According to the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, there are 3.6 billion people in the world who remain offline. The organization’s experts met online to discuss how to push for action to extend internet access and boost capacity to fight COVID-19.
Agenda for action
The emergency virtual meeting of the Broadband Commission attracted the attention of over 100 representatives from around the world including stakeholders from international organizations, the tech sector, civil society and academia.
“UN advisory body sets out an Agenda for Action to ensure that the networks the whole world is now relying on are robust, resilient and within reach of as many people as possible,” the Broadband Commission said in an official statement.
An Agenda for Action adopted during the meeting outlines immediate measures that governments, industry, the international community and civil society can enact.
“The Agenda for Action outlines immediate measures that governments, industry, the international community and civil society can take to shore-up digital networks, strengthen capacity at critical connectivity points like hospitals and transport hubs, and boost digital access and inclusivity to strengthen the collective response to the COVID-19 crisis now sweeping the world, ”the UN advisory board said.
This program is built around three pillars: Resilient Connectivity, Affordable Access and Safe Use.
“This pandemic has underscored the vital importance of broadband infrastructure to governments and communities around the world,” stated Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda and Representing Commission Co-Chair.
A special guest of the meeting, Fabrizio Hochschild, the UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Advisor, called on commissioners and their organizations to “enhance digital cooperation in response to COVID-19 and to do all in their power to combat misinformation and rising inequality, maximize access to relevant data for the public good, and protect the millions of additional children joining the online community for the first time to connect to remote learning platforms.”
While 53% of the world's population is now online, billions of people remain totally unconnected, unable to access emergency health information and vital government services, and unable to participate in the digital economy.
At the moment 1.53 billion learners in 184 countries have been impacted by school closures.
“I encourage the Broadband Commission membership to join the Global Education Response for COVID-19 launched on 26 March, following the lead of the World Health Organization, ITU, GSMA, Microsoft, Facebook, UNICEF and the World Bank,” stated MoezChakchouk, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information.
How global players try to cope with slowed internet
On March 11 the internet exchange point DE-CIX in Frankfurt, Germany reported the highest daily traffic consumption of 9.1 Terabytes (the previous record of 8 TB/s was reported by DE-CIX in December 2019).
“Global networks and the Internet can handle surging traffic because additional buffers and capacity were added around the world,” says Chintan Patel, Cisco UK. “We cooperate with providers in Europe and other regions to unleash resources we need in these hard times.”
Several international IT companies and telecom operators already took measures to reduce stress on the internet. For instance, YouTube now offers a standard quality of video on default rather than HD as it did before. The popular streaming service Netflix also lowered the speed of its video in Europe. According to Nokia analysts, the volume of Netflix traffic is currently 33% less. Similar steps were taken by Facebook, Instagram, Disney+, and other companies.
French operator Orange offers a free monthly subscription for children’s content and increased traffic for its clients. Proximus, the mobile operator from Belgium, also increased traffic for users. Vodafone takes no charge when people connect to websites with medical information. In the United States, AT&T lifted any restrictions on traffic.
Australian National Broadband Network (NBN) announced that it would allocate $150 million to help those who were hit by a coronavirus. The company temporarily provides services free of charge. Another 50 telecom operators in Australia, in conjunction with the government, created a fund for people in trouble.
Some companies went further and now offer services for free even for those who are not their clients. In the United States, Comcast provides internet through its network of Wi-Fi spots for free.
Experts at the World Economic Forum (WEF) were curious if COVID-19 was strong enough to destroy the world’s internet. Their answer is no.
“The real problem is not a capacity. It’s a sharp growth of traffic and mobile networks often stressed because of that,” said WEF.
According to Canadian Distrubutel, many people use their game consoles while sitting at home under lockdown, which is why internet networks are set to be strained. Thus, in Italy and China, the first countries with coronavirus cases, users downloaded 4-5 games at once and then played their games.
How world digital and Kaznet adapts to the pandemic
Despite lowered video quality on YouTube, Instagram, and other popular services, in Kazakhstan their work was normal.
"Almost 92% of Kazakhtelecom cache servers are local. In other words, about half of the country's internet traffic is localized in Kazakhstan, so we are able to guarantee the optimal quality of internet connection," Nurlan Meyrmanov, chief director on the innovations of Kazakhtelecom, told Kursiv.
This means that Kazakhstan has servers and data centers that possess data from all popular services inside the country, not abroad.
“Concerning the local traffic, most Kazakhstani sources use Kazakhtelecom Data Centers for hosting. So we have a direct exchange point with local sites and see doubled traffic,” said Oleg Snimschikov, senior technical director of Beeline Kazakhstan when interviewed by profit.kz. “Another reason for that is free access to the internet we provided for users. Many of them now work distantly, and demand for local sources is robust.”
Online education in schools also relies on local Kazakhstani sources. It’s another reason for the surge in traffic and the slower speed of the Internet. On the other hand, demand for external sources was not so huge, with a growth of about 30%. However, the volume of the international traffic is much bigger and it’s not easy to increase the capacity of these channels. This requires some legal procedures, and government agencies should participate. For now, we are doing whatever is needed," he said.
The leap in traffic consumption was registered on April 1, when the Ministry of Education tried to give a test online lesson for the whole scope of pupils at the same time. More than three million pupils began learning through the Zoom video conference service. Even though Zoom is based on a very sophisticated Amazon cloud computing system, the huge wave of users from all over the globe broke it completely. Later, Zoom admitted that the problem was on its side.
“Concerning capacity for the local operators, we boosted it for Network Kazakhstan company up to 30%. In the second part of March, we connected internet network with satellite operator Astel. For now, all operators have the capacity needed and can provide users with stable internet services,” said Rafael Abykhanov, director-general of the corporate business division of Kazakhtelecom. In order to boost capacity for international operators, the company cooperates with Russian players Megaphone and Rostelecom, he added.
Within just a week, the capacity of internet-channels in Kazakhstan had increased to 1.5 TB/s. For example, on average, a standard movie weighs roughly 5 gigabytes, so now this external channel can let through 300 movies per second, 18000 movies per minute, and 1.1 million movies per hour.
In addition, all Kazakhstani users have unlimited access to local internet sources including online services for education.
“All users of our television services can get free access to the premium package. Moreover, they can pay partially if needed,” said Kuanyshbek Esekeev, head of Kazakhtelecom.
According to Maksat Nuridenuly, executive director of Alfa Bank Kazakhstan, Kaznet was able to cope with a surge of traffic and did it really fast. “There’s nothing wrong with stumbling; it’s more important to get up fast. And as we can see Kazakhstani operators did this really fast. Within a few days, the capacity of channels that connect Kazakhstan with the rest of the world increased.”
Nuridenuly added, “Against the background of troubles with YouTube, Netflix, and other services that were forced to decrease the quality of streaming and optimize network work (for example, Zoom set some restrictions on sessions in the free version), I think local operators did their work well. All actors are now talking about more reserves, so new trends in the world’s network development are access, speed, and safety,” - the expert said.