Coronavirus and the World Wide Web
The COVID-19 scare has prompted a worldwide trend in working from home. #StayHome, #SelfQuarantine and #workingfromhome are among the most trending hashtags on Twitter. Since January, the video conferencing company Zoom has seen a doubling of new accounts and Microsoft’s Team registered a 500% jump in remote conferencing.
Following the semi-lockdown from Monday, Nepal has also seen a big surge in home Internet use, putting a strain on the bandwidth offered by service providers. A Nepali Times reporter working from home tried all afternoon on Sunday to upload a photo feature before giving up.
“Working from home is the right step to arrest the pandemic but people working from home are not using the Internet only to work and communicate,” says Keshav Nepal of WorldLink Nepal who says 80% of Internet traffic is generated by watching video entertainment.
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Unlike in the past when Internet use spiked in the evenings as people watched YouTube channels from home, every time of the day or night is peak hour now as people stream movies, play games or scroll social media. Nepal has seen an explosive growth in YouTube use – up from virtually zero in 2018 to 34% last year, and then almost doubling to 60%.
Nepal’s Internet infrastructure is made up of the international gateway and local networks. The international links are through underground fibreoptic connections that internet service providers (ISP) have with India’s Airtel and Tata. Another fibreoptic link with China is still being tested.
The domestic network is made up of local caches for YouTube and Google, for example, that use artificial intelligence to ‘pre-fetch’ trending content in local servers so they do not have to depend entirely on international links. In fact, a third of all downloaded content in Nepal today is from Google and most of that is YouTube.
“Even under normal circumstances the Internet in Nepal is considered slow, mostly because our ISPs do not have a strong backbone and we do not have enough cache servers, which are centralised and shared by ISPs,” explains Sujan Shakya of Vianet Communication Nepal. “With higher consumption as we are seeing now, the aggregate traffic is close to our limit, leading to a bottleneck that affects all the users.”
As for international connectivity, there are limitations regarding Internet backhaul equipment (ISP routers). These can be upgraded by buying more bandwidth, and while costs are coming down they are still expensive given Nepal’s low local Internet subscription rates.
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Nepal’s ISPs have what they call ‘stock bandwidth’ which allocates capacity lower than that of their routers. However, when everyone is watching videos at the same time, the bandwidth is overstretched and the connection becomes slower. And the decrease in office Internet use does not seem to compensate for a rise in home use, since the peak Internet hours in Nepal have always been early morning and late evening from home.
“I do not see a bottleneck in the international gateway because ISPs can always buy extra bandwidth, but for local networks it is difficult to upgrade routers and switches when they are choked with saturation demand,” explains Sanjib Rajbhandri of Mercantile Communications.
With about 1.5 million Kathmandu residents having gone back to their home districts, the demand in the city has reduced and Internet use is spread more evenly across the country. However, most out-of-towners are using mobile data, and that has created another bottleneck.
Phone companies are not used to handling such a surge in capacity, and upgrading towers is more expensive and takes more time than upgrading ISP routers. Most customers with fibreoptic ISP cable to homes are not facing the same bandwidth issues as those who rely on routers.
Only 26% of respondents in a recent media landscape survey by Sharecast Initiative said they used the Internet every day. In a multiple response question, among those who did, 75% said they used mobile data to access the Internet against 30% who used broadband connection.
Says Sharecast’s Madhu Archarya: “It is still too early to tell for sure, but the coronavirus shutdown and people going online from home will increase Nepal’s Internet penetration rate, and there will be a further rise in those using mobile data.”
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Mobile phones have also become useful during the pandemic for contact tracing infections in other countries, although it has not been fully used yet in Nepal where there have only been two confirmed cases. Geolocation of mobile phones are also a useful tool for the government to track the mass movement of people, for instance the emptying of Kathmandu this weekend before the ban on long-distances bus services went into effect.
Says Keshav Nepal of Worldlink: “We can upgrade our bandwidth capacity but this takes time. So the best thing right now is to use the Internet responsibly and prioritise what we surf on the net.”
Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.