The internet isn't broken — but its inequalities need to be fixed

The internet isn't broken — but its inequalities need to be fixed
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The Hill recently published an opinion piece entitled, “The coronavirus pandemic is breaking the Internet,” by Sascha Meinrath. If this characterization were accurate, how could so many people suddenly use the Internet to work from home, engage in videoconferences, attend school remotely, shop, socialize, get medical care and otherwise cope with the COVID-19 pandemic?

No, the Internet isn’t broken. (And here we speak of the Internet, which one of us helped to create, and which is the one, singular, global network of networks — hence, the capital “I.”) But we agree with Meinrath that it is being tested as never before, exposing serious inequalities in Internet availability and utility. It seems to us vital that these inequalities be remedied, not only in anticipation of the next time the world’s population is forced to “shelter in place” but because these inequalities stifle the innovation and productivity that the Internet makes possible. As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into its third month, not only are we depending on the Internet as an essential lifeline but we're also discovering additional productive ways to use it.

Internet usage is up dramatically, no matter how we measure it. The evening Internet usage peak, roughly corresponding to television's “prime time,” is up about 20 percent. Daytime use, while not as high as primetime use, begins earlier, lasts longer and has increased network traffic by 40 percent to 60 percent. Upstream Internet traffic due to teleconferencing and collaboration applications is up even higher. Internet use from home has largely replaced Internet access from work.

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Yet, despite these abrupt changes, for the most part the Internet keeps working reliably and dependably. It has not crashed. It has not failed. 

The Internet was designed to work under stress. It is a network of independent networks, so that vulnerabilities in one network do not create a single point of Internet failure. Many of its component networks are fault-tolerant, so that if one link fails, Internet traffic automatically can find other paths. But most importantly, the Internet is designed simply to do one thing — to get its information from origin to destination. This simplicity reduces the chance that unanticipated interactions might cause unintended consequences.

Some slowdowns and service interruptions do still occur, but this is not much changed from pre-pandemic days. In some places, Internet service is blocked by governments — and that’s a different issue for another time. It is fair to say, however, that local implementations of home networks may not be fit to the demands. Slow ethernets, WiFi and routers, asymmetric Internet access, multiparty streaming and low latency application demands may overload residential and office configurations. Moreover, there is clear evidence of a digital divide between rural and urban/suburban areas. Even in urban settings, Internet service can vary dramatically as to performance and cost. The latter can easily inhibit effective use even if Internet access is available. We can, should and must correct this inequity so that everyone, everywhere, can benefit from access to this global resource. 

Wireless telecommunications services such as the 2G-3G-4G-5G developments have significantly improved mobile access to the Internet. Prospective dense, low-Earth-orbiting satellite systems may offer even more ubiquitous access. These may augment deficiencies in Internet access but are not substitutes for the vast capacity of optical fiber, if it can be made available and affordable. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has lessons we should learn: 

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  1. Internet access should be made ubiquitous, affordable, symmetric and reliable.
  2. Local networks (residential and offices) should be upgraded with new equipment.
  3. Policies that facilitate the first two objectives should be pursued. 

This is a story of the need to invest in our communities, businesses and homes — not a story of a broken Internet. Because the truth is that the Internet has worked since it was turned on in 1983, and it will continue to work, because it is still one of the most robust, reliable, resilient, dependable systems of our era. 

Vinton G. Cerf is a vice president and chief internet evangelist at Google. Often called “one of the fathers of the Internet,” he has received numerous awards for his work, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Technology, the Marconi Prize and the Turing Award. 

David S. Isenberg, Ph.D., is the founder of isen.com, LLC, an independent telecom analysis company. He is retired from AT&T Labs Research, where he was a distinguished member of the technical staff. He has served as a senior adviser to the FCC and as a fellow of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.