While Indigenous communities across the US battle some of the most brutal COVID-19 mortality rates in the country, they’ve simultaneously raced against the clock to take advantage of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to access and manage their own broadband.
The Tribal Priority Window is an unprecedented opportunity for eligible US Tribes to apply for 2.5GHz spectrum leases ahead of the federal auction. Targeted at the most digitally underserved communities in the US— where only half of housing units have access to broadband— the Window is intended to enable rural Tribes access to Internet service and the development of services to narrow the digital divide. The application process posed significant challenges to Tribes who already struggle with poor connectivity. The digital format, coupled with COVID-19 realities, has hampered their ability to file applications within the deadline.
Due to the insurmountable obstacles posed by the pandemic, Tribes and nearly 100 organizations have called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Congress to extend the Tribal Priority Window by 180 days.
In response, the FCC has granted them just 30 additional days to file their applications. In its order, the FCC says that this extension is due to the unusual challenges presented by the pandemic. However, the pandemic is expected to worsen in the next month, not improve.
This extension only gives the portion of Tribes already engaged in the process some extra time to wrap up applications. It does not provide nearly enough time to boost overall awareness and enrollment. The spread of COVID-19 has not slowed, and Tribes continue to battle high infection and mortality rates. Tribes that have not previously engaged in the Tribal Priority Window will continue to encounter immense barriers to collect all the materials necessary, pass Tribal resolutions, engage their community, and submit applications within the new 30-day window.
As Public Knowledge writes in a recent statement, the FCC’s order cites T-Mobile’s comments that suggest that an extension would be necessary. T-Mobile called for a 90-day extension. Even the Window’s critics recognized that a 30-day extension is not enough time for Tribes to take advantage of the unprecedented opportunity for urgently-needed access to broadband.
So many crucial aspects of Tribal life directly and immediately depend on their communities’ ability to apply for spectrum licenses within the Tribal Priority Window. The initiative will allow Tribes the ability to connect their homes, workplaces, hospitals and schools. Tribal students’ educations and futures currently depend on reliable connectivity, and so does the functionality of life-saving telehealth services. Broadband access and stewardship is a necessity for the future of Tribal life. Tribal communities are long overdue the opportunity to access what is now an indisputable and vital public resource.
Granting Tribes only 30 days to apply for the Tribal Priority Window will leave Tribes that have not been previously engaged in these conversations struggling to connect, and — in a COVID-19 world — struggling to carry out crucial functions of daily life.
At the Internet Society, we believe that the Internet is for everyone. By working alongside Tribal communities in recent weeks, we have been able to spread the word with our partners to many of the 574 federally-recognized Tribes — over 100 of which have successfully submitted applications. We will continue our commitment to making the Internet available to all by pushing for tribal access and empowering communities with networking solutions to fit their needs.
And to get engaged in these important conversations, learn more about how to use your license if granted, and build relationships with other Indigenous advocates and community networkers, join us at the Indigenous Connectivity Summit from October 5 – 9 or join a pre-Summit training. Learn more here: https://dev.internetsociety.org/events/indigenous-connectivity-summit/2020/
We are halfway through this unprecedented year in which COVID-19 continues to cause disruptions and confusion in many areas of our lives. What is clear though, is the recognition of the Internet as a lifeline for us – for communicating with family members and health workers, accessing essential services, and participating in online learning and remote work.
But what about those who don’t have it?
The panel was an opportunity to show that there are solutions out there. To get to them will take strong communities driven by the understanding that everyone can make a difference.
The discussions of July’s webinar got to the heart of this.
The panelists shared stories and videos of the community networks they have helped to build in remote villages where underserved Indigenous tribes live. We heard the story of one Indigenous tribe located in the southern part of West Java in Indonesia, who set up a wireless network for their community. It helped them find jobs and increase their income, as well as access health information, learning resources, and government services.
In India, an Indigenous tribe of 2,000 people in Maharashtra gained access in December 2019 to the mobile network and the Internet through a community network. Gram Marg, an organization focused on empowering rural India digitally, helped build it. In the past, the Indigenous villagers had to walk 12km for banking services. But with connectivity and the appointment and training of a woman “banking correspondent” in the village who can provide banking services through a smartphone, there is a new lifeline for the community. With lockdown imposed by the government and roads closed, the villagers have depended on the banking correspondent for banking and government services. Connectivity has also enabled mothers to talk to doctors and nutritionists, using a toll-free number set up by the Spoken Tutorial Project, can provide advice about nutrition for mothers and children.
