Networks could see home internet traffic remain high after crisis

A few months ago, when the first news came out of China about the coronavirus crisis, who could have imagined all the dominoes that were about to fall? Whole industries such as airlines, restaurants and retail have practically ground to a halt in many places around the world. Conversely, demand in the telecommunications industry has spiked with so many people working and learning from home. And these societal shifts may continue even after this crisis has passed.

“Our broadband connections are becoming our lifelines – figuratively and literally: we are using them to get news, connect to our work environments (now all virtual), and for entertainment too,” wrote Craig Labovitz, CTO for Nokia’s Deepfield portfolio, in a blog.

RELATED: How will a mass shift to tele-learning affect wireless networks?

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 happened in China first, we can look to data from that country to see how use of networks has changed during and since the crisis. 

Zscaler, a company that has built a cloud platform operating in 150 data centers across the world, has found that as COVID-19 spreads, traffic patterns shift from employees predominantly being in the office, to being remote.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, average remote employee traffic across a typical large organization was 10% during weekdays, wrote Zscaler President and CTO Amit Sinha, in a blog. These patterns were broadly similar across continents with country-level variations consistent with their local work from home culture.

In China, prior to the health crisis, home internet traffic represented about 10% to 15% of total internet traffic. But in mid-February, the Chinese traffic spiked to over 40%, during the peak of the health crisis. It has since subsided to about 20-30% of total internet traffic, which is twice the home traffic as before the crisis began.

Zscaler chart

Cowen analysts pointed out that it’s possible a lot of employees in China are still required to work from home even though the government says the crisis has passed. “Admittedly, China has a history of questionable transparency especially around government policy (whether lockdowns are still enforced, or perhaps re-instituted),” wrote the analysts.

In the United States prior to coronavirus, total home internet traffic averaged about 15% on weekdays. But it started growing in mid March, and by late March it had reached about 35%, clearly connected to all the working and learning from home due to stay-at-home orders.

This doubling of work-from-home traffic mirrors the events in China. But it’s too soon to tell if home traffic in the United States will increase permanently even after the crisis has passed.

Working from home, forever

“The data suggests remote working will remain elevated in the U.S. for a prolonged period of time,” wrote the Cowen analysts. They point out that this is likely, considering that the United States has a higher mix of service employees compared to China, which has higher numbers of manufacturing employees who must work on location. 

It may have been a scramble for some employers to get everything set up for people to transition from the office to home. There were quite a few reports of office VPNs initially not being able to handle the new loads. But now that the shift has happened, there’s a good chance that the quarantine experience in the United States will create a permanent work-from-home culture.