Bandwidth Is the New Water

There is likely only one thing that has given many Americans a modicum of sanity during the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic: reliable internet access. COVID-19 is exposing the extent to which online connectivity has become a societal necessity. But as more and more individuals across the country are forced to stay home, can networks withstand a constant and simultaneous coronavirus-induced strain on the internet? And more importantly, is the U.S. public willing and able to voluntarily exercise self-restraint on internet usage enough to keep bandwidth available for essential services should it come to that?

While there is measured optimism that the overall online infrastructure can support heightened activity, individual platform servers might not be prepared to handle such an increase in traffic. Network bandwidth and platform “bandwidth” should both be considered as finite resources. Degradation of user experience could be caused by either congestion on the network side or an overload on the server side. In some instances, it may be a combination of both.

It has only been a few weeks since many companies moved to telework, and video teleconferencing apps and popular websites are already intermittently crashing. These problems will be exacerbated in a week or so when more colleges and schools start moving post-spring break classes online.

Internally, the Department of Defense (DoD) has blocked streaming services like YouTube and Netflix, and is considering blocking social media sites as well, to increase the available bandwidth on DoD networks as more people work from home. The European Union has also preemptively called upon video streaming platforms to temporarily lower bandwidth utilization to ease the burden on broadband services. Netflix has led the way by pledging to cut traffic on European networks by 25 percent by lowering video quality, with Apple TV, YouTube, Disney+, and Amazon following suit. While there has been no mention of whether platforms will take similar actions in the United States, it is not inconceivable. An increasingly unreliable or lower-quality internet could become a near-term U.S. reality.

As a society, now is the time to consider what will happen should shelter-in-place recommendations persist, and networks become wholly overwhelmed. We need to mentally prepare for individual inconveniences, but we also need to plan for how we can all better support critical industries that cannot afford to have internet disruptions at this time.

The health care industry, for instance, could be greatly impacted as providers increasingly rely on telehealth platforms and other online tools to contain the spread of the coronavirus and deliver care to afflicted patients. Recently, the U.S. government swiftly lifted many of the regulations surrounding telemedicine in an attempt to provide health care professionals with tools to triage and treat patients while minimizing person-to-person contact. This announcement could not have come soon enough—as more health care providers, and in some instances whole clinics, are exposed to the coronavirus and told to quarantine for some time as a result, it will become all the more imperative that online clinics are operationalized so Americans can continue to receive quality health care.

However, the ease on nationwide telemedicine regulations will mean an increased, untested pressure on whole networks. The desperate and rapid uptake of video teleconferencing will mean famously “reliable” platforms might soon be unable to maintain business as usual when health care systems need to jump from platform to platform identifying secure backups and alternatives to compromised systems. And bandwidth conservation, likely a distant afterthought for many during the coronavirus crisis, will soon be seen as an act of civic responsibility.

In the past few weeks, the government has taken some steps to address concerns about internet connectivity issues. Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai recently announced the “Keep Americans Connected Initiative”—a pledge signed by over 550 companies assuring that, among other things, services to residential areas and businesses will not be terminated because of an inability to pay at this time and that Wi-Fi hotspots will be opened up to Americans in need of them. The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency also helpfully released guidance on what constitutes the “critical workforce” during the COVID-19 response—a move that further supports and protects what DHS deems critical infrastructure and functions that must be operational at all times, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. Unsurprisingly, this includes workers involved in health care, communications, and information technology.

But to give maximum flexibility and preserve bandwidth for industries providing critical functions, businesses and individuals also should pledge to take incremental steps to reduce overall internet usage.

Recognizing that there is an understandable gap in public awareness with regard to how to conserve essential bandwidth and why doing so is of huge importance, the government should provide public guidance on how people can cut down on using certain online services, like video teleconferencing, unless absolutely necessary. This intermediary step helps free up common platforms—conserving platform server “bandwidth”—that can be used for essential services. Internet service providers and platforms should also immediately start providing guidance on what people can do to consume less, but more importantly, how they can plan to function with reduced services. These steps will, in part, be to relieve the current strain on networks, but this can also help sensitize the public to future disruptions and directives that might be imposed upon them in the coming weeks.

There are likely two things that will initially make bandwidth conservation difficult. First, there is an unintentional free-rider problem. It is hard to conceptualize what the internet is, let alone what is being asked of individuals regarding reduced internet usage. Further, because the impact of any one individual’s (or many individuals’) restraint will have negligible impact on a network, it is hard to justify voluntarily scaling back on virtual presence. Second, unlike food, water, and of course toilet paper, the internet is not a “hoardable good.” Bandwidth cannot be rationed and then saved for later use.

So no, it is not safe to assume that expanded investments in broadband will alone be enough to withstand heightened online activity during the coronavirus pandemic, especially given that we have no idea how long this state of crisis will last. But the good news is that Americans are able to rise to the occasion and practice bandwidth conservation. All they need now is transparent guidance and just a little bit of a heads up.

Devi Nair is a program manager and research associate with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Devi Nair

Former Associate Director and Associate Fellow, International Security Program