Emphasized throughout the webinar was the importance of community empowerment. Community networks are not just about establishing an Internet connection. It is more about the communities and how the Internet can help them fulfill their needs. In both community networks in India and Indonesia, the Indigenous tribes have used the Internet to preserve and share their culture, local knowledge, and agricultural practices.
It was also clear throughout the webinar that COVID-19 has exposed the inequalities in Internet access and affordability. The reality is half the world’s population remains unconnected, and trends are showing a slowdown in the rate at which people are coming online. This is partly because many of the unconnected live in remote, hard-to-reach areas that are not economically viable for traditional solutions.
While community networks offer an essential and complementary solution to connect to the Internet, there continue to be many challenges to building them. The policy and regulatory environment often poses the greatest challenge – things such as high fees and unrealistic requirements for licensing and permits to build a community network.
In Indonesia, with thousands of islands and varying local policies and rules, it is a challenge navigating the policy and regulatory system to legally establish and operate community networks. Currently, a mapping of the regulatory and policy system is being carried out and a series of workshops and training courses are being planned to bring together those engaged in community networks development in Indonesia to look at different business models and practices, and learn from each other about ways to sustain and grow the community networks.
As COVID-19 continues to shine a spotlight on the vital role the Internet plays, a short window of opportunity has opened for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to do their part in connecting rural Indigenous communities in the United States.
The Tribal Priority Window is currently open for federally-recognized tribes, Alaska Native Villages, and Hawaiian Homelands to apply for Educational Broadband Service (EBS) spectrum, but it closes on August 3rd. Access to the EBS spectrum would enable Indigenous communities to build their own Internet networks.
The FCC set this deadline before the pandemic, but Tribal governments are now overwhelmed by handling the Coronavirus with limited resources. The FCC must give them more time to apply to the priority window. COVID-19 will not simply disappear from tribal lands in time for tribal governments to pull together applications.
The need for reliable, affordable Internet access is more pressing than ever.
Need proof? One only has to look at the fact that Indigenous communities in the US face the lowest rate of broadband access and the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 infections. The need for access to accurate information and telehealth is at an all-time high. Tribal communities are at serious risk without the Internet as a lifeline.
If the FCC truly wants to close the digital divide, it must act immediately to extend the Tribal Priority Window. Gaining EBS spectrum is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Tribal communities. The FCC will effectively exacerbate the lack of connectivity if it does not act fast. They’ve already done the work of creating the chance for tribes to get connected, but they will throw away the opportunity if they don’t do more to accommodate Indigenous communities, who have been hardest hit by the pandemic.
The Internet Society is working to provide resources and support to tribes looking to apply for EBS spectrum.
See how the Makah Tribe launched an emergency network on EBS spectrum during COVID-19
The Makah Tribe has lived around Neah Bay at the northwest tip of what is now Washington State since time immemorial. It is a breathtaking landscape of dense rainforest and steep hills, far removed from any major urban center.
But for all its beauty, the hills, forests, and remoteness have made it difficult for the community to access quality high-speed Internet – and even cell and radio service.
In some areas, cell service was so poor that only certain spots worked: one community member had to go outside and stand beside a rhododendron bush to make a call or send a text. While Facebook is the main way people stay connected, many couldn’t access it. The local clinic struggled to use electronic records – it sometimes took upwards of 40 minutes just to get into the system. Even emergency responders, such as police and the fire department, couldn’t rely on the dispatch system that required Internet connectivity to operate.
And then the coronavirus began to sweep the world. The Makah closed the reservation to outsiders to protect the community. And its connectivity challenges became even more problematic. Students couldn’t get online to do schoolwork. Health workers couldn’t provide online consults or counseling. People confined to their homes under physical-distancing protocols couldn’t connect with one another. Like many other communities around the world, the lack of Internet access was an emergency within an emergency.
The Makah Tribe found a solution, almost overnight.
Educational Broadband Service, or EBS, is a band of spectrum (a space to transmit information over radio waves). Long ago, EBS was set aside in the United States for purposes that further the public good, primarily education. It has always been under-utilized and recently the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced intentions to drop the educational requirements and auction off the spectrum to the highest bidder.
