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My internet seems slow: How is the coronavirus affecting internet providers?

Internet traffic in Canada typically peaks on Sunday nights and weekday evenings, but over the past week or so, usage rates have started to look like Sunday night a good chunk of the time.

The dramatic change in consumption patterns, which has strained networks big and small across the country, has come as Canadians have shifted en masse to working from home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We used to see peaks happen during the week at 7 p.m. Now from just after lunchtime till 9:30 at night, it’s pretty much flat out, all-out very busy,” said Matt Stein, chief executive officer of Toronto-based internet and telecom service provider Distributel and chairman of the Canadian Network Operators Consortium.

Distributel, which buys wholesale access to Rogers Communications Inc.’s internet backbone, has seen its traffic increase around 50 per cent during this period, Stein said.

While his company had been able to handle the capacity so far, Stein said the sudden spike in demand has led to some congestion, with service providers racing to upgrade capacity to deal with “astronomical” peaks.

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Larger internet providers are also feeling the strain, but say their networks remain resilient and that they are working together to address any issues of interconnectivity.

“Our networks and services, including internet and mobility, have been performing well despite increases in usage and volume,” a Telus Inc. spokesperson told the Financial Post.

“Given the unprecedented volume of mass-calling events and new 1-800 numbers being set up through government agencies to help Canadians through the crisis, we are also working with all operators to address the increased congestion between networks and increase the capacity of the interconnection facilities.”

Sam Cullen, vice-president of global marketing for Sandvine Corp., which does active network monitoring for telecom companies around the world, said they’re seeing dramatic swings in the traffic that Distributel’s Stein described.

“We’re seeing some customers where the volume of traffic on their network is doubling, but it doesn’t mean they’re seeing their peak-hour usage grow,” Cullen said. “It just means that their off-peak hours are now equalling their peak hours.”

(Some customers') off-peak hours are now equalling their peak hours

Sam Cullen, vice-president, global marketing, Sandvine Corp.

Cullen said one interesting phenomenon Waterloo-based Sandvine noticed was a spike in traffic related to video gaming after social distancing measures came into effect.

“In some of the early countries, for example Italy and Korea where the pandemic kind of hit first, they saw an immediate spike in game downloads and file uploads,” he said.

“What we saw is an initial surge of downloads and gaming, but then people backed off. So I think what happened is people went to the (Sony) PlayStation Network and downloaded four or five games, and now they’re just playing them, and playing them takes a lot less bandwidth.”

Cullen said many network operators are “traffic shaping” — a form of bandwidth management that involves changing the speeds of different kinds of data — to maintain quality of experience (QOE), for example by slowing large downloads on video games and operating system updates to allow video calling and other services to remain quick.

“We’ve seen QOE drop in some of our customer networks, but we have not seen a single network that we’re aware of, you know, essentially collapse,” Cullen said.

The overall surge in traffic has led major streaming services such as Netflix, YouTube and Amazon Prime Video to reduced the quality of their videos in some countries to take up less bandwidth.

On Tuesday Bloomberg News reported that YouTube will be lowering the default resolution for videos worldwide, although users can still switch to higher resolution if they want.

Lawrence Surtees, an industry analyst focused on telecom and communication for IDC Canada, said that the reason Canada hasn’t needed to do that kind of downgrading is because network operators have installed a lot of fibre optic cable, which has significantly increased bandwidth.

If we didn’t have fibre networks that we’ve been (building) in the last five years, I think we would be faced with collapsing networks

Lawrence Surtees, analyst, IDC Canada

“The fibre network, which is fibre to the wall, is going to have less of a problem because its bandwidth and its speed is just so much greater. None of this is infinite, but there’s definitely a huge difference if I was on a copper DSL line here at my house,” Surtees said.

“If we didn’t have those that we’ve been (building) in the last five years, I think we would be faced with collapsing networks, like a blackout-type situation.”

Both Rogers and Bell also acknowledged seeing significant spikes in demand.

“We are seeing an increase in home internet usage and voice calls, and customers may see a change in their experience right now as our engineers and field techs continue to add capacity and manage traffic in real time,”  Rogers said in an emailed statement.

A Bell spokesman said the company was seeing increases across its networks.

“Home Internet usage is up the most — up to 60 per cent higher than usual during the day as people work remotely and stream more, up to 20 per cent higher than usual at night,” he said. “Our wireless network is performing well and we are working with other mobile providers to increase inter-carrier capacity.”

Distributel’s Stein called on carriers to work together to ensure Canadians continue to have quick, effective internet access as the volume of people working from home increases.

He said his team is working long nights to try to serve customers by adding routers and ports for upstream capacity.

“Unfortunately you can’t just simply turn on the taps and get capacity,” he said.

• Email: jmcleod@nationalpost.com | Twitter:

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