Diplo’s Conference Tech Lab organised another web discussion focusing on the technological implications of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Moderated by Dr Jovan Kurbalija (Founding Director of DiploFoundation and Head of the Geneva Internet Platform), the discussion ‘Could COVID-19 disrupt the Internet?‘ tracked the journey of Internet traffic from our personal computers to cloud servers. The discussants addressed all the potential challenges to connectivity and what must be done by, for instance, national Internet providers, major regional Internet hubs, and tech platforms.
The participants in the discussion were Ms Avri Doria (Research Consultant), Mr Olaf Kolkman (Principal, Internet Technology, Policy and Advocacy at the Internet Society), and Mr Vladimir Radunovic (Director of E-diplomacy and Cybersecurity Programmes at DiploFoundation).
What happens when we shift our daily activities from the physical to the online space?
In order to get a better idea of how the rapid shift of our social and professional life online is impacting the Internet usage, a poll was conducted at the beginning of the discussion. The results showed that 54% of participants in the session experienced problems with their Internet traffic since the beginning of Covid-19. Most of them referred to congestion and lag in streaming video and meetings. This mass shift is probably the first major test for the Internet in terms of load.
Addressing global precedent
To that end, Radunovic referred to the broader social context in which network congestion might occur. As more and more countries implement lockdowns, more people will spend most of their time at home and on the Internet. The resulting increase in Internet traffic has in turn increased the probability of global connectivity issues.
At the national level, Internet traffic bottlenecks can result due to a limited capacity of aggregation routers combining traffic from everyone in a particular place and transmitting it on one link in a network which is then distributed to other places within the Internet Service Provider’s network.
At the international level, the discussants addressed major Internet exchange points (IXPs). In Frankfurt, one of the world’s largest Internet hubs has experienced approximately 7% more Internet traffic over the last couple of days, which is equivalent to all Internet traffic that originates from Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Lichtenstein combined. The speakers agreed that, in spite of significantly increased Internet traffic, major IXPs have the extra capacity to absorb greater network use. It is therefore not very likely that major IXPs will become bottlenecks.
Developing countries bear the brunt
Challenges to connectivity due to the ramifications of COVID-19 will undoubtedly affect developing countries most severely. Some developing countries might not have a major IXP or a sufficient level of Internet infrastructure investments and crisis preparedness. Moreover, a number of developing countries depend on other more developed countries in terms of access to connectivity. Consequently, if the supplier country faces problems with the Internet, it will spill over to the adjacent developing country.
The following web discussion organised by Conference Tech Lab, ‘Technology and human rights in times of crisis’, will take place on Thursday, 26 March 2020. As of 30 March 2020, Diplo will also be offering a just-in-time online course entitled 'Online meetings for Diplomacy and Global Governance'. You can find more information about the online course here.
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