One expert claims that internet access could be rationed to prioritise health services and online lessons, rather than entertainment and gaming.

It comes as networks and apps reveal how the coronavirus crisis places new pressures on the UK’s mobile and broadband infrastructure.

 Some services (like Netflix) are already 'rationing' streaming bitrates – to reduce load on networks
Some services (like Netflix) are already ‘rationing’ streaming bitrates – to reduce load on networks

Online pressure rising

Social distancing means many Brits are now working from home.

And school closures means that some UK families have more free time than ever.

This is changing the way we use the internet – Vodafone told The Sun that it had seen a 30% increase in web traffic.

Importantly, the peak ‘rush hour’ traffic between 6pm and 8pm is ballooning outwards to between noon and 9pm, one insider revealed.

Networks may have to ration internet

Now experts say that large-scale “internet rationing” projects could eventually go ahead.

This wouldn’t involve limiting users to specific amount of data.

But would mean prioritising important data over, say, entertainment – like movie-streaming or gaming.

“In some cases it will be paramount to prioritise mission critical communications,” said expert analyst Paolo Pescatore, of PP Foresight, speaking to The Sun.

“In these uncertain times, users should consider having a back up connection whether that be another SIM or data only plan.

“This will help them tether to their other connected devices in the home.”

Some rationing has already started

Of course, content providers are already slamming on the brakes – reducing the bitrate (or “quality”) of their videos.

Netflix led the charge, and was quickly followed by Google’s YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, Apple TV+ and Disney+.

They’ve typically reduced the quality of streams by around 25% across the UK and Europe to reduce network load.

“People are coming to YouTube to find authoritative news, learning content and make connections during these uncertain times.” a YouTube spokesperson told The Sun.

“While we have seen only a few usage peaks, we have measures in place to automatically adjust our system to use less network capacity.

“We are in ongoing conversations with the regulators (including Ofcom), governments and network operators all over Europe, and are making a commitment to temporarily default all traffic in the UK and the EU to Standard Definition.

“We will continue our work to minimize stress on the system, while also delivering a good user experience.”

Disney+ has also revealed that it could go even further with quality reductions.

But Netflix declined to comment on whether it would slash bitrates beyond the current 25%.

Image result for Internet could be RATIONED

Are UK networks prepared?

The big question is: can UK networks cope?

And the answer – at least for now – seems to be yes.

Networks are designed to handle huge peaks of traffic, and daytime usage isn’t hitting those highs yet.

“Our networks remain strong,” a Vodafone spokesperson told The Sun.

“We’ve enough headroom to meet growing demand and to keep the UK connected.”

We spoke to Dan Ives, a top tech analyst at Wedbush Securities, who thinks that networks can handle the growing demand.

“The bandwidth can take capacity 5x-7x what it is seeing and run smoothly on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon with no major periods of disruption.”

After all, networks already cope with enormous spikes in usage.

One insider cited Amazon streaming football matches on Boxing Day – and every time a new Call of Duty game is released.

Probably the biggest concern for networks is the fact that traffic is increasingly moving out of cities…and into suburbs.

“You can imagine a huge amount of the UK bandwidth is focussed on cities not suburbs,” Nigel Walley, a media analyst, told The Sun.

“The opposite is probably true for the cable companies (more suburbs than cities) but they are also not provisioned for this shift.

“Video is the bandwidth killer so the explosion in video conferencing (along with everyone watching more Netflix) is what is causing the drag on the network.

“We have may to watch the Mandalorian in shifts,” he joked, referring to the hit Disney+ TV show.

What can networks do?

One of the things networks are already doing is boosting broadband capacity.

An industry insider said additional hardware is being added at exchanges up and down the country.

And for mobile load, traffic can be diverted to make sure areas aren’t overloaded – something they already do for when a “snow day” keeps everyone at home in one location.

One UK network said it was at 20% “utilisation” – meaning it still has 80% remaining to handle any major uptick in usage.

They also have plenty of tools at their disposal.

For instance, networks can “throttle” or “traffic-manage” their systems, prioritising some traffic over others.
One gave the example of keeping vital NHS services online while slowing down the connection to somewhere like YouTube.

This wouldn’t shut down streaming sites – but could mean lower-quality streams or longer loading times.

And reducing every person’s internet connection wouldn’t be necessary, The Sun was told.

Will the Government step in?

Experts generally agreed that the Government was unlikely to force mass-rationing of the internet.

One UK network insider said it would be “completely bonkers” and was likely to be impossible to enforce.

And another said that the Government was simply seeking reassurances right now – and hadn’t indicated any policy changes.

Instead, it’s likely that content providers and ISPs will ration at their own discretion.

“We believe it will be left to the carriers and government will not play a role,” analyst Dan Ives told us.

In a statement given to The Sun, a spokesperson from the Government’s Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport said: “The Government is in regular contact with Ofcom and the major broadband and mobile operators to ensure that networks remain resilient.

“We understand the importance of having reliable access to the internet at this time, so people can work from home, access public services including health information, connect with friends and family and keep entertained.”

The Government has already classified telecoms staff as “key workers”.

And The Sun understands that there are no Government plans to “ration” internet capacity yet, but that officials are in daily contact with UK networks.

It seems severe action simply won’t be necessary, though.

“For sure, the initial surge was worrying, albeit expected. Telcos are now adjusting their networks accordingly,” analyst Paolo told The Sun.

“Over the next few weeks usage will proliferate as more people work at home and kids study at home.

“Overall, I am pretty confident that the most if not all networks are up to the challenge to handle mass-scale working while entertaining users in homes at the same time.”

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