But before selling it off, the FCC agreed to establish a window during which rural Tribal communities can get licenses to the unassigned EBS spectrum over their territory. This allows some of the most underserved regions to obtain the spectrum required to build their own Internet networks, become Internet Service Providers, lease the spectrum to other ISPs or use it as leverage in negotiations.
EBS is uniquely suited to remote locations, requiring fewer towers and less extensive infrastructure to reach hard-to-connect locations.
The Tribal Priority Window expires on 3 August, 2020, after which remaining spectrum will be sold off, likely to large telecoms.
The Makah Tribe partnered with MuralNet. Within days, the community had gathered the equipment – about $5,000 worth – required to launch its own network over EBS. They applied for a Special Temporary Authorization (STA) from the FCC, which would allow them to begin using the spectrum immediately and could later be expanded to a permanent license. It was granted on 27 May.
By 28 May, Makah had completed testing of the network, proving the network viability and speed that will provide high-speed Internet. It will also give them the ability to offer cell service even in the toughest-to-connect areas of the reservation.
The network is keeping people connected during the COVID-19 crisis – and it will provide long-term, sustainable, community-owned and operated Internet into the future.
Other Tribes across the United States can use EBS spectrum to make the same strides as the Makah. The Tribal Priority Window is closing soon and with it, a rare opportunity.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way humans interact with one another. With an emphasis on less physical interaction and more social distancing, institutions and organizations are moving their work and meetings online.
People with disabilities form about 15 percent of world population, so it is all the more important these online meetings are made accessible.
The Internet Society Accessibility Special Interest Group (Accessibility SIG) aims to make the Internet and its attendant technologies accessible to the largest audience possible, regardless of disabilities. The digital divide is not just about having the access to digital technology, it could also be about having the access to technology and not being able to use it. Our digital products must be usable by all. Many laws and the Internet Society’s vision – the Internet is for everyone – demand that we provide everyone with an equal experience.
The way we design and build can make it hard – and sometimes impossible – for people with disabilities to access services and information delivered by our digital products. Accessibility is the practice of designing so that all people, regardless of physical or cognitive ability, can use products successfully.
There are many different kinds of disabilities, but for the purposes of web accessibility, the most relevant types are those that affect the eyes, ears, hands, and brain. (Some examples include visual disabilities, deafness, visual disabilities and deafness, physical disabilities, and cognitive disabilities.)
All of these disabilities affect interactions with digital products and services in different ways. People need to consider accessibility any time they communicate information digitally. Accessibility is not just a concern for websites, apps, and social media. It needs to be front and center for all digital products, whether they are PDFs, PowerPoint presentations, or even virtual events. For virtual meetings and webcasts, it is important to choose a platform that supports accessibility for people that have mobility, vision, hearing, and cognitive disabilities.
Before you host your meeting, you should think about the following:
Is the platform accessible? Some remote participation tools present accessibility barriers that make them unusable by people with disabilities and incompatible with assistive technologies.
Do you have text captioning or sign language interpretations available?
Is the material being shown accessible to all? People with vision impairments use a screen reader and cannot see a shared screen or a video. Make all materials available beforehand or provide a link to them in the chat.
Have you asked invited participants which type of accessibility they need? You can include this question on the registration form.
Will speakers have their cameras on? This enables people who are lip readers follow along.
Is their adequate lighting on the person speaking? People who read lips need to be able to see the person’s lips.
Are presenters using virtual backgrounds? When people use pictures as a virtual background, it can wash away their face.
Are presenters wearing contrasting colors? Suggest that speakers wear dissimilar colors to their skin tone so the contrast will be high. Otherwise the lighting can wash out people’s faces.
The Accessibility SIG advocates for an accessibility-first approach to design and development. This means accessibility is not something that should be tacked on just before you launch. It should be a key consideration from the very start.
The first step is adopting the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, also known as WCAG. These guidelines, put together by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), outline the development, design, and content standards products must satisfy in order to be fully accessible. The WCAG guidelines have three levels: A, AA, and AAA. A has the fewest requirements to satisfy, while AAA has the most. The Internet Society is looking to meet the level AA standards, which means that it must also meet the level A standards.
The following guides and checklists were created by NYC Government as an aid to other NYC agencies in creating accessible content. We thought they were extremely helpful and recommend using them:
Among other factors in the domain of Internet and digital accessibility, a lot depends upon the technical community and developers. So, if you are a developer, and developing a device or a website, you need to ensure that your digital product doesn’t prevent over one billion of world’s population to access or use it. We encourage everyone to adopt accessibility practices when creating any digital content. This includes websites, electronic documents, presentations, videos, social media posts, or online meetings!
