In the pre-pandemic world, weekdays on the internet were pretty placid. Most of the normal routines of work are undemanding for the network: emails, Slack messages, loading websites, sharing files.
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Web traffic in the U.S. would typically pick up around 9 p.m., as millions of us settled in to decompress with Hulu or Netflix, Disney+ or Amazon Prime Video. Netflix has 60 million U.S. subscribers (and many are multiuser memberships). Hulu has 30 million subscribers, Disney+ 30 million, Prime Video 40 million. Even accounting for overlap, more than half of Americans can watch streaming video on any particular Tuesday night. (One study says that 70 percent of U.S. households have a streaming subscription.) And streaming video takes huge amounts of internet bandwidth. Internet traffic across the network rises each night as people tune in.
“The peak in backbone traffic used to be Saturday and Sunday nights,” said Chris Sambar, who runs AT&T’s technology operations, a division with 22,000 employees who build, maintain, and operate the company’s global network. On Sunday nights, Americans “don’t go out. We stay home and watch videos and movies. Sunday night has always been the high-water mark for traffic.” At least until mid-March 2020.
On Friday, March 13, AT&T told its employees that everyone who could should start working from home, and the following Monday, more than a third of the company’s staff—some 90,000 people—reported to work from their kitchen table. That same week, lots of companies with employees who could work from home did the same. Stay-at-home orders soon followed from state and local governments. Immediately, Sambar said, “we started to see peaks in the middle of the week.” Use was rising sharply during the normally quiet daytime hours, and also on weekday evenings. “We started seeing multiple days during the week equivalent to Sunday.”
Two big things were happening.
First, tens of millions of Americans who normally met face-to-face with colleagues or classmates were now doing so over the internet, using audio- and videoconferencing, Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, Webex. All of a sudden, the daytime internet was filling up with high-demand video traffic.
And second, all those connections were being made from dining-room tables and couches at home. Big downtown office buildings, sprawling office parks—those have robust internet connections because so many people rely on them, and because some work functions (such as stock trading) require superfast, super-responsive connections that don’t slow at all. Residences do not.
In the month since businesses closed and people started working from home, AT&T data show that the amount of phone calling we did using Wi-Fi as the initial connection (“Wi-Fi calling”) nearly doubled during the day. We were jumping on our cellphones at home to talk with our colleagues, and often the phone was deciding that the cellular network itself was so busy that it was best to use Wi-Fi to connect the call.