THE INTERNET is a lot like the London Underground: both are made up of a series of tubes, both carry stuff—either people or packets of data—and both have multiple nodes, so that if one goes down, journeys can continue along another route. This week, as people who could work from home did, the Underground emptied out and the internet filled up. By March 15th, a day before the prime minister asked people to telecommute, British internet traffic was already up 12% compared with the beginning of February, according to data from Cloudflare, a big network-infrastructure provider. Ridership on the Tube, meanwhile, slumped.
The two are alike in another important way: the Tube is designed for its maximum, rush-hour capacity. Ride it in the middle of the day and there is plenty of room. Similarly, Britain’s internet service providers also plan for peaks. Data use is typically heaviest in the evenings, as people settle in to watch a show after dinner. Sometimes that coincides with a live-streaming sports event or a new video-game release, or both, causing spikes in demand. Yet such events rarely cause disruptions to service because, as John Graham-Cumming, Cloudflare’s technology chief, puts it, “the internet was built for this.”
The Centre for Cities, a think-tank, reckons that about two-fifths of workers in cities such as London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Leeds have jobs that they can do easily from home. Since many of them are now doing just that, traffic from corporate networks has dropped to almost nothing. Home broadband use is up. But most peoples’ needs are straightforward: video-conferencing and chat apps, neither of which use enormous quantities of data. Even a big rise in streaming and streaming, likely now that schools are to close, should not strain British broadband’s resilience, say people in the industry.
There will still be hiccups. Mobile networks are “generally adapted to a considerably lower level of data traffic passing over their networks than fixed-line broadband,” notes Mark Jackson of ISPreview.co.uk, an industry site. People who rely on mobile broadband may find occasional lags if lots of people use their phones for heavy-duty tasks. For others, slow internet at home could be the result of several members of the household streaming and video-calling at once, rather than of broader network issues. Corporate systems unprepared for all their workers logging in through virtual private networks (VPNs) could fall over. The same applies to apps, which may initially struggle with the extra load. Microsoft Teams, a workplace chat app, briefly collapsed in Europe on March 16th.
The bigger worry during a period of widespread home-working is cybercrime. The National Cyber Security Centre, an arm of GCHQ, warned that criminals are taking advantage of fear over coronavirus to target internet users with “phishing” attacks. Unusual emails have become normal in many workplaces over the past weeks, and people have their guard down. There have also been other types of cyber-attacks, including malware and extortion. “Whenever there is some type of crisis, almost inevitably you see a spike in attacks,” says Patrick Sullivan, who runs security strategy for Akamai, another internet-infrastructure provider. Workers who use corporate machines and must log into the VPNs are less vulnerable than those using personal machines and sharing home networks. But they are not immune, any more than they are from the virus itself.■
This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline “Stayin’ online”
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