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TECH LAB

Yes, the Internet can handle the coronavirus traffic jam, with hiccups

The data’s running smoothly, except for a few chokepoints like videoconferencing

Teleconferencing services might experience intermittent problems as thousands of housebound workers conduct remote video meetings amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Teleconferencing services might experience intermittent problems as thousands of housebound workers conduct remote video meetings amid the coronavirus outbreak.Shutterstock

If you’re reading this on a cellphone or a computer while shut in at home, then yes, the Internet and cellphone networks are holding up fine — so far.

Millions of workers and students are shifting to online activities from offices and classrooms to home offices and bedrooms; on Tuesday, Cambridge-based Akamai Technologies, which monitors the network worldwide, found that global traffic was running 67 percent higher than the normal daily average.

Analysts expect the nation’s networks to withstand these kind of surges in traffic. Over the years, they’ve had to deal with spikes in demand caused by everything from terrorist attacks to the latest hit shows on Netflix. In response, the networks have added massive amounts of reserve capacity — more than enough to handle the load.

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“It is holding up fine,” said telecom analyst Roger Entner, the founder of Recon Analytics in Boston. “We will probably not see problems, not from the home part of the network.”

But Entner did warn of possible slowdowns at key online chokepoints. For example, teleconferencing services might experience intermittent problems as thousands of housebound workers conduct remote video meetings. Entner said he was frozen out of a teleconference on Monday because the server was strained beyond capacity.

“It’s these kind of services that are being overwhelmed," he said, "where you have a bottleneck.”

A similar glitch may explain why Microsoft’s Teams service, for people working together online, broke down for a couple of hours on Monday for users in Europe. But Microsoft didn’t reveal whether a surge of at-home workers was to blame.

Consumers with slow connections may also run into trouble, especially when parents are teleconferencing with a business partner while their children are doing their online homework. Lots of consumers still have relatively slow DSL service that delivers downloads of 5 megabits or less, barely adequate for a single user. Most of us are much better off, with average broadband speeds that hover around 100 megabits per second, according to the tracking firm Ookla.

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Wireless speeds are decent too — around 33 megabits for 4-G users. In all, said independent telecom analyst Jeffrey Kagan most of America has plenty of broadband capacity. “All these Internet connections, whether they’re wireless or wireline, they can handle it," he said.

This isn’t the first crisis to challenge our communications networks. The planes that slammed into the World Trade Center in 2001 took out much of Manhattan’s wireless telephone capacity. Following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, local cellular networks were overwhelmed with panicked phone calls to family members and friends.

But this time the challenge is global, as communication networks cope with history’s first high-tech-era pandemic. And so far, the networks are holding up.

It helps that the major wired and wireless carriers — Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, and others— are changing their business practices to keep people connected during the crisis. Companies are lifting their data caps to allow users to consume as much data as they want without additional charges. They’re cancelling late-payment fees and have stopped disconnecting customers with past-due bills. And they’re expanding programs aimed at providing Internet service to low-income citizens.

Perhaps the most surprising example of cooperation came on Sunday evening, when the Federal Communications Commission allowed the wireless carrier T-Mobile, which is merging with fellow wireless company Sprint, to essentially borrow a bucket of bandwidth from its neighbors.

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For at least the next 60 days, T-Mobile will beef up its capacity by using radio frequencies that belong to other carriers, including Comcast and Dish Network. This will enable T-Mobile, the nation’s third-largest carrier, to handle more voice and data traffic.

“We can’t thank these partners and the FCC enough for coming together to provide people across the country with the critical connectivity they’re relying on right now," said Neville Ray, T-Mobile’s president of technology.

A T-Mobile spokesman said the company didn’t borrow the frequencies because it was running out of capacity. “This was a proactive move to provide our customers — and Sprint customers that are roaming on our network — with additional capacity,” the spokesman said in an e-mail.

T-Mobile will use some of that extra capacity to help out wireless carrier Sprint. For the next 60 days, Sprint users will get greater access to the T-Mobile network in areas not served by Sprint. T-Mobile is in the process of acquiring Sprint in a deal that will form the nation’s second-largest wireless company, after AT&T.

As for the two other industry giants, AT&T and Verizon, both said they were having no trouble keeping up with customer demand for wireless voice and data services.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has made changes to its Internet-based 365 service, to reduce the quantity of data sent over the network. These adjustments affect features that many users probably won’t notice. For instance, Microsoft will reduce the video resolution in Office 365, which might make a user’s PowerPoint slides look a little less sharp.

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At least some of the traffic surge is driven by millions of stuck-at-home video gamers. The gaming network Steam reported 20.3 million gamers logged on simultaneously over the weekend, an all-time record for the service. And though it may have been a coincidence, Microsoft’s Xbox Live gaming network suffered a global crash on Sunday evening. The service has since been restored, and the company has declined to say whether the crash was caused by a software bug or a tidal wave of players.

David Cole, a video game industry analyst for DFC Intelligence in San Diego, said online gaming boomed in China in February, after that country quarantined tens of millions of its people to contain the virus, which was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan. "Demand for playing video games just went crazy, because obviously everybody’s locked in,” Cole said.

Now it’s happening in the United States and many other nations. Cole’s teenage children, unable to attend school because of the virus, spent much of the day chatting online with classmates while playing games.

“We’re going crazy here ourselves because we’re locked in with them," Cole said.



Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.