While global attention has rightfully focused on whether city hospitals and central banks can hold up to the massive, sudden pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, another system has also come under concern: broadband infrastructure.

OpenVault, a company that consults cable operators and other internet service providers, said U.S. homes are now using 460 gigabytes of data per month, a 27% increase over what had been the previous record usage month, January. During business hours, as households use their residential broadband subscriptions for remote office work and virtual schooling, average usage has risen to 6.3 GB, up 41.4% over January, OpenVault said.

Evenings are the peak hours, with consumers no longer out at bars, restaurants, sporting events and social gatherings, but streaming high- definition and 4K video instead. Open- Vault said average usage between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. in March has risen 17.2%, to 5.87 GB.

Nokia’s Deepfield, another surveyor of real-time network performance, said it has observed 20% to 40% increased network use during these “peak” hours.

Netflix traffic has risen 54% to 75%, according to Nokia Deepfield, and online gaming usage has grown 400%.

Nielsen, which has observed TV usage increases during recent disasters including the 2016 Northeast blizzard and Hurricane Harvey in 2017, expects streaming usage to spike as much as 61%.

Facebook’s ‘Big Surges’

Meanwhile, in a conference call with reporters, Facebook chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said his social network is seeing “big surges” in usage amid the coronavirus pandemic. He said Facebook has nearly doubled its server capacity to power messaging app WhatsApp as users place more voice and video calls on the platform.

Regulators in both the U.S. and Europe are concerned that all this increased social distancing usage will break the internet.

In a tweet posted Wednesday, Thierry Breton, the French businessman serving as European Commissioner for Internal Market and Services, said he had a phone conversation with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. He’s urging Netflix and other OTT companies to stream their video in standard definition instead of the much higher intensity high-def or 4K/Ultra HD. In a statement, Breton said streaming platforms, telecom operators and internet users “all have a joint responsibility to take steps to ensure the smooth functioning of the internet during the battle against the virus propagation.”

Netflix initially responded by touting its Open Connect program, which allows ISPs to locally manage the SVOD service’s traffic on their networks. But Netflix later agreed to lower the bitrate in which it streams its video for 30 days in Europe. “We estimate that this will reduce Netflix traffic on European networks by around 25% while also ensuring a good quality service for our members,” Netflix said.

U.S. regulators are concerned, too.

“This is going to be an enormous stress test for our communications networks,” Blair Levin, a former FCC chief of staff and author of the agency’s 2010 plan to improve internet access nationwide, told CNN.

The FCC has already given T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless increased access to the 600 Megahertz spectrum for the next 60 days, providing extra wireless capacity for data connections.

More Room for Wireless

“We’re doing everything in our power to make sure that our networks are there when our customers need them,” Verizon senior VP for technology strategy and planning Adam Koeppe said in a statement. “While our networks continue to perform well during this crisis, this spectrum will allow us to add capacity to ensure great service for our customers, businesses and all on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19.”

Those charged with lobbying for the telecom industry have tried to strike a reassuring tone. In a letter to leaders of the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee and the House Energy & Commerce Committee, US Telecom president and CEO Jonathan Spalter wrote, “Broadband providers are laser focused on making sure the innovative networks they built and manage are ready to accommodate a prolonged reliance on telework, distance learning and other forms of high bandwidth remote communications."

In another statement, Lise Fuhr, director general of the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association, said, “At this stage, new traffic patterns are being effectively handled by engineers as per standard network operations.” 

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