The coronavirus pandemic has placed a significant demand on internet network resources as companies, schools and businesses transition to social-distancing practices, and communities nationwide follow shelter-in-place orders. Internet service providers all over the world are seeing so much traffic that streaming video services, such as Netflix, are having to reduce their data rates to keep traffic flowing.
In fact, just last week, Viasat experienced a 10% increase in overall residential and business internet usage from added work- and school-from-home activities. This change in network traffic reflects a substantial increase in daytime, as well as evening, home internet use of real-time communications tools like Webex, Zoom and other video conferencing applications. That’s along with an increase in email traffic and an uptick in general web-browsing.
Active management of the network is something we at Viasat do every day; however, during a time of much higher network usage and demand — like what we’re currently experiencing amid the coronavirus outbreak — we must look for additional ways to optimize our network to best serve as many customers as possible, with the data and speeds each needs to be productive. That’s an important consideration for us, since many of the people who use our network have few other options to be connected – and connectivity can literally represent a lifeline now.
Delivering internet from space
Today, Viasat is recognized for having some of the most powerful satellites in space, delivering fast, reliable internet access that is measured in how much usable bandwidth — or data — is available for use by customers on the ground, in the air or at sea. And, we’re currently investing billions of dollars more in our next-generation satellite networks.
Our “data pipe from space” is fully open, allowing maximum bandwidth to be transmitted from our satellites traveling 22,500 miles above the Earth’s surface to homes, businesses, airplanes, ships and more. But, while we’ve designed extremely powerful satellites, the data that’s transmitted — which currently serves hundreds of thousands of residential and business internet customers, as well as approximately 250 million commercial air travelers annually — is not an unlimited resource.
“We make every last kilobit of data available for use by our customers—no matter the situation,” said Carlin Charteris, senior director of development at Viasat. “But in times like these, where demand is higher than supply, we put critical network management policies in place to ensure our finite bandwidth resource is distributed fairly across all customers.
“Right now we’re doing everything possible to boost our bandwidth,” he said. “We model and forecast network usage closely, track system behavior and shift bandwidth to best manage and/or alleviate network congestion.”
Congestion is the result of our network becoming too full; when we have too many internet requests being transmitted between point (A) the satellite in space and point (B) a house, business, plane, etc. Congestion slows down the network — for everyone. Over the past two weeks, we’ve found network congestion has grown to additional peak times, around 3 p.m. daily local time, along with the traditional evening hours of 6-9 p.m.
What is internet traffic prioritization?
As more subscribers work and learn from home, we’ve implemented new optimization and web acceleration techniques to mitigate network congestion by prioritizing critical business and education applications to get preferential access compared to other high-bandwidth traffic, like gaming and entertainment video streaming.
“When I say ‘prioritizing,’ that means making sure we don’t overload network traffic during the day when it’s most needed – it’s kind of like metering the on-ramps to freeways during rush hour,” Charteris said. “We want to ensure that web traffic is responsive; that collaborative work applications and shared online workspaces are supported; that we’re able to deliver quick response times for the most commonly used online teaching sites and that businesses using our service can operate as normal.”
We’re also hoping that during this crisis, customers will be mindful data citizens, helping us preserve the availability of our network by choosing lower-bandwidth applications, like audio-only conferencing as compared to videoconferencing, whenever that can get the job done.
Data maximizing tips
We recognize customers are now using a lot more data — oftentimes reaching or exceeding their data caps or usage thresholds. That’s why at times of network congestion we’re prioritizing work-from-home, school-at-home and business operations traffic during daytime hours — even for those who have hit their data cap or usage threshold.
Prioritization is not new to the network. In a traditional network environment, residential and business customers on unlimited data plans may be prioritized behind other customers during periods of high network congestion if they have exceeded their monthly usage threshold. Their service will never be turned off, but customers may experience slower speeds during this time compared to other users who have not yet reached their usage threshold.
“We’re here for our customers during this time,” Charteris said. “And we’re still allowing customers — even those who have exceeded their data cap or usage threshold, or those customers trying to download large games — the ability to get access to the network when it’s available; they just may experience reduced speeds during the network’s busiest times. But we are fully committed during this pandemic to keep our customers connected — now more than ever.”