Making physical meetings accessible for everyone has always been a challenge due to budgetary and other constraints. Nonetheless, we never shy away from the challenge.
Making an online meeting accessible for people with disabilities costs a lot less than making a physical meeting accessible. It just requires a little will and consideration!
Although the COVID-19 pandemic is, unfortunately, far from over, the Internet continues to be resilient, supporting the additional demands that we have placed on it, including the rapid growth in online learning, work videoconferences, e-commerce, streaming video entertainment, and more.
Because the Internet exists as a network of networks, this resilience is largely due to the planning, actions, and cooperation of all of the interconnected participants. These participants include, but are certainly not limited to, network providers, Internet Exchange Points (IXPs), and Content Delivery Networks (CDNs).
We’ll hear from panel participants Scott Rasmussen of NYC Mesh, a community network provider, Jana Iyengar of Fastly, a CDN platform, and Jim Troutman of NNENIX, an IXP.
Register now to join us and learn more about the traffic shifts that they observed on their networks and platforms, associated challenges and how they handled them, and how they are ensuring they remain resilient in this new normal.
To help everyone gain deeper insight into the Internet, we’re building a tool that consolidates trusted third-party Internet measurement data from various sources into a single platform. We’ll use this data to examine trends, generate reports, and tell data-driven stories. Find out more about the Measuring the Internet project.
The Internet plays a more important role than ever, serving as a lifeline so that children can continue learning, families and friends can stay connected, and vital public health information can keep circulating. At the Internet Society Foundation, we believe access to the Internet and its solutions can create healthier and safer communities, reduce vulnerabilities, and help build the resilience communities need to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and emerge better prepared in the future.
That’s why we’re thrilled to announce that we’ve completed the selection process for our Emergency Response: COVID-19 grants, awarding USD$1.5 million in funding to four innovative projects that are using the Internet to help communities respond and adapt to the challenges created by the current pandemic.
The funding will support the following efforts around the globe:
Expanding an online platform which connects and trains caregivers across Asia
Extending the reach of a COVID-19 training program to support 10,000 health workers in five African countries
Enabling a disaster response team to expand Internet connectivity for 24 critical primary health and coordination facilities across eight countries
Expanding the scope of an innovative technology platform that supports fact-checkers in Latin America
Established in 2019 to support the positive difference the Internet can make to people everywhere, the Internet Society Foundation awards grants to Internet Society Chapters/Special Interest Groups (SIGs) as well as nonprofit organizations and individuals dedicated to providing meaningful access to an open, globally-connected, secure, and trustworthy Internet for everyone. The Internet Society Foundation will launch its next call for grant applications in late September 2020 for our Research Programme area.
By now, many of us are realizing we’ve been taking access to basic things for granted, such as social interaction, health care, on-site education, and…the Internet. While always valuable, the Internet is now a lifeline offering a fortunate few the ability to adapt and maintain a semblance of reality and connection to our employment, health services, and our family and friends. But those who don’t have access to fast, reliable broadband Internet are experiencing the pain of staying at home. Last year, an analysis by Microsoft indicated that 162.8 million Americans aren’t able to use the Internet at broadband speeds. That’s unacceptable, and while there are steps that communities continue to take to build their own networks, Congress needs to lead by taking steps to ensure that broadband access is available at an affordable price to all Americans.
While some cities and states have begun to relax orders, our return to normal life is still a long way off.
Congress took the first important step with the CARES Act, but it did not go far enough. The HEROES Act and the COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act are a more serious step toward addressing the connectivity needs of localities, and we applaud these Congressional actions. Now, it is time to move this critical legislation forward, and quickly, so that cities, towns, and tribal communities can begin healing from COVID-19 and building their digital economies in a time when our economic futures are uncertain.
These bills meet several goals for access-related policymaking, but there is still more work to do. Before these, or similar bills, are passed they should consider key provisions that will allow community members to benefit directly from their provisions, not just incumbent providers and major national corporations. To guide policymakers as they revise these and other emergency bills, the Internet Society has partnered with our community to create an updated version of our Indigenous Connectivity Summit Policy Recommendations. These recommendations can be used to ensure that Congressional members pass legislation that will empower and enable communities to get access to the Internet.
