Business

Japan internet providers say they can handle coronavirus-driven surge

by Masumi Koizumi

STAFF WRITER

Internet traffic in Japan has spiked as more homebound workers and students rely on video meetings and streaming content amid the COVID-19 outbreak, raising the question of how much this will affect access to networks that may until now have been taken for granted.

With more school classes set to go online later this month and more business being conducted virtually, data volumes are expected to grow. That will test the durability and stability of the nation’s internet infrastructure.

Some internet service providers have said their infrastructure can withstand more traffic, though the extent to which usage may increase, and how that may hinder uploads and downloads, remains unclear.

According to NTT Communications Corp., which runs the OCN internet service, weekday daytime traffic in March skyrocketed by up to about 40 percent compared with the period between Feb. 3 and Feb. 7, before the crisis deepened. The traffic surge can be attributed to domestic firms’ shift to teleworking and nationwide school closures, as requested by the government.

The company’s data shows the increased traffic resulting in particular from videoconferencing, video streaming and social media.

But the ballooning demand seen in recent days is manageable, an NTT Communications official reassured, as the company’s telecommunications facilities are built to handle traffic even if it doubles the current peak amount.

The upward trend continued into April. The latest traffic for April 6 to April 10 was up to about 28 percent higher than in the period between Feb. 25 and Feb.28.

Although the company’s facilities are resilient, the official said that “the constant monitoring of the traffic change” is important.

Companies in the nation are contributing to rising internet use by changing their working styles, with more relying on messaging and video chat apps for business communications.

Among them is cosmetics maker Kao Corp., which began adopting teleworking for its domestic employees from Feb. 28.

A Kao spokesman said that employees across departments are now making more use of Microsoft’s business messaging app Teams for meetings.

Microsoft Corp. reported on April 9 that Teams logged a daily record of 2.7 billion meeting minutes in one day on March 31, triple the 900 million figure seen March 16, though the company does not disclose a country-by-country breakdown.

The country’s big three mobile carriers — NTT Docomo Inc., KDDI Corp., and SoftBank Corp. — have also braced for an expected growth in demand for mobile data among students taking online classes.

Watching those classes can eat up a large amount of data and could pose a challenge for students who rely on metered internet services, many of whom often attending classes by using their smartphones to connect to the internet.

To ensure students can study remotely, the three mobile carriers earlier this month began providing users age 25 years or younger additional data of up to 50 gigabytes for free for a limited time. The initiative followed a request from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications to give students the connectivity they need to attend lessons remotely.

Even if the telecom companies’ internet infrastructure is holding up, that does not necessarily mean comfortable net use for all users, noted Takeshi Ikeda, an analyst and vice president at IT research firm Gartner Inc.

Traffic, he said, “becomes heavily congested coming out of apartments,” for instance, meaning residents will experience slower speeds.

In fact, complaints about having difficulty staying connected in apartments with shared internet lines are already being seen on Twitter.

Ikeda expects the bulk of the increased internet traffic to come through broadband internet connections rather than via mobile and smartphone handsets, as people stuck at home are more likely to use cable and Wi-Fi connections where available.

The three mobile carriers have said that as of Monday they had not seen a remarkable change in traffic levels across their networks.

“There is the strong possibility that the traffic (via fixed internet lines) will grow much further with more school classes going online,” Ikeda said.

So telecom companies “must not be sitting back, relaxed,” he said.

If telecom facilities reach the peak of their capacity, several approaches can be taken to relieve the burden on infrastructure, he said. One is lowering the quality of data-heavy videos, as YouTube has already done for users worldwide.

In Europe, streaming service Netflix has also reduced its streaming bit rates for 30 days, which could result in lower data transmissions in line with the European Union’s request to ease strain on the internet. Doing so will cut Netflix traffic on European networks by around 25 percent, according to the company.

Some wonder whether a similar measure will become necessary in Japan with the rise of at-home entertainment.

But a Netflix public relations representative said Wednesday that they don’t have any plan at the moment to adjust traffic in the country.

As streaming video consumes a lot of data, the other possible approach Ikeda cited was to set limits on videoconferencing time.

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