As users turn to the Internet for everything they need during a pandemic, what keeps us online and virtually productive?

With countries across the region locking down their borders and implementing social distancing measures to contain COVID-19 infections, businesses have employed work-from-home strategies, and people who are at risk of infection are confined to quarantine arrangements.

As a result, more people are turning to the Internet for everything they need. They go online to connect with their family and friends, for work and business collaboration, to shop for food and essentials, and for entertainment such as videos and games.

Naturally, the Internet is under a huge strain and experts are seeing double-digit increases in traffic amid the COVID-19 lockdown. In Singapore alone, Internet usage has jumped by more than 60%.

According to CenturyLink, besides the higher user demand, the Internet is also struggling to keep up with richer content from over-the-top (OTT) video streaming and gaming companies delivering high-performing web applications and ultra-high-definition (UHD) video.

DigiconAsia speak with Francis Thangasamy, Vice President, Product Management, CenturyLink Asia Pacific for some trends, facts and figures, as well as how this stress on Internet traffic and access can be addressed.

What is the current Internet traffic volume by the day? When are the peak hours?

Francis: We are seeing a significant growth in Internet usage, and just over the past month, there was an estimated 35% increase in our network. Compared to the same time last year, traffic on our Content Delivery Network (CDN) platform in Asia Pacific has increased by about 3.5 times. Much of this growth is demand coming from online videos, gaming and streaming. Of course, we are also seeing significant capacity increase in voice and collaboration services as more people work from home and students do home-based learning.

Historically, peak network hours are when people get home from work and school, and they go online to watch movies, play games and surf the Internet. Therefore, the public Internet traffic is running at its highest levels between 5:00pm to 10:00pm – this trend remains during this period.

Typically, we see a steady increase from 6:00am in the morning, and the traffic generally drops off after midnight.

What are network owners doing to resolve the Internet overload issue? How is it working?

Francis: At CenturyLink, our adaptive network is handling the demand surge well. Earlier in December, we announced that we have doubled our CDN capacity. We are also working with our collaboration platform partners to allow them to increase their capacity to handle more simultaneous voice and video collaboration sessions.

Our Network Operations teams are constantly monitoring and evaluating utilization patterns across our network – We are leveraging traffic engineering techniques and smart technologies to optimize the flow of traffic which includes moving traffic through less-congested routes should the need arise.

We recognize that high-speed Internet service plays a crucial role in the everyday lives of our customers. We stand ready, willing, and able to meet the near-term and long-term needs of digital businesses and are prepared to ensure traffic flows smoothly across our network, regardless of changes in demand.

Generally, network operators should already have in place the flexibility, scalability and security in their network infrastructure to anticipate traffic surge. More importantly, they need to ensure that they build resiliency and redundancy into their networks to prevent any breakdown or outage.

What about cybersecurity? Is this trend opening up Internet users to more risks and what can be done to mitigate this?

Francis: As employees switch to remote working, we have seen a general uptick in cybersecurity events, including ransomware, malware, phishing, and DDoS attacks. There is also a steep increase in overall customer security awareness as companies discuss how they can stay ahead of threats, and emergency security bandwidth upgrade requests.

Enabling employees to connect to the corporate network via VPN extends the reach of secured segment of corporate assets and workloads to remote employees. But VPNs are not a silver bullet. It is equally critical to have a strong authentication mechanism in place, strong passwords and preferably with at least 2-Factor Authentication (2FA) in conjunction with a VPN connection.

Employees need to be constantly reminded not to share their personal and corporate information openly. They need to be wary of phishing emails, unverified websites, or other avenues which might introduce malicious software to their endpoint. Attackers are known to take advantage of human weaknesses, especially person or persons who have been cooped up at home and longing to seek news, information and connect with others out there.

At CenturyLink, we are working with our customers to mitigate these cyber risks. For example, our Security Operations Center work closely with CenturyLink Black Lotus Labs (Threat Research Labs) to track more than 18,000 C2s every day. Machine learning models developed by Black Lotus Labs also ingest over 139 billion NetFlow sessions and some 771 million DNS queries every day. In the first half of 2019, Black Lotus Labs tracked an average of 3.8 million unique threats per month, correlating them against CenturyLink’s NetFlow and DNS metadata to alert customers to a potential compromise.

With this deep-network threat intelligence, CenturyLink is able to gain real time information on cyberthreats, and we have also implemented automated threat responses and offer recommendations to help our customers protect their digital businesses.

How do you see this trend developing in the longer term of 2 to 3 years?

Francis: Many organizations have expedited their transformation initiatives due to the current situation and will have to adapt to the new ways of doing business. The shift in work practices is also putting online collaboration tools and video conferencing services to heavy use, testing the strengths and limits of their enterprise networks.

This underscores the importance of business continuity planning (BCP) and emergency preparedness in every organization. Many people are already calling this the ‘new normal’. Businesses need to continue to adopt new technologies to remain relevant and adjust to the new normal.

During the current downturn, we also see a surge in demand for digital services. These include e-commerce, online learning platforms, and content streaming services.

The digitization of everything and growth of the application economy will drive us towards even more reliance on data. Across industries, traditional companies are turning into digital businesses. That means businesses are only going to be more data-driven, which is critical for business success and can mean the difference between surviving and thriving.

Businesses will need to be supported by robust and intelligent adaptive networks so they can better engage with customers and partners. It is also crucial for digital businesses to be equipped with agile IT systems that can help them seize opportunities quicker and deliver mission-critical applications faster. Additionally, they need a connected security strategy to protect valuable applications and information internally and externally. Digital Trust is now more important than ever before, and security will remain top of mind for enterprises.

Although remote working is much more achievable in modern digital businesses and a massive win for agility and productivity, workers still need to be empowered with the required skills, with the network infrastructure as the strategic enabler to support applications.

The modern business needs to continue to tap on the variety, velocity, and volume of the data available to inform business strategies, drive innovation and refine customer applications, offers, and experiences as industries comes even closer to the edge.