FACT CHECK: Is the Internet at Danger of Crashing due to Coronavirus Usage?

FACT CHECK: Is the Internet at Danger of Crashing due to Coronavirus Usage?


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Welton Wang
Managing Editor
Contributor on The Bipartisan Press

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Messages being posted on Facebook and Whatsapp are claiming that the internet is at risk of crashing due to the increased bandwidth usage from the coronavirus.

These message makes similar claims that:

  1. Countries are issues guidelines to restrict internet usage, such as by limiting streaming to SD
  2. The internet could crash due to the increased bandwidth usage
  3. Sending less Whatsapp messages/Facebook posts will help prevent the internet from crashing.

An example post is below:

Dear All,
An appeal to all. There are reports that due to increased WFH, Bandwidth useage, internet may crash.
Already many countries have issued guidelines to switch to SD mode on streaming platforms such as Netflix including in India.
In India the issue could be more serious. May be we can do our bit on WhatsApp, to avert a complete collapse.
1. Stop sending Good Morning images – text could be fine.
2. Stop repeat messages / Videos
3. Don’t forward huge files.
4. Don’t send any messages if not relevant to current Corona Crisis.
5. Everyone is forwarding same message.
6. If you don’t send any messages no one will consider you as backward.
Think Seriously before forwarding any non-essential post, PLEASE.

Most of these claims are false though.

Will the internet “crash”?

First and foremost, the internet is not at a major risk of crashing. Sten Vesterli, an IT Expert as Vesterli explains how, “the decentral architecture of the internet was built to survive nuclear war, so it will surely be able to survive increased Netflix use. There are no central points of failure that can bring the entire internet down, and there are thousands of dedicated professionals monitoring all parts of the network and making the necessary adjustments as traffic increases.”

The internet is maintained on multiple levels by various organizations in various regions, such as Internet Exchanges, and ISPs, as well as various tiers. At the very core of the internet are massive optic-fiber cables that run underground and undersea that connect various continents together and transfer data at very fast speeds. If these cables reached their maximum throughput, it’s possible that the internet could stutter to a halt, though activity would resume as soon as usage is reduced.

However, such an event is extremely unlikely, given the massive bandwidth these cables have, as well as the massively interconnected infrastructures of the internet that are independent of each other.

One more likely event to happen is network congestion. Ilissa Miller, co-founder of the Independent Data Center Alliance says that, “[traffic] depends on the ISP or provider serving the end-users and could certainly be impacted by overuse, but a smart network design, leveraging exchanges like DE-CIX can support dynamic changes in user demand to support. The issue will be how much bandwidth or data throughput is available to serve each end-point. It could cause congestion and slow down the ability to transmit data.”

Even in regions like India, where the internet is less developed, the risk of service crashing is very low.

To be clear, usage is increasing due to the pandemic — DE-CIX, a major internet exchange, is seeing demand at some locations double, especially around datahubs like New York, Madrid, and Frankfurt. However, it’s not at the point where there’s too much congestion. And, while some individual network services have gone down briefly, like Google, Facebook, Reddit, and more, these outages are usually very brief and services are restored promptly.

Furthermore, these outages usually only impact a very small group of services and other websites will work as normal.

Providers are throttling usage?

While this claim does have some merit to it — Netflix and Youtube have both agreed to temporarily reduce video quality to save bandwidth in EU regions — there’s no evidence of any major government organization restricting streaming or usage. Even then, Netflix and Youtube are only throttling to proactively to prevent strain on internet traffic and ensure that there isn’t too much congestion — not because the internet is at risk of crashing.

Roughly 60 percent of internet bandwidth currently is used by video streaming, like Netflix and YouTube, who each make up about 12 percent individually. Due to the very large increase in video conferencing usage for remote working and learning, various internet monitoring services have seen increased usage of 20 percent to 40 percent overall. Therefore, reducing streaming will have a major impact on total bandwidth, which in turn will relieve congestion for other services like messaging or social media.

Stop Sending Whatsapp Messages! Save Bandwidth!

Try as you might, not sending a few “good morning” messages or pictures or not forwarding “repeat message” will not make a noticeable impact. As mentioned, 60 percent of bandwidth comes from video streaming. Social media and messaging only make up a small fraction of what video streaming make up.

Both Trevor Textor, rural IT & connectivity consultant, and Ilissa Miller agree that messaging has no impact on total bandwidth — text is simply too small to make a difference compared to the massive number of bits required for videos.

For the sake of it though, let’s say Facebook and Whatsapp were in danger of “crashing.” Facebook (who owns Whatsapp), which accounts for almost 30 percent of mobile traffic and employs more than 60,000 people, is constantly monitoring their server load and bandwidth.

If Facebook saw that their servers could possibly crash from increased usage and that they would not be able to expand capacity to meet it, they would absolutely apply throttling measures to prevent this, like Netflix and YouTube are doing. Whether that would be restricting the number of messages, restricting message length or something else would be up to them.

However, clearly they feel there is no immediate risk, as they have not published such a restriction.

Remember, Facebook rely on their services to make money. Even short outages could cost millions of dollars and users, and they will do everything they can to prevent such from happening. Therefore, the responsibility falls on them, not the end-users to make the call to restrict messaging and save bandwidth.

Keep on texting, people.

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