Coronavirus: European network traffic curves flatten but security issues increase

Nokia research finds networks are taking the strain despite a huge increase in upstream traffic during the day from videoconferencing and downstream during weekends from video-on-demand

As the mass lockdowns across Europe move well into their second month, research from network comms tech provider Nokia has revealed that the predicted mass strains on infrastructures from extra home usage appear to be under control so far but that, worryingly, extra game usage is seeing a surge in distributed denial of service (DDoS) traffic.

Looking at the situation on networks in the week up to 9 April 2020, and following previous analyst for the weeks ending 20 and 27 March as well as 2 April, Nokia said that immediately after lockdown, it measured weekday peak traffic increases of over 45% and in some cases even over 50%, and weekend evening peak traffic increases of 20-40% above their pre-lockdown levels.

But over the past couple of weeks, Nokia has seen this growth flattening, and with most networks in lockdown showing modest or no growth over the previous week.

Nokia said flattening traffic curves in Europe were likely to result from a combination of peak video consumption reaching practical maximum levels and subscription video-on-demand services such as Netflix, YouTube TV and Amazon Prime Video making reductions in quality of experience to reduce strain on networks.

Looking at the upstream traffic on select networks in the US for the month of March, Nokia monitored a 30% increase in the upstream traffic over pre-pandemic levels. It also observed that in some networks in Europe, average, per-consumer upstream was peaking at 1.7Mbps – up from 1.1Mbps at the beginning of March and staying at these levels for extended periods of the day.

Nokia attributed the increase in upstream traffic as a probable outcome of what it called “phenomenal” growth in the use of videoconferencing and collaboration tools, which require higher bandwidth to the cloud. It also saw an increase in Microsoft Office suite upstream traffic as almost everyone who can work from home is doing so.

Nokia’s findings were reflected in earlier research by OpenVault, which also found that consumption was showing indications of reaching a plateau in markets that had been “quarantined” against the coronavirus. The broadband technology and analytics solutions provider noted that after three weeks of double-digit percentage growth, the total downstream data usage in those markets with shelter-at-home policies declined by 5.8% during the week of 30 March-3 April when compared with the previous week.

Although total upstream usage continued to grow during this timeframe, the increase over the previous week was only 2.3%.

Overall data usage growth in quarantined markets was 33.1% when measured against OpenVault’s January 2020 usage benchmarks. Average daily downstream consumption during the 9am-to-5pm business hours from 30 March-3 April was 6.35GB, 42.46% higher than the January level of 4.46GB, while average daily business hour upstream usage rose by 82.5% from 0.215GB in January to 0.392GB on 3 April.

However, Nokia warned that it would be weekends and especially weekend evenings during lockdown that would continue to be the test of whether networks can address the extra demand. Although it said that consistent video streaming rates indicated sufficient network capacity, Nokia noted that by 9 April, most recent weekend peak traffic volumes were still at least 20-30% above pre-pandemic values.

The bulk of network traffic at these peak hours – from 9pm to 11pm, Friday to Sunday – was down to streaming video-on-demand (SVOD) services such as Netflix, it said.

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Nokia said an “interesting” streaming video moment was recorded in Spain on Friday 4 April, when SVOD traffic eclipsed its Saturday and Sunday peak levels, which are typically higher. This came on the back of the 3 April launch on Netflix of the fourth season of hugely popular Spanish original series La Casa de Papel (Money Heist).

Comparing total (daily) peak traffic on Friday 4 April with Friday 27 March, all traffic was up by 47% while the number of Netflix streams increased by 36%. Nokia also found that the quality of Netflix streams – measured in terms of average bit rate, or streaming speed – increased by 11%. It said this was a positive sign but was still below the speeds before Netflix’s voluntary reduction in streaming speeds, which started on 20 March.

Another interesting finding, said Nokia, was that during both weekdays and weekends, right after video applications – that is, combining SVOD and videoconferencing – web browsing rose to second place in traffic-contributing applications, much higher in volume than gaming, social networking and peer-to-peer.

However, one hugely negative consequence of the traffic growth was a commensurate rise in the overall volume of DDoS traffic, with amounts exceeding pre-pandemic levels by 40%. Nokia said this increase may be related to the significant rise in gaming-related DDoS attacks, and added that it was continuing to investigate the issue.

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