The morning after my university announced classes would be moved online because of the coronavirus, the power went out on campus. It was restored just a few hours later, but the outage was a stark reminder of how dependent we are on our electrical and online infrastructure as more and more of us are moving to remote learning and work.
Just as our public health system appears unable to cope with the spread of the coronavirus, our residential broadband, video conferencing platforms and VPNs are about to face unprecedented strain. That strain will have serious consequences, not just for the performance of our broadband networks but also for student access to education and the security of corporate data and networks.
Many organizations, including my own, are counting on video conferencing tools to replace in-person interactions. Companies concerned about proprietary business information will also be relying on virtual private networks to protect their employees’ remote work activities, meaning that VPN servers will bear a significant increase in traffic. And all of us working or learning from home will have to rely on residential broadband networks to provide access to these tools and services.
The United States is in much better shape to handle this increased online activity than other countries. In 2011, the Federal Communications Commission began collecting extensive data on the performance of residential broadband networks and found that most service providers are generally providing customers with the speeds they advertise. Reassuringly, most service providers that the F.C.C. tracked do not see a huge falloff in performance during peak hours, from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., when online traffic typically increases to its highest volumes in residential areas.
But these results don’t take into account the performance effects of relying on wireless networks (the F.C.C. data is collected directly from wired, physical residential connections) or channeling traffic through corporate VPNs. And we don’t yet know how the volume of internet traffic generated by so many people working from home will compare with the traffic typically seen during the evening, when people are at home streaming movies or browsing social media.
The performance issues might be worse in rural areas, where internet service is already less reliable than it is in big cities. Roughly three million children in the United States do not have internet access at home, which means that schools in poor, rural areas may face much greater obstacles trying to provide remote learning to students than those in urban or more affluent areas.
For colleges and universities (like my own) that are planning to offer remote instruction to thousands of students all over the country and the world, the issue will not just be how reliable internet service around campus is, but also whether our students, spread out across the globe, will have access to sufficient bandwidth to participate in video-streamed classes without constant interruptions and delays.
On top of performance concerns, there are also new online security issues, including phishing campaigns that appear to come from the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with malicious attachments purporting to contain important information about the spread of the coronavirus.
More generally, the increase in remote work may create new opportunities for hackers to infiltrate corporate networks, especially since the growing number of remote connections will make it harder for companies to detect those intrusions when they occur. And organizations that do not have remote work processes in place may find themselves rushing to adapt and failing to take important security precautions to protect the confidentiality of their remote interactions.
Unfortunately, improving the quality and availability of broadband isn’t something that can be done overnight. In the long term, in order for working from home to be a viable emergency response to situations like these, we will need to invest more heavily in residential broadband than we previously thought necessary.
In the short term, we need to rethink how technology can best be used to support remote work and education efforts. This could mean relying less on the potential of video conferencing technologies to recreate in-person classrooms and meetings, and instead exploring how lower-bandwidth, asynchronous technologies — such as message boards, emails and recorded lectures — can be used more effectively. The future of working from home may be more low-tech than we imagined.
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