For example, in allocating funding for Internet access, Congress must ensure that communities across the country are able to utilize the money to deploy their own networks in under-connected areas using the resources currently available to them. These community networks – networks championed by the Internet Society and our partners, and built by communities to ensure their own connectivity – are a key part of the solution to the lack of ubiquitous broadband. Community networks also benefit consumers and entrepreneurs by providing worldwide connections and opportunities, thus leading toward greater socioeconomic growth.
For community networks to evolve from “emergency deployment” to “the new normal,” they need access to backhaul. Backhaul provides the essential first and middle mile of connectivity and is capable of being upgraded easily to keep up with increased demands over coming years.
As Congress considers the HEROES Act, COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act, and other related bills, policymakers should think about what can provide a solid return on investment for the country, which should include specific funding through grants and loans for community network fiber backhaul. If new roads are built, Congress should support policy encouraging the simultaneous deployment of fiber conduit along those routes, commonly referred to as Dig Once. In areas that will not see upgrades to their roads and highways, Congress should set aside adequate funds to separately build new, fully open access fiber-optic infrastructure to enhance the connectivity and resilience of those communities’ networks.
When allocating those funds through grants and loans, small, rural, Tribal, and community-owned networks should be prioritized. This will not only allow the funds to quickly enter local economies, but also allow networks to be designed and built to fit the needs of their communities. These smaller and locally-owned networks are better at empowering communities, providing training and skills to residents, and ensuring their financial resources stay within the area as opposed to being outsourced to major corporations with no local presence.
Any emergency legislation should also include additional funds for broadband access in anchor institutions, such as libraries, schools, and hospitals, as well as specific funding for training for community members so they can build and maintain this infrastructure themselves.
It is hard to see any silver lining in the tragedy that is COVID-19. But we will emerge from this, and when we do, I hope that our nation will have become more resilient and connected as a result. To do that, Congress must allocate additional funding for broadband Internet access to a full range of networks. Students, employees, doctors and many other community members know the new opportunities afforded by broadband access. Now, it’s up to Congress to make sure it provides important funding to enable a more connected future for all.
We welcome this guest postfromDE-CIX Group, an Organization Member of the Internet Society.
We are at a very special moment in history right now. Never before in modern times have we seen such a global impact and a global response to a crisis which largely ignores geopolitical borders. The COVID-19 outbreak and its repercussions have put cities, countries, entire regions on hold.
This means that, today, lockdown does not necessarily need to mean shut down.
Digital applications are key to enduring the crisis
Digital communication is vital to this. It enables companies to send their workforce home to work. It enables people to stay in contact with loved ones they can’t meet with. It enables children and students of all ages to continue with their education. Even the researchers who we all pin our hopes on finding a vaccine are using digital applications to remain in contact and share data in their efforts to understand the virus.
So digital applications that enable communication and collaboration are key to enduring the current crisis. But even the best application cannot perform if the underlying digital infrastructure is not as solid, resilient, and secure as possible.
Digitalization – and therefore reliable digital infrastructure – is the only answer
Therefore, one answer to some of the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic – and the modern world in general – is sophisticated digital infrastructure, because this allows the use of smart digital applications and solutions which will make people’s lives better.
As a result, the interconnection community – more than ever before – must deliver continuous and high-performance connectivity: everywhere, for everybody, and for everything. This community, and the infrastructure that they build and care for, is just as critical as other critical services in a crisis. It is essential that this digital infrastructure is as global, open (neutral), resilient, scalable, and secure as possible, in order to deliver the many and varied services needed by people, institutions, and businesses.
As a global operator, DE-CIX’s Internet Exchanges on four continents are all recording the same trend: Internet traffic is growing, together with demand for quality. While different regions are at different stages of development, depending on when the COVID-19 infections began to take off in their locality, the trend is valid from North America to Europe, to the Middle East, and on to the Indian sub-continent.
Three types of Internet traffic in particular have risen substantially: traffic from collaborative communication tools has doubled since the crisis began, as has traffic from streaming services. This is significant of both enterprises and the education sector migrating their activities online. Added to this, we see around a 50% increase in traffic from online gaming. Everywhere, we see a similar demand for reliable digital infrastructure.
Communication behavior will significantly change in the long term
Many business decision-makers are beginning to recognize the long-term benefits of profound digital transformation. Companies are taking a long, hard look at how they manage their offices, how staff interact, how teams collaborate, what business travel is actually essential, and whether meetings can be reconceived to be more productive. They are becoming aware of how the move online can unlock the potential to save money and increase revenue.
