The online symposium on the value of Internet Openness at the time of COVID-19 is a joint outcome of the Internet Governance Forum coalition on Net Neutrality and Community Connectivity. This is the fourth article in the series. Read all the articles in the symposium here.

By Frode Sørensen

This essay describes the impact the COVID-19 breakout has had on the European internet traffic evolution and network capacity, the application of the European Open Internet Regulation, and preventive measures taken by stakeholders after the breakout. Overall, European internet infrastructure has coped well with the situation despite significant increase in internet traffic load.

Setting the scene after the COVID-19 breakout

In Europe, different countries imposed lockdowns to contain the pandemic, starting with Northern Italy on March 8. Internet access proved to be vital for modern society when physical movement was limited. This facilitated a steep increase in the use of teleworking facilities and online teaching tools from peoples’ homes all across Europe. Internet communications also became more important when business meetings and business travelling were replaced with virtual meetings to maintain economic activities.

The whole situation caused a significant increase in internet traffic in Europe. Concerns emerged regarding whether network capacity would be sufficient, but also whether the open internet regulation would provide any limitation to operators’ measures.

In case reservation of capacity or even traffic prioritisation would become necessary, how could this be done in line with the European Open Internet Regulation? Or would the Regulation even prevent necessary measures from being taken?

Relevance of the European Open Internet Regulation

When considering COVID-19 and the value of internet openness, the specifics of the regulatory regime are relevant. The European Open Internet Regulation follows the general approach to net neutrality known from the international debate, and clarifies several aspects that tend to vary between jurisdictions where net neutrality rules are introduced.

When looking into specific cases, such as the situation during the COVID-19 breakout, it is important to distinguish between the network layer and the application layer to be able to assess the different measures that are taken. The open internet rules apply only to the network layer, which is managed by the internet service providers (ISPs).

On top of that, end-users access different content and application providers (CAPs) at the application layer. Based on the European Open Internet Regulation, end-users have the right to access and distribute content, and to use and provide applications of their choice via their internet access service.

The distinction between network and application layers is illustrative regarding the different measures taken during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Measures may be applied at the application layer, many of which are automatically taken by the software applications . Other measures may be applied inside the network infrastructure, usually referred to as traffic management, which comes in different flavours.

Flexibility of the internet technology

The application layer is implemented at the endpoints, that is, at computers attached to the internet. Such endpoint-based functionality is essential for the traffic handling of the internet. Looking deeper into the internet technology, endpoints actually execute two layers, referred to as application and transport layer.

The transport layer contains generic endpoint functions that are used by the different applications. Many of the transport protocols (such as TCP and QUIC) perform congestion control, which is a function that slows down transmission of traffic if necessary to prevent congestion. This means that these protocols adapt to the traffic load on the internet.

Furthermore, many modern video streaming applications use dynamic adaptive streaming that adjusts the video coding according to the available bandwidth on the path from the video server to the viewer. Thereby the viewer receives the best available video quality according to the traffic level on the internet.

Finally, larger CAPs distribute their content via content delivery networks (CDNs) that consist of proxy servers located relatively close to the content receivers. This leads to better performance for the transmission of the content due to shorter distances, at the same time it reduces the traffic pressure on the internet since traffic is not sent unnecessarily across internet interconnections.

Initiatives taken by European institutions

The European Commission took an early initiative by establishing a dialogue with different video streaming providers, regarding the possibility to switch to standard definition instead of high definition during peak hours. The European Video Games Industry announced that to mitigate potential network issues during the COVID-19 crisis, they would conduct downloads of new releases late at night to early morning when the internet usage is low.

Such precautions relate to the application layer, though this layer also has the built-in mechanisms to prevent network congestion as described previously.

Shortly after, BEREC and the European Commission announced a joint initiative on coping with increased demand for network connectivity due to COVID-19. In their statement, they committed to preserve open internet access in the circumstances of the COVID-19 crisis, noting that the Open Internet Regulation “prohibits operators from blocking, slowing down or prioritising traffic.”

This announcement refers to traffic handling at the network layer, where reasonable traffic management measures are allowed. Furthermore, due to the COVID-19 situation, BEREC and the European Commission found it relevant to clarify that “operators can avail themselves of this exception [exceptional traffic management], if such traffic management measures are necessary to solve or to prevent the congestion and they can only be maintained for as long as necessary.”

Observations from the European perspective

Approximately a week later, BEREC announced its initiative to report on the status of internet capacity in light of COVID-19. BEREC committed to setting up a mechanism to ensure regular monitoring of the internet traffic situation in Europe, through regular monitoring twice a week, and to signal any significant unexpected event.

In general, their observation has been that the overall traffic in fixed and mobile networks has increased during the crisis, but that no major congestion issues have been reported. According to the information available to BEREC, network operators have been able to cope well with the additional internet traffic load.

Another source assessing the impact of COVID-19 on internet traffic conditions is Tech4i2, which observed that the average time to reach leading CAPs increased. This seems to gradually improve. A stress test performed on 10 April, showed similar results for Europe and US, with US slightly better than EU27, and EFTA slightly better than US.

The Tech4i2 paper also notes that access speeds are influenced by the capacity of routers and internet exchanges on one hand, and cloud and edge servers on the other hand, that are available in the proximity of end-users. This corresponds to the network layer and the application layer, respectively.

Conclusions should be drawn based on the full picture

In the aftermath of the European measures, there have also been allegations that these measures indicate that there were problems that needed to be mitigated with the internet in Europe under the pandemic, and even that there were “tremendous problems”. However, there are no observations supporting such conclusions.

Wherever such assessment is to be done, it is advisable to draw the conclusion based on the full picture. So far, the flexibility of the internet technology and the efforts contributed by ISPs and CAPs together have led to a situation where the networks can cope with the increased internet traffic in Europe, as elaborated above.

When considering the European Open Internet Regulation, the rules are designed to take care of exceptional circumstances. ISPs may implement exceptional traffic management measures if necessary to keep their networks running. At the same time, end-users’ rights are safeguarded by the requirement that equivalent categories of traffic must be treated equally. As we have seen, the European model is working.

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Frode Sørensen is a senior advisor in internet governance at the Norwegian Communications Authority (Nkom) and he holds a Master of Science degree from the University of Oslo. Frode has been leading the development of the Norwegian net neutrality policy at Nkom since 2007, and he has been an architect behind the Norwegian guidelines for net neutrality published in 2009. He has been Chair of BEREC Net Neutrality Expert Working Group 2010-2018, which developed European Guidelines on net neutrality, based on Regulation (EU) 2015/2120. Since 2019, Frode has represented Norway in the Governmental Advisory Committee in ICANN. He has previously worked at Agder University, Telenor and Ericsson and he is author of several books on Internet technology.