As social distancing becomes the new normal across the globe, demands on broadband networks have grown larger, and those demands have begun to strain the system. Over the past week Netflix, Facebook, and YouTube have reduced streaming quality to help with the load, but our internet is still slowing down. However, not all users will be affected in the same way. Some may experience a minor inconvenience, like having to turn off their video connection during a conference call. Others may find their connection degrades so that they can’t participate in distance learning programs or receive care via telehealth.
In order to know where these weak points are, the Federal Communications Commission (or Congress) must require all internet service providers to report to the FCC traffic management information, with an emphasis on getting data around the three major chokepoints in wireline residential broadband access networks: the WiFi access points, the last mile, and the interconnection points between the broadband access provider and the internet “cloud.” (Mobile wireless networks have different stress points, the tower, the backhaul, and the interconnection point. But because so many people are staying at home, let’s focus on fixed broadband.) This reporting would create a “heat map” that shows the stress points of our national broadband infrastructure. It will tell us where users aren’t receiving adequate internet access, where reinforcements need to be made, as well as give us a roadmap to follow in planning for the next emergency.
A WiFi access point is a networking hardware device that allows other WiFi devices to connect to a wired network. When you’re on your laptop you can see not only your WiFi access point, but any other access points in range. However, there are only a limited number of frequencies that can transport WiFi signals. So while you cannot connect to those access points, they still create noise that congests those frequencies. If you’re living in an apartment building, townhouse, or other stacked development, this congestion is compounded and ends up slowing down your internet speeds. If two parents are at home, both doing video conferencing from their laptops, while kids are home too, maybe watching streaming video, a remote class, or just chatting with their friends, there can be slowdowns that are not caused by the internet connection itself, but WiFi problems. If you’re paying for a gigabit connection, in a densely packed area, you could experience slowdowns of up to 30%. While that circumstance might be annoying, if you have a 20 or 10 Mbps connection, that 30% slowdown is catastrophic. (Users can help mitigate this, perhaps by repositioning their WiFi access points or by connecting as many devices as possible to ethernet.)
The “last mile” describes the physical connection that an end user has with the internet. This connection determines the bandwidth, or speed, of a user’s internet connection. A DSL network was designed to operate in one direction – sending information toward the user. Download speeds tend to be much higher than upload speeds, which is great for streaming a movie, but not so great for broadcasting your Twitch channel, live video conferencing, or having a live telemedicine visit, which need much higher upload speeds. Mobile wireless networks, fixed wireless networks in rural areas, and satellite broadband services will also experience similar issues because they weren’t designed for the heavy two-way traffic we are now seeing on the network.
Interconnection points are similar to the last mile, except they describe the connection an entire neighborhood has with the internet. When these interconnection points experience a normal ebb and flow of activity, broadband providers can slowly build out greater capacity. In this case the interconnection point is experiencing not an ebb and flow, but a tidal wave, and broadband providers can’t respond quickly enough to increase capacity. This tidal wave clogs the interconnection point, which means nothing can get through. If your community is served by a smaller ISP, this is also the point where their network is connected to the larger incumbents, and where agreements to exchange traffic between competing companies can be the difference between good and bad quality connections for an entire community.
There are likely to be congestion points still further upstream. Cloud service providers like Amazon AWS and Microsoft Azure, and their connections to the internet at large, may become congested. There may be issues with internet backbone providers as well. All these considerations are why reporting more data is so essential right now.
What we’re currently experiencing is unprecedented, and our networks have never been tested like this before. It’s to be expected that there would be chokepoints and failures in the system. This is why we must take the opportunity to collect data, learn where the weak points are, and fix them before there is another crisis.
About Meredith Whipple
Meredith is the Digital Content Manager at Public Knowledge, where she focuses on writing and communications for the organization. Meredith has an extensive background in internet policy, including previously holding positions at the Center for Democracy and Technology, Hewlett-Packard, Consumers Union, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and the Federal Communications Commission. Meredith earned her Master's degree in Public Affairs from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin, and her Bachelor's degrees in Communications and Political Science from the Ohio State University in Columbus. In her free time Meredith is active in performing arts in DC.