Meaningful investment decisions should be made in the future
We have to learn out of this so we can make meaningful investment decisions in the future. Digital infrastructure is the enabler of this long-term transformation, and it helps to ease the pain of today’s lockdown. The Corona crisis throws into stark relief the regions that have solid, reliable digital infrastructure, and those regions of the globe that remain underserved. The digital divide must be eliminated so that all communities can in future have access to information, access to digital communication tools, and access to digital content. The Internet industry must take as their mandate the goal of a minimum level of digital infrastructure everywhere.
If your household is anything like mine, your Internet connection has experienced a significant increase in usage over these last several months. We’re streaming more and more media each day, and we’re on seemingly endless hours of videoconferences for work and for school. While all of that streaming media consumes downstream capacity, those videoconferences can generate a significant amount of upstream traffic. I’m fortunate enough to have fiber-based broadband connectivity that can easily handle this traffic, but I know others aren’t as lucky. They’re stuck with copper-based connections or satellite links that struggle to deliver streaming media or video calls with any sort of viewable quality.
Across this spectrum of “last mile” Internet connections, I looked at the impact from both a provider and user perspective. What kind of traffic growth have last mile network providers experienced? What steps have these providers taken to ensure they have sufficient capacity? And most importantly for end users, how has increased traffic impacted last mile connection speeds?
The network connections from customer- and subscriber-facing Internet service providers are often referred to as last mile networks. These are Internet services delivered over a notional distance – the “last mile” – to subscriber premises, such as homes and offices, and even devices, like cell phones.
Within the United States, Comcast, Spectrum, AT&T, and Verizon are among the largest providers of consumer last mile connectivity. Based on data available as of late May, in comparison to pre-COVID baseline traffic levels (generally late February/early March), these last mile providers saw growth of more than 30% in upstream traffic, with downstream traffic increasing on the order of 20%. As expected, application traffic volumes increased significantly as well.
Comcast reported experiencing a 33% increase in upstream traffic and a 13% increase in downstream traffic, but also noted that its network traffic is beginning to plateau in most markets, including those impacted early by COVID-19.
In mid-April, Spectrum reported an increase of nearly 20% for downstream traffic and 32% for upstream traffic.
As of the end of April, AT&T reported a 22% increase in core network traffic (which includes business, home broadband, and wireless usage) as compared to the end of February.
In mid-May, Verizon reported significant growth at an application level, highlighting an 81% increase in VPN usage, a 1,200% increase in collaboration tool usage, and video streaming 36% higher than typical pre-COVID days.
In Europe, the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) publishes summary reports based on data collected from National Regulatory Authorities (NRAs) regarding Internet traffic across network providers in EU member states. The report published on 8 May stated, “In general, traffic on fixed and mobile networks has increased during the Covid-19 crisis, but no major congestion issues have occurred. For more than six weeks, a growing number of NRAs have been reporting a stabilization in overall traffic.” Other NRAs reported they “have been detecting a decrease in overall Internet traffic from the peak that was reached after the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis,” while several others “confirmed that data traffic keeps decreasing, but still remains at a higher level compared to the period before the outbreak of Covid-19.” Similar observations were made in the 20 May report.
In Venezuela, Movistar’s radical growth in traffic placed significant strain on the network, since the network was already operating at maximum capacity, according to a letter from the company’s president. Because maintaining sufficient excess capacity within a network to be able to absorb unexpected (and planned) traffic spikes is considered an industry best practice, Movistar’s issues speak to the greater fragility of telecommunications infrastructure within Venezuela.
Other network providers are working to maintain resilience by accelerating planned investments to add additional capacity. One example is Vodacom South Africa, which announced on 15 April it would spend R500 million (approximately USD 27 million) within two months to add network capacity, especially as it sees peak traffic levels throughout the day.
However, the increased traffic appears to be less of an issue for providers in other regions. Executives from United States-based broadband provider Cox Communications noted its current network has enough capacity to handle the sudden shift in usage trends resulting from increases in online activity during the pandemic, and attributed its resilience to execution of long-term network upgrade plans. NTT Communications in Japanreassured customers “the company’s telecommunications facilities are built to handle traffic even if it doubles the current peak amount.” As of mid-April, traffic on NTT’s broadband service was approximately 28 percent higher than late February.
