human behaviour has an impact on latency.

As part of KASPR DataHaus, Dr Klaus Ackermann, associate professor Simon Angus, and associate professor Paul Raschky, have developed technology that collects and processes billions of internet activity and quality measurements for any location in the world on a daily basis.

With the data, the team launched a Global Internet Pressure map for the public, displaying global information as well as data for specific countries. The map is updated regularly via the KASPR Datahaus website.

According to a statement, the team used data from Thursday to Friday, 13-14 Feb 2020 as a baseline, and compared this to data from Thursday to Friday, 12-13 Mar 2020, a time period that many countries entered into lockdown.

By focusing on regions within countries having at least 100 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Friday 13 March, the researchers were able to examine how well each nation’s internet was performing given the rapid escalation in home-based entertainment, video-conferencing, and communication taking place online, according to a statement.

A key focus was changes in internet latency patterns. The values, such as 3% or 7%, are far from normal, the researchers state, and indicates that many users are probably experiencing bandwidth congestion.

More people at home means more people online with big bandwidth appetites and a greater chance of slow or struggling speeds, according to the researchers.

“Your streaming video or video upload during teleconferencing is made up of thousands of small packets of information; these packets need to find their way down copper and fibre-optic cables across vast distances.

"The more streaming packets trying to make the journey at once, the more congested the pathway, and the slower the arrival time,” the researchers explain.

Raschky says, “We call this difference measure, between the first days of the lockdown period, and the baseline period in early February, internet pressure, since if it is greater than zero, it exposes latency, or speed, issues, starting to affect millions of internet users across these regions.”

“In most OECD countries affected by COVID-19, the internet quality is still relatively stable. Although regions throughout Italy, Spain and somewhat surprisingly, Sweden, are showing signs of strain,” Raschky says.

However, he says there are large issues with the internet in Iran, in which the median (or middle) region in our sample is showing slowing of 25%.

In real terms, this will be having major impacts on the user experience. Raschky says, considering the Iranian Government's history of intentionally slowing the internet, there is a possibility that this increase in internet pressure is the result of the regimes effort to contain the spread of (mis-)information about the situation around COVID-19.

At the time of the study, researchers say Malaysia appeared as something of an anomaly. Despite having a relatively small number of confirmed cases on 13 March, the country’s internet pressure readings were far more outsized, sitting above China, Italy, South Korea, Spain and Japan all countries with confirmed caseloads several times larger.

Raschky says, “Sadly, recent news reports, released a few days after our study was published, seem to confirm the indications we were seeing in our internet pressure measurement.”

He says, “It has now been revealed there was a 16,000-people religious gathering in Malaysia. Following this event, reports emerged that there have been reports of thousands of participants showing flu-like symptoms.

“As a result, it is possible that an unusually large number of Malaysians have probably been staying at home for the past week. We saw this in our observations before the Malaysian Government acknowledged the problem and enacted severe lockdowns.”

In Australia, the internet is holding up but shows initial signs of pressure as schools and businesses close following the call for lockdown.

Raschky says, “The signs for now in Australia are steady, but not entirely reassuring. We will keep monitoring the situation and plan to provide further reports as the Australian social distancing measures ramp up in the coming days.”

The Global Internet Pressure map can be seen on the KASPR Datahaus website.