AI, fibre investment sees Comcast ride out massive wave of network traffic in 2020

Smart hardware and software technologies allow national US network provider to manage unprecedented traffic driven by major growth in online video and gaming

US comms provider Comcast believes that in 2020, the internet was a “bright spot during the darkest hours”, keeping hundreds of millions of people connected to work, school and entertainment – and the company has just released network traffic data showing exactly how it kept the lights on during difficult times.

Highlighting the impact of Covid-19 as the world approaches the first anniversary of the widespread pandemic and shift to stay-at-home working, Comcast’s 2020 Network data report revealed a sharp traffic surge in March and April 2020 – with massive use of gaming and online video in addition to business applications such as video conferencing – followed by a transition into a more typical, although still elevated, growth trend for the rest of the year.

The study found that over a four-month period in the wake of pandemic lockdowns, the network experienced almost two years’ worth of traffic growth. Comcast customers surfed, streamed and emailed more than ever before, and generated more than a trillion internet requests (DNS lookups) each day – the first time they had generated such a volume of traffic.

Peak internet traffic was found to have risen 32% from pre-pandemic levels, and by more than 50% in some Comcast markets in March. Peak downstream traffic in 2020 increased by about 38% over 2019 levels, while peak upstream traffic rose by about 56%. Despite the growth in upstream traffic – mainly from applications such as gaming – traffic patterns remained highly asymmetrical, with downstream traffic volumes 14 times higher than upstream volumes throughout 2020.

Despite the massive increases in video-conferencing activity, the research found entertainment activities continued to dominate network traffic, with video streaming accounting for 71% of all downstream traffic, and 70% up on 2019 levels. Other key drivers of downstream traffic were online gaming and the accompanying software downloads (10%), and web browsing (8%). Video-conferencing traffic from the likes of Zoom and Microsoft Teams accounted for less than 5% of overall network usage.

Comcast noted that even with the unprecedented increase in demand and traffic, it continued to deliver above-advertised speeds to customers across the US, including in areas most affected by Covid-19. It said what it called the “remarkable” performance of the network during this time could be attributed both to “outstanding” work by technical and care teams throughout the pandemic and to “key innovations” in strategic technological investment before the pandemic began.

Its engineers had built multiple new smart software platforms – powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning – to detect and fix problems before they affected customers. One of those software platforms, Comcast Octave – the completion of which was dramatically accelerated by engineers in response to the pandemic – was said to have enabled the firm to increase upstream capacity by up to 36%, just at the time when traffic levels began to surge.

The cableco also revealed that between 2017 and 2020, it invested more than $15bn to expand, strengthen and evolve its network and that over the same period, it had built an additional 39,153 route miles of fibre into the network, and made thousands of capacity augments from the core of the network down to individual neighbourhoods.

Tony Werner, president of technology, product and Xperience at Comcast Cable, said: “We’re proud of the years of strategic investment and innovation that enabled us to build the foundation of a high-speed, intelligent network designed to scale to the needs of our most demanding users, and also adapt to unexpected events.”

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