The lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we use telecommunications. With telework and kids at home, people are going online for videoconferencing, TV shows, gaming, and virtual window shopping. This new trend is raising questions, and Professor Jean-Charles Grégoire of INRS has answers.
Jean-Charles Grégoire: It’s important to distinguish between the communication channel, where information travels back and forth, and how we use it, i.e., the service. Internet access can be thought of as a series of highways and there can be a local slowdown at different stages, such as an overload at the interchange of a specific Internet provider. In Québec, that’s mainly Bell or Videotron. A user may notice a slowdown at home, which means there’s a bottleneck at a provider’s on-ramp. There may be a general slowdown, but it has nothing to do with a particular service.
But certain specific sites like online grocery stores may have problems that are unrelated to the Internet, but rather to their design. Servers are not necessarily big enough to accommodate the volume of traffic, particularly in Québec where online commerce is still relatively new. Companies specializing in online retail like Shopify can adapt to high demand with more modular applications and a bank of servers. Companies that have built their own retail sites are more limited in their ability to adapt.
J.-C. G.: There seems to be enough bandwidth available, and I don’t see why that would change. The lockdown has been going on for a few weeks, so I would say that the shift in use has already happened. Even if kids start doing school from home and more people turn to telework in the next few weeks, this will just be another shift in Internet use, not an increase. So to use my metaphor, the problems I see aren’t with the highways, but the services.
J.-C. G.: The shift has created issues for specific services like the Zoom videoconferencing platform, which hadn’t addressed security for the current usage scenario, and many of whose users have been victims of gate crashing. Zoom is becoming more popular, and malicious people are exploiting its flaws to break into and disrupt meetings, even at universities, during thesis defence presentations for example. All of a sudden, the platform has to develop proper protection mechanisms. There is a whole series of recommendations for meeting hosts. It should be noted, however, that the platform itself seems to be robustly designed and has remained available despite skyrocketing demand.
But to get back to the issue of security, the danger to Internet users lies not in technical glitches but primarily in human vulnerability to scams, for example people offering miracle cures. We need to watch out for phishing.
J.-C. G.: Families can choose to watch shows or movies together, rather than separately. They can also spread out their Internet use by taking turns watching things throughout the day. Doing so can help prevent bottlenecks at home. Ideally everyone should do these things, but it’s hard to coordinate among neighbours to better share connectivity community wide.
Media content distribution services can help reduce traffic too. For example, Netflix has chosen to cap the quality of their media content and other providers such as Bell Media (Crave) can do the same in order to reduce and balance the load on their distribution networks. This is a way of creating equity among customers that prevents bandwidth hogs from making others suffer. Generally speaking, operators have ways to limit user traffic (“throttling”) or services, but doing so violates or may violate net neutrality.
J.-C. G.: There have been problems with telephone communications, and not just in Québec. With people sheltering in place, the need to reach out is even greater, which has driven up demand. Hearing someone’s voice is more satisfying than texting. Bottlenecks occur at the gateway between different carrier networks, for example between Bell and TELUS. These gateways are designed for a certain volume of communications and are currently overloaded. Carriers will need to adapt and increase their capacity, for example by adding telephone circuits.