Friday, 27 March 2020 12:29

COVID-19 lockdowns, self-isolation measures put Internet under pressure Featured

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Internet infrastructure is being put under significant pressure as rolling lockdowns begin to bite as COVID-19 and associated self-isolation measures transform working practices, according to data from a commercial spin-off from Monash University.

Dr Klaus Ackermann, Associate Professor Simon Angus, and Associate Professor Paul Raschky, economists at Monash University and co-founders of KASPR DataHaus, a Melbourne-based data company, made their comments after conducting research on how enormous volumes of global Internet activity data can be used to “infer human social and economic behaviour”.

As part of KASPR DataHaus, they have developed technology that collects and processes, on a daily basis, billions of Internet activity and quality measurements for any location in the world.

The team announced on Friday it has produced a Global Internet Pressure map that is publicly available and is being updated regularly via the KASPR Datahaus website, allowing users to explore the global observations in a dashboard, and download the data for specific countries.

Using data from Thursday to Friday, 13-14 Feb 2020 as a baseline, the team say they were able to observe changes in internet latency patterns that emerged during Thursday to Friday, 12-13 Mar, as many countries entered major lock-downs on travel, work, and business.

Associate Professor Paul Raschky said, “we call this difference measure, between the first days of the lock-down period, and the baseline period in early February, ‘Internet Pressure’, since if it is greater than zero, it exposes latency, or speed, issues, starting to affect millions of internet users across these regions”.

“While the values may seem relatively small, such as 3% or 7%, such a difference is far from normal, and indicates that many users are probably experiencing bandwidth congestion. More people at home means more people online – with big bandwidth appetites.

“The situation is not dissimilar to a family trying to make their way through a crowded subway tunnel. Your streaming video or video upload during teleconferencing is made up of thousands of small packets of information; these packets need to find their way down copper and fibre-optic cables across vast distances. The more streaming packets trying to make the journey at once, the more congested the pathway, and the slower the arrival time.”

By focusing on regions within countries having at least 100 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Friday 13 March, the researchers say they were able to examine how well each nation’s internet was performing given the rapid escalation in home-based entertainment, video-conferencing, and communication taking place online.

“In most OECD countries affected by COVID-19, the internet quality is still relatively stable. Although regions throughout Italy, Spain and somewhat surprisingly, Sweden, are showing signs of strain,” Dr Raschky said.

“However, it is clear there are some huge issues with the internet in Iran, in which the median (or middle) region in our sample is showing slowing of 25%. In real terms, this will be having major impacts on the user experience.

“Considering the Iranian Government’s history of tampering with the country’s internet by intentionally slowing it, there is a possibility that this increase in internet pressure is the result of the regime’s effort to contain the spread of (mis-)information about the situation around COVID-19.”

At the time of the study, researchers say Malaysia appeared as something of an anomaly, and despite having a relatively small number of confirmed cases on 13 March, the day they accessed the latest figures, the country’s internet pressure readings were far more outsized, sitting above China, Italy, South Korea, Spain and Japan – all countries with confirmed caseloads several times larger.

“Sadly, recent news reports, released a few days after our study was published, seem to confirm the indications we were seeing in our internet pressure measurement,” Dr Raschky said.

“It has now been revealed there was a 16,000-people religious gathering in Malaysia. Following this event, reports emerged that there have been reports of thousands of participants showing flu-like symptoms.

“As a result, it is possible that an unusually large number of Malaysians have probably been staying at home for the past week. We saw this in our observations before the Malaysian Government acknowledged the problem and enacted severe lockdowns.”

In Australia, given the sudden shift to online learning and work-from-home happening across Australia’s major cities, the team says it has so far found that Australia’s internet is “holding up. Just”.

Of the states, the ACT, South Australia and Victoria are showing initial signs of pressure, even though schools remain largely open, and many workers continue to go into work.

“The signs for now in Australia are ‘steady’, but not entirely reassuring,” Dr Raschky said.

“We will keep monitoring the situation and plan to provide further reports as the Australian social distancing measures ramp up in the coming days.”

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Peter Dinham is a co-founder of iTWire and a 35-year veteran journalist and corporate communications consultant. He has worked as a journalist in all forms of media – newspapers/magazines, radio, television, press agency and now, online – including with the Canberra Times, The Examiner (Tasmania), the ABC and AAP-Reuters. As a freelance journalist he also had articles published in Australian and overseas magazines. He worked in the corporate communications/public relations sector, in-house with an airline, and as a senior executive in Australia of the world’s largest communications consultancy, Burson-Marsteller. He also ran his own communications consultancy and was a co-founder in Australia of the global photographic agency, the Image Bank (now Getty Images).

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