As early as May in 2020, over 200 countries worldwide retreated into some level of lockdown due to coronavirus. Our extended shelter-in-place condition has led to a surge in need for internet services and digital technologies.
Remote work, online purchasing, video conferencing and streaming content all exploded, adding extreme stress to internet infrastructure everywhere. But far from breaking, these new stresses accelerated adaptations and expansions of digital infrastructure.
It’s been over a year since the pandemic was first reported, and despite initial claims that it would go away in a couple weeks, millions of people around the world are still stuck indoors and living online. Today we examine how the Covid-19 pandemic reshaped the internet and the big shifts in digital life.
Schools and Offices Have Moved Online
As whole countries were forced into month-long quarantines, everyone needed to learn how to run their lives online. Remote work became the norm for businesses that could continue operations, while schools, colleges and universities quickly expanded their remote learning services.
Both these sectors leaned heavily on digital conferencing software; having to keep in touch with other colleagues, professors and fellow students. Of the many options on the market, Zoom rose to the top of the digital meeting pile early on with a strong feature-set even for non-paying licenses, while Google and Microsoft quickly expanded their premium business and education based services.
Demand for cloud services rose in much the same way, becoming the primary way for businesses to store and share their data, lead improvements to their agility, and release new products and services faster.
E-Commerce and Online Shopping Are Now Necessities
On the consumer side, lockdown led to a huge increase in online shopping. No longer able to get out to stores in-person, millions turned to the internet to make their purchases and any business without strong ecommerce services were forced to upgrade their platforms to meet demand.
The hospitality sector in particular was greatly transformed, with restaurants shifting to online ordering and food delivery platforms in order to continue serving their customers stuck at home.
While foot-traffic was non-existent, many of these businesses actually saw an increase in sales revenue – showing that retailers who could successfully utilise digital technology could thrive during lockdown.
The At-Home Entertainment Space is Thriving
A whole population stuck at home meant that the demand for online gaming and streaming services skyrocketed. Steam, a popular online game store saw a 25% jump in activity, with 24 million players logged on at the same time, while the new gaming consoles from Sony and Microsoft sold out in less than 5 seconds on Amazon.
This huge surge in demand placed enormous strain on online entertainment services, to the point that many had to limit their offerings significantly in the early months of the pandemic.
Companies like Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, and the newly launched Disney+, all agreed to cut the picture quality of streamed video to avoid adding to the strain, while Sony, Microsoft, and Valve cut back on updates to video games or restricted them to off-peak hours.
However, these major companies were very quick to expand their infrastructure and resume delivering at full quality. Netflix installed hundreds of extra servers across multiple regions, while Zoom partnered with broadband providers across their most traffic-intense locations to set up dedicated connections.
The Growing Importance of High-Speed Internet Connectivity
As more and more of life shifts to online-only, internet access is becoming more and more necessary for survival. When the only way to get a job, study at school, shop for groceries or simply spend time with friends and family is online, those not connected to the internet are facing total exclusion.
In a similar vein, the quality of one’s internet connection is also becoming more important. Where in the past, being close enough to commute to the office was a core requirement for work options, now it’s having an internet that is fast and reliable enough to meet the demands of the company.
Fortunately the surge in new demand for high-speed internet brought about by lockdowns has driven major upgrades around the world. Global companies like Google and Amazon rapidly expanded their infrastructure, while thousands of ISPs, data centers and cloud services have massively invested in upgrades to capacity, speed, and performance across the board.
In combination with these upgrades, governments are also making it easier for companies to deliver the best internet service possible at cheaper prices. For example, Comcast has waived data caps in the US, while in South Africa, where millions of people are able to access the internet only via mobile phones, the government is relaxing regulations to allow network operators to roll out cheap or even free data plans.
All these changes have started taking on a permanent sheen as people continue to live online. And even though some countries have started lifting their lockdown restrictions, others can’t seem to get a handle on curbing the coronavirus spread.
Despite this, the need to work, consume, and be entertained haven’t changed — and the necessity for digital transformations and stronger internet connectivity will continue to be part of the conversation for years to come.