How the internet keeps pace with the surge of traffic during a pandemic

How the internet keeps pace with the surge of traffic during a pandemic

Todd Kiehn, VP of product management, GTT, shares how global internet service providers have been collaborating to scale the internet’s capacity to meet surging demand during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus, the internet has become even more vital as a means to help people stay connected. It allows us all to overcome physical distances, share information instantaneously and continue to collaborate. Across the world, the internet is enabling critical applications that help us adapt to life in the home environment including teleworking, distance learning, telemedicine, video chat, streaming and remote gaming. 

While online usage rates have seen exponential growth at times over the past decades, nothing compares with how much more we’re interacting online during this global pandemic. At GTT, we have seen a surge of roughly 30 percent in total traffic across our internet network since the outbreak of the pandemic. This growth rate is typically experienced over the course of an entire year, rather than a few weeks.

Network operators are well equipped to manage dramatic increases in traffic, but to understand how this works on a global scale, it’s useful to understand how the global internet works. 

Engineered for high demand

The internet that links us all around the world is, in fact, a collection of networks that connect with each other. While there are thousands of internet service providers (ISPs), there is a core group of providers known as “Tier 1” networks that transport the bulk of the traffic. These Tier 1 providers exchange traffic with each other across oceans and continents to keep organisations, people and applications connected in every corner of the world. 

Large, high-capacity Tier 1 networks connect with each other through private “peering” arrangements to form the network foundation that other providers use to connect our homes and mobile devices to the array of applications and abundance of content on the internet. Content delivery networks (CDNs), cloud service providers (CSPs), and other ISPs rely directly on the Tier 1 providers to transport large volumes of internet traffic around the globe. Many of these users of Internet Protocol (IP) transit services are household brands that generate huge amounts of online transactions or activity, such as shopping, gaming, banking, streaming and online collaboration.

As traffic on the internet surges, congestion on key routes can directly impact users, which can result in webpages that are slow to load or reduced quality of video conferencing applications. Careful capacity planning is one of the key factors that preempts and mitigates any potential for congestion. The large underlying networks that transport much of this traffic are engineered to be highly resilient and to absorb substantial traffic increases and spikes. GTT’s internet backbone operates at roughly 50 percent capacity utilisation to ensure it can scale up to meet any potential surges in the bandwidth requirements of the large generators of internet content that rely on GTT to transport their internet traffic to any internet destination across the globe.

Peers cooperating

In the past weeks, the Tier 1 networks, including GTT, have been acting swiftly to identify and remediate any potential choke points and upgrade capacity on specific routes where required. This dynamic process entails close collaboration among individual peering partners, both formally and informally. Working together, they ensure the interconnection points between ISPs networks are augmented to transport higher volumes of traffic. This is done in the data centres and other secure network facilities where large internet networks meet in the physical world.  Internet providers add capacity at these locations by installing additional lit fibre optic strands and hardware equipment attached to each network endpoint to ensure the network interconnections have enough throughput to support increasing demand. Some capacity management can be done remotely and is managed on a day-to-day basis by the network operations centres of each service provider. Site visits by engineers are also necessary to install fibre, deploy equipment and perform maintenance.

Keeping the world connected

The community of network operators and ISPs is united in a singular objective to keep the internet running smoothly. GTT is among the members of the ITW Global Leaders Forum, a group of network operators and internet providers that recently issued an open letter calling on governments to designate ICT infrastructure, the provision of ICT services and critical infrastructure service providers as an “essential service” during this pandemic.

Network infrastructure is fundamental in ensuring people around the world can stay connected while keeping their distance. Through cooperation across all telecom industry participants, internet backbones will remain fully resilient and continue to support society even in these unprecedented times.

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