WASHINGTON • In late January, as China locked down some provinces to contain the spread of the coronavirus, average Internet speeds in the country slowed as people who were stuck inside went online more and clogged the networks. In Hubei province, the epicentre of infections, mobile broadband speeds fell by more than half.
In mid-February, when the virus hit Italy, Germany and Spain, Internet speeds in those countries also began to deteriorate.
And this month, as a wave of stay-at-home orders rolled out across the United States, the average time it took to download videos, e-mails and documents increased as broadband speeds declined 4.9 per cent from the previous week, according to Ookla, a broadband speed testing service. Median download speeds dropped 38 per cent in San Jose, California, and 24 per cent in New York, according to Broadband Now, a consumer broadband research site.
Quarantine measures around the world have made people more reliant on the Internet to communicate, work, learn and stay entertained. But as the use of YouTube, Netflix, Zoom video conferencing, Facebook calls and video gaming has surged to new highs, the stress on Internet infrastructure is starting to show in Europe and the US - and the traffic is probably far from its peak.
"This is totally unprecedented," said Mr Thierry Breton, a European Union commissioner who oversees digital policy and was a chief executive of France Telecom. "We have to be proactive."
To head off problems, European regulators like Mr Breton have won agreement from streaming companies such as Netflix and YouTube to reduce the size of their video files so they do not take up as much bandwidth. In the US, regulators have given wireless carriers access to more spectrum to bolster the capacity of their networks.
Some tech companies have responded to the call to ease Internet traffic. YouTube, which is owned by Google, said last week that it would reduce the quality of its videos from high to standard definition across the globe. Disney delayed the start of its Disney Plus streaming service in France by two weeks, and Microsoft's Xbox asked gaming companies to introduce online updates and new releases only at certain times to prevent network congestion.
"We really don't know how long we're going to be in this mode for," Mr Dave Temkin, Netflix's vice-president of network and systems infrastructure, said in a webinar last Wednesday on how the coronavirus could affect Internet infrastructure.
Internet service providers like Comcast, Vodafone, Verizon and Telefonica have been building out their networks for years to account for increasing demand. But company officials said they had never seen such a steep, sudden surge.
Growth that the industry had expected to take a year is happening over days, said Mr Enrique Blanco, chief technology officer at Telefonica, a Spanish telecommunications company.
While US regulators said they did not plan to follow Europe in asking for streaming and social media companies to degrade their services, they are taking other steps. Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission granted Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile temporary access to more airwaves.
"In just two days we grew all the traffic we had planned for 2020," Mr Blanco said.
Last Monday, traffic on AT&T's networks was up 27 per cent compared with the same day last month, and the previous week Verizon experienced a 22 per cent increase in traffic on its wireless and fibre broadband service. Wi-Fi calls doubled from their normal volume, the carriers said.
In Europe, Internet traffic into homes over fixed lines was up more than 30 per cent, according to Telefonica. Activities like online gaming and video conferencing have more than doubled, while messages over WhatsApp have more than quadrupled.
Cisco said demand for its WebEx teleconference service had tracked the spread of the coronavirus. Demand first surged in Asia, then in Europe, and then soared 240 per cent in the US. The demand has pushed up failure rates delivering video conferencing, said Cisco senior vice-president Sri Srinivasan who is in charge of WebEx.
"I don't know if we'll soon see a peak, not for weeks to come," he said. "The reason I say that is because we aren't seeing traffic in Asia slow down even now."
Internet service providers said they could handle the deluge of traffic but were adding capacity.
Verizon, Cox and AT&T said they were building more cell sites to strengthen mobile networks, increasing the number of fibre connections on their network backbones, and upgrading the routing and switching technology that lets devices talk to one another and share an internet connection.
Orange, formerly France Telecom, has doubled its capacity inside undersea Internet cables. In Italy, where home Internet use is up 90 per cent, Telecom Italia said its technicians continued to make repairs and add capacity.
Vodafone, one of Europe's largest networks operators, said it had increased its capacity 50 per cent in recent weeks through a mix of software and the addition of more equipment in the field.
While US regulators said they did not plan to follow Europe in asking for streaming and social media companies to degrade their services, they are taking other steps. Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile temporary access to more airwaves.
"The FCC has been coordinating closely with network operators to ensure those networks remain up and running," the agency's chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement.