Putting COVID-19 Traffic Growth into Perspective

Nokia Deepfield is another company that works in the background on the web and that analyzes data traffic patters for the big ISPs. Their June 4 report on web traffic reports about the same thing we’re hearing from most large ISPs – that the volume of web traffic suddenly shot up since the onset of the pandemic.

Nokia Deepfield says that the increase in traffic has settled in at about a 25% increase over pre-COVID levels. The most important aspect of the increase has been that almost all of the increases have been during the daytime, including on weekends. Networks have not seen any surge (or decrease) in the evening busy hour traffic.

To people who don’t follow the industry, those increases likely sound astronomical. Any other businesses would find a sudden 25% increase in business to be an extraordinary event. Imagine the impact of a sudden and sustained 25% increase in customer demand at a coffee shop, a bank, or a drug store. A business would have to scramble to increase inventory and staff to keep up with the new demand.

But in the world of ISPs this kind of growth is a lot less astounding. Cisco has been reporting for years that residential web traffic has been growing by 21% annually and business broadband by 24%. The ISP industry just absorbed in a single month the growth that would have normally been expected for all of 2020 – but any ISP worth their salt was already braced for this kind of growth this year.

It’s probably hard for the average person to digest that fact that the ISP industry has been coping with this kind of sustained growth for decades. If an ISP makes an expensive investment to double network capacity they’ll see the newly-created capacity filled within three or four years. ISP network engineers face a never-ending task of staying a step ahead of constant and relentless broadband growth.

It’s also worth noting that the growth due to COVID was less dramatic than the industry press might make you believe. Networks are engineered to satisfy the demands at the busy hour – those times of the day when networks are the busiest. During the rest of the day much of the network sits idle since the data pipes aren’t as full. The business hour for residential neighborhoods has been the evenings when homes watch video. Almost all of the growth from COVID came during the workday as students and employees worked from home. For most ISPs, the busy hour is still the evenings, and so there has been far less than a 25% increase in busy-hour demand. Most network should have been able to absorb this burst in growth.

This is not to say that all networks handled COVID growth well. For example, it’s been clear that the big telcos haven’t been investing money in their DSL networks for many years. Performance in those networks has been degrading every year as broadband usage increases. Customers in neighborhood with any significant number of DSL customers have seen broadband speeds decrease year after year as their the demand for broadband has increased. Anybody who has been working at home on DSL during the pandemic saw the network performance in the daytime nearly die.

The Nokia Deepfield blog introduces a new fact that I’d not heard before. They report that distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks are up 50% during the COVID crisis. At first blush this seems counterintuitive because a lot of businesses have been shut down during the pandemic. Nokia Deepfield says the increased DDoS traffic comes from gamers. Apparently gamers can pay $30 to launch a custom 5-minute DDoS attack against an opponent. Anybody that has seen their neighborhood broadband become useless for five minutes might have been the unintended victim of such an attack. If we had an FCC that regulated broadband they might be investigating this kind of destructive web practice – but this is something they will leave to somebody else.

The bottom line on traffic growth is that. overall, most networks should have been prepared to absorb the growth in traffic due to the pandemic. Most of the growth happened during non-busy hours, and so, while the networks saw a lot of growth in traffic volumes they didn’t see an equal growth in network stress. The bad news for network engineers is that a lot of the recent growth looks like it will stick around, and the overall volumes of web traffic will probably continue to grow at 20% annually on top of the COVID growth.