Within the United Kingdom, OpenReach noted its existing network is already built to handle peak capacity. BT’s Chief Technology Officer stated “We have more than enough capacity in our UK broadband network to handle mass-scale homeworking.” TalkTalk said it was confident it could manage an increase in traffic volumes as its services regularly experience peaks in demand.
Connection Speed Trends
Although you may be paying your Internet service provider for a certain level of connectivity, determining what speed you are actually getting can be challenging. Measurements can be impacted by local factors, including WiFi or cellular signal quality, and external factors, such as the location of the speed testing server. In addition, there are multiple ways calculating effective connection speeds, from active single- and multi-connection tests to passive analysis of data exhaust. No single measurement tells a complete story, so it is encouraging that a number of organizations have published insights into trends in both fixed and mobile connection speeds and how they have changed over the past several months.
Performance monitoring company Ookla (operators of speedtest.net) initially published “Tracking COVID-19’s Impact on Global Internet Performance” in mid-March. It has updated the data each week since, tracking changes to mobile and fixed connection speeds in more than 100 countries. Using the week of March 2nd as a baseline, they’ve observed a wide range of changes. As of the 27 May update, average fixed connection speeds have declined as much as 28% (in Ethiopia), and increased as much as 127% (in Lebanon). Average mobile connection speeds have dropped as much as 30% (in Sri Lanka) and have grown as much as 89% (in Trinidad & Tobago). Median declines were in a similar range, but increases were lower.
On April 8, CDN provider Fastly published “How COVID-19 is affecting internet performance,” based on the analysis of data exhaust from their platform. They looked at download speed changes for four European countries, Japan, and four locations in the United States. Although their findings were mixed, they did note that at the time of publication, “the majority of those who are able to stay home are already there, meaning that the most extreme cases of speed degradation have already occurred.”
On 14 April, performance testing company SamKnows published a blog post that looked at changes to fixed connection speeds in the United States, comparing performance from 12 March (before lockdown) to performance from 24 March (after most states went into lockdown). They found that almost all states had seen a nominal drop in download speeds, with most around 1% or less. However, they also noted that because these were averages, they may hide more significant drops in speed seen by some users.
Other surveys of connection speed trends during the pandemic have been published by OpenSignal (looking at 4G download speeds globally), BroadbandNow (tracking changes to upload and download speeds), Fing (focusing on European Internet performance), and CIRA (looking at speeds in the context of Canada’s digital divide).
NOTE: A globally exhaustive review of these changes would result in a blog post too long to read, so I looked at a limited number of countries within this post. However, based on my review of available information, shifts in traffic patterns and changes in traffic volumes and connection speeds have been within the same general ranges in other countries as well.
Last Mile Resilience
“Events” often strain the resilience of last mile networks, whether a sporting event driving millions of simultaneous streams or an eagerly anticipated software release resulting in millions of concurrent downloads. Although these events drive massive spikes in traffic, they are generally limited in duration, mitigating the long-term impact to network capacity and connection speeds.
Lockdown actions taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, have made event-level traffic the new normal across many of these networks, with traffic peaks now persisting throughout the day as many now work and learn from home.
When individual subscriber connections, whether fixed or mobile, are challenged to keep up with the increased demand, it results in users experiencing lower connection speeds.
However, last mile networks have remained fairly resilient overall, despite massive increases in both upstream and downstream traffic.
Localized community networks initiatives such as NYC Mesh are also bringing last mile resilience to areas where broadband connectivity is unavailable or unaffordable. It is now more important than ever that broadband connectivity, whether fixed or mobile, is available and affordable to all.
The first-ever Central African Peering Forum comes at a defining moment for Internet peering and interconnection. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries have implemented measures to restrict people from moving from their homes, while only allowing essential movements and services.
But life cannot stop.
Kids still need to study and attend school. People still need to access financial services, conduct personal and business transactions, access government services, pay their taxes, and access health services. Most importantly, people need to access accurate and timely information. But now these services must be provided at a larger scale – via reliable Internet infrastructure. Moreover, some of this content and these services do not exist in digital format. They need to be created, sometimes in the language of local communities.
COVID-19 has uncovered gaps, missing elements, and key challenges, which need to be addressed so that life can smoothly transition to the new normal. Failing to address these challenges may result in severe socioeconomic consequences.
