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COVID-19: Operators could boost capex, but security threats also rise

There are growing indications that global Internet network traffic is beginning to plateau after weeks of dramatic increases sparked by the spread of COVID-19. Moreover, some forecasts show that the pandemic may ultimately push operators to increase spending on their networks.

However, at least one study shows that cyber threats are also on the rise.

"We noticed a steady increase in the overall volume of DDoS traffic – with amounts exceeding the pre-pandemic levels by 40%," wrote Nokia's Craig Labovitz, head of the company's Deepfield portfolio of network intelligence, analytics and security products, a position he said gives him a view directly into global Internet network performance. He explained that distributed denial-of-service traffic (DDoS) is malicious traffic aimed at rendering websites or online services inoperable.

Concluded Labovitz: "This increase may be related to the significant rise in gaming-related DDoS attacks; we continue to investigate this issue – so more to come on this topic."

Traffic plateaus
Despite what appears to be an increase in cyber attacks, a growing number of Internet providers and network-monitoring companies are seeing signs that a "new normal" is being to settle across the Internet. That's noteworthy considering Internet traffic spiked by up to 50% or more during initial stay-at-home orders around the world.

"While usage in key categories is still up compared to a typical day, the large increases we saw over the first four weeks of this transition have started to normalize," said Kyle Malady, Verizon's CTO, in a statement. "While we are still in an unprecedented situation and are monitoring the network extremely closely 24x7, we may be seeing the tail end of the large variations in customer usage behaviors we have seen the last few weeks."

Verizon reported that gaming traffic across its network is settling at around 115% above levels before the pandemic. Similarly, the company reported video traffic is up 36% and web traffic is up 27% compared with traffic prior to the virus's spread caused a pandemic.

T-Mobile reported similar increases in traffic on its network. The company said it has been able to address that growth in part through its deployment of spectrum loaned by Dish Network. Network-monitoring firm OpenSignal reported that it took T-Mobile less than three days to start deploying the additional spectrum, and that the operator doubled its 600MHz network speeds via the spectrum.

Overall, US network-monitoring firm BroadbandNow reported that most US cities saw some kind of network slowdown due to virus-related traffic, but that "many of these markets are showing signs of improvement this week."

Network reconfigurations and improvements
Interestingly, according to a new report from MIT Technology Review, a wide range of Internet firms are now working to improve their infrastructure in an effort to deliver services to homebound customers more quickly.

For example, the publication reported that video streaming provider Netflix is looking to install hundreds of extra servers in smaller cities around the country and the world to push its delivery system closer to its customers and speed up its service. Web conferencing company Zoom is engaging in similar work.

And data center company Equinix is in the middle of upgrading its traffic capacity from 10 to 100 GB over the next few weeks – work that was previously scheduled to be completed within a year or two.

Finally, the analysts at research and consulting firm Dell'Oro predicted that the spread of the coronavirus may highlight the "realization that broadband is an essential utility." As a result, the firm predicted that network operators would increase their spending to meet that demand.

Dell'Oro reported that worldwide telecom capex – the sum of wireless and wireline operator investments – increased 2% in constant currency conditions in 2019, after more than three years of declines. The firm explained that the rise is due to stable demand for wireline equipment and "surging investments" in wireless technologies.

"It is still early days to fully grasp the human and economic impact from COVID-19. So at this juncture, we envision there could be some albeit limited short-term capex downside due to the COVID-19," the firm wrote. "At the same time, there are still some practical short-term challenges as countries shut down for a couple of months impacting the supply chain and the ability to perform network upgrades and deploy new equipment."

Continued Dell'Oro: "Medium to long-term, we envision COVID-19 could have a positive impact on capex. We are not downplaying the tragedy that the coronavirus represents with immeasurable humans losses and massive economic losses. But we do believe COVID-19 has and will continue to expose the digital divide accelerating the need for businesses and governments to review their broadband plans to not only prepare for the next pandemic, but also to accelerate their digital transformation plans."

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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