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The impact of COVID-19 on network infrastructure is providing a sense of what the future might hold, according to a group of technology executives assembled for a group video chat today.

“The internet is moving from huge to absolutely massive. It’s moving from being critical to being essential to economies, businesses and governments, and keeping us all connected,” said Jonathan Davidson, SVP and GM of Cisco’s Mass-Scale Infrastructure Group. “As a result of COVID-19, we’re getting a glimpse of what the future for the internet is today” with the majority of work and learning now occurring at home. 

With most U.S. residents continuing to stay home to avoid spreading the virus, the demand on networks and services of all types is surgingCisco’s video conferencing platform Webex has served 20.3 billion minutes thus far this month. When heightened demand began to take off last month, Webex experienced a total of 14 billion minutes. 

Cox Communications CTO Kevin Hart said downstream traffic has increased up to 20% and upstream traffic has jumped up to 40% during the last two months. “The peak usage window has moved from 9 p.m. on the weekends to 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. during the weekday,” he said. 

Andrés Irlando, SVP and president at Verizon’s public sector division, shared some even more dramatic spikes in usage. “In a typical pre-COVID day we handle anywhere from 650 to 670 million calls a day. Since the crisis, we’ve had weeks where that number has been more than 800 million calls per day. We had a day last month where we had 9 billion text messages on our network,” he said.

Since the pandemic began, video on Verizon’s network is up 41%, VPN usage is up 65%, and there’s been a tenfold increase in collaboration tool usage, Irlando explained. 

Networks Unprecedented Shifts

Messaging has also “exploded globally” on Facebook’s platforms, said Dan Rabinovitsj, VP of connectivity. “Messaging on all of our platforms is up by about 50%. In some markets we’ve seen, you know, 1,000% increases in things like video calling and video messaging,” he said. 

The resiliency of networks around the world amid unprecedented shifts in behavior and usage has been inspiring, Rabinovitsj said. “If you look globally it is rather impressive that most networks have managed to stay pretty resilient, pretty high fidelity, even with this unprecedented amount of traffic.”

While networks have largely met the demand, Irlando said it’s unlikely the past couple months of activity will become the new normal. “I don’t think anyone really knows what the future holds but, you know look, we’re not going to have 93% of Americans sheltering at home long term. That’s not the new normal,” he said.

The pandemic is, however, giving everyone a glimpse into the future and as such, he anticipates an acceleration of remote work, telemedicine, distance learning, and continuity of business or government operations. Those activities come with challenges and as a result there has never been a stronger case for security and managed or professional services, Irlando added.

Hart echoed some of those comments, adding that 99% of its nodes are in a healthy state, and the services it provides have become more critical and essential than ever before. “We’re going to invest $10 billion over the next five years to continue to build out our network capacity, provide additional access, drive higher speeds, low latency connectivity, [and] security,” he said. 

Throughout the video conference, most of the executives kept returning to the theme of connectivity, specifically those that have it and those that don’t, and the role that operators, vendors, and platform providers can play in bridging that digital divide. 

Addressing the Unconnected With Infrastructure

If there is a silver lining in this terrible disaster that has claimed more than 213,000 lives to date, including more than 56,500 in the United States, it’s that it has become widely accepted that access to the internet is paramount. It’s especially “critical when you have to work and learn and you can only do that remotely. This really highlights the gaps that we have on connectivity here and in emerging markets abroad,” Rabinovitsj said.

“There’s no silver bullet to solve that problem,” he said, adding that it requires innovation in backhaul and a greater focus on reducing costs. The Facebook-backed Telecom Infra Project (TIP) is trying to address some of those problems. 

The four-year-old effort aims to “take advantage of what the webscale companies have brought to data centers, for example, and what we’ve seen in this really big transformation, moving software workloads to the cloud, [and virtualization],” Rabinovitsj said. 

“That full change has still taken quite a long time for major network operators to adopt,” and it’s for good reasons because the changes are pretty profound, he said. But accelerating those changes is a “way to rapidly increase the pace of innovation and also to pull costs out of network operations and network engineering so that you can pour more of that money back into infrastructure.”

Most people didn’t want to talk about network infrastructure prior to this pandemic, but it’s becoming an exciting topic again, Rabinovitsj said. “Infrastructure is having its moment right now because we are all really depending on this.”