We are now a few months down the path since lockdown measures have been implemented in most countries. It is time to reflect on the lessons learnt so far, with respect to the reliability of the Internet infrastructure, local content infrastructure development, last mile infrastructure, and on possible policy interventions that could help address the gaps. Are we building resilient Internet infrastructure that can sustain and even thrive in crisis times?
This question has inspired the first Central African Peering Forum. The forum is dedicated to helping people connect to faster and more reliable Internet though peering.
Peering is the voluntary interconnection of two Internet networks for the purpose of exchanging Internet traffic, without going through an intermediary network. Peering takes place at Internet Exchange Points (IXPs). It helps keep domestic Internet traffic local by offloading traffic from expensive international links onto affordable local links. As a result, Internet Service Providers can offer a better experience and save costs.
If you’re dedicated to building the Internet in Africa we would love for you to attend so we can focus on solutions together. Whether you’re a business owner, technology expert, or user, your views count.
Beyond the “traditional” peers like Internet Service Providers, there are other network operators that can take advantage of Internet peering. This includes content service providers like newspapers and entertainment, content delivery networks (CDNs), financial service providers like banks, government e-service platforms, etc. We believe this virtual event will greatly benefit all of the participants, both through the quality of the presentations and the discussions that will take place.
It’s our hope the Central African Peering Forum will shed light on the particular challenges the central African region is facing during these challenging times – and develop real solutions. Some of these challenges are common across the region, and perhaps globally. In many cases, a solution exists and could be applied with little adaptation to the local context.
Let’s look at one example: Education
How can local infrastructure (local content and hosting infrastructure development and last mile access infrastructure ) be developed to take care of local needs?
What is the link between the educational/academic content and the homes where the kids are staying? Moreover, what kind of equipment do students use to access that content? Are the current Internet bundles (volume-based packages) suitable and affordable for such needs?
On the other side, having the adequate infrastructure in place is not enough: tutors (i.e., parents and caregivers) need to be educated, sensitized, and trained on how to educate kids in this new environment.
Using our shared experience, we hope to draw up recommendations and try to address those problems with policymakers, regulatory authorities, who are in charge of consumer protection, and local players, such as Internet service providers, data center operators, and content and hosting providers across the region.
Discussions will revolve around Internet infrastructure, Internet Exchange Points (IXP), last mile access infrastructure, local content and hosting infrastructure (data centers), regulations, and policies.
This forum welcomes everyone: consumers, end-users, and direct and indirect players in the Internet ecosystem. Together we can come up with strong recommendations for our region. Recommendations that make a real difference.
Even before COVID-19, political and economic scenes within the MENA region were changing. Differences across economies, politics, religion, and even the weather kept governments occupied.
Amid all that, the region has been shaken by COVID-19 as nations have moved operations into the home.
Looking at this from a technology perspective, we must ask ourselves: Are we ready for this? Are we able to transfer all our businesses and schools to our homes? Do we have an adequate Internet-based economy and good quality connectivity to back up the huge demand?
There’s no question that the Internet provides significant economic and social benefits. COVID-19 has made that especially clear. For many parts of the world, it has allowed us to carry on. But for the first time, governments have had to face the reality that there is no time for pilot projects. This is happening and it is happening now.
The papers focus on infrastructure efforts needed to develop a digital economy. They were developed through engagement-based workshops in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Oman as well as discussions and input from stakeholders throughout the region. Through the lens of this community engagement, the papers look at solutions to building a bigger and stronger Internet.
The papers highlight three core things governments can help put in place:
Access Infrastructure: The entire value chain of infrastructure that carries traffic to and from international points, should deliver the traffic throughout the country, and connect users to the Internet. Through a network of networks, national Internet infrastructure will be better and stronger, and provide resiliency and redundancy.
Content Infrastructure: Internet exchange points (IXPs), where traffic can be exchanged on a local basis, and data centers, where content and applications can be hosted, should be developed to increase local resiliency and redundancy. Using local content infrastructure lowers the time and cost needed to deliver traffic, allows easier access to content, and improves quality of service, which in turn helps to promote Internet adoption and usage.
Digital Economy: The ecosystem to create content and services to fully utilize the access and content infrastructure drives socioeconomic development. A digital economy enables entrepreneurs to innovate while also providing consumers with the ability to use their new services, and helps bring existing sectors online to transform the entire economy.
We ask you to share these papers widely, especially with your local government. COVID-19 helped us realize how critical it is to bring all of the Middle East online. By working together, we can make a difference.