2020 will likely be remembered as the year in which working from home became commonplace, anywhere, it was possible. It was also a year in which socializing with people outside our homes came in fits and starts as restrictions across the world were eased and tightened. Although vaccines are on the way, these trends are likely to remain for a while as we face continued lockdowns around the globe.
It was also a year that the Internet faced unprecedented levels of traffic, as many of us relied on it more than ever before. Whether tuning into more programs through streaming services, videoconferencing with colleagues, or enjoying a new dawn of virtual quizzing, the Internet was always there to see us through. In fact, Ofcom's annual Online Nation report reveals that in April 2020, during the height of the first lockdown, UK adults spent a daily average of four hours and two minutes online – up from just under three and a half hours in September last year.
So when we look back on what a staple the Internet has become in our lives, it’s hard to fathom that it was born only 50 years ago. Looking beyond just the behaviors that have been amplified by the pandemic, in recent years we have relied more and more on the internet to distribute extremely high value, high quality content – and this trend is only going to increase. According to the Cisco Annual Internet Report 2018-2023, the number of Internet users is expected to reach 5.3 billion by 2023, up from 3.9 billion in 2018.
But the massive increase in our reliance on the Internet shouldn’t lull us into a false sense of security. While the past year has felt momentous for our online worlds, we can’t forget that we are in the midst of another Internet evolution as 5G is shifting from buzzword to reality. The impact of this technology is very real. It will drive more demand and add even more pressure to the system over the next few years. Therefore, with so much still ahead of us – both in terms of increased usage and new technologies – we need to look at what must be done to ensure we maintain the speed, quality and resiliency that consumers now expect.
The birth of the video-first world
However, while improved connectivity may be a driver for the adoption of online streaming, it will not solve all of the challenges of content delivery. For example, live sporting events create enormous spikes in traffic particularly during critical moments of long duration games. In fact, The Champions League took the top spot for internet usage for all of 2020 in the UK. With millions of consumers pushing networks to these new limits, incredible new pressure will be put on the system and this is simply not something that faster links alone can solve.
One constant we have witnessed over the history of the Internet is that when connectivity improves, the new experiences it enables quickly follow, which in turn puts additional strain on other parts of the system.
5G is a major advancement that holds great promise for businesses and consumers alike with the prospect of increased bandwidth, lower latencies and more. This year will see further 5G roll-outs which will mean that more devices will be able to connect to the Internet at ever higher speeds, and the demand for online content will grow along with it. Much of this traffic will be video-heavy and delivered in high definition and users will expect fast startup, instantaneous websites, no rebuffering and speedy downloads. Analysys Mason predicts that 5G will be a significant enabler of cloud gaming due to the lower latencies and higher speeds it offers. Video delivered at faster frame rates and the need for 360-degree content for the growing use of AR and VR is likely to result in much higher traffic than typical video.
We only need to look at Ofcom’s report to understand the UK’s growing interest in this form of media. The video platform TikTok reached 12.9 million UK adult visitors in April. Twitch, the live streaming platform for gamers, saw visitors increase from 2.3 million to 4.2 million, and one third of online adults now spend more time viewing video-sharing services than broadcast television.
The importance of the edge
The Internet, in its earliest conception, imagined that content would flow from a single source directly to the intended recipients, no matter how far away, or how large the audience. However, it soon became apparent that this architecture could not support some of the most popular online content. Users connecting over long distances to centralized servers would often encounter congestion due to bottlenecks. They would suffer poor quality experiences as the Internet struggled to provide reliability over what is inherently an unreliable, best-effort underlying technology, and centralized server deployments would become overloaded with unexpected traffic surges. Unfortunately, faster Internet doesn’t help these problems, it makes them worse.
While over time many significant advancements have been made to the protocols and systems that comprise the Internet, it remains the case that the most key technology for overcoming these problems and delivering high quality, reliable experiences is delivering the content from the edge of the Internet itself. An intelligent edge platform is highly-distributed, delivering content to users from a server that’s close-by, avoiding bottlenecks and congestion on the Internet, and reducing the load on the servers hosting the content. This makes it possible to deliver high definition video without glitches, load websites without delays and download software in a fraction of the time. The intelligent edge is also programmable, so that organizations can make dynamic decisions in serving content while maintaining the lowest latency possible to the end-user. As such, we can expect increasing need for this technology to help experiences run smoothly in the face of the increasing demand.
2020 was unexpectedly challenging, and the Internet has allowed us to stay connected and entertained in the most difficult of times. However, we’re only at the beginning of its next chapter. Of course, the prospect of a higher quality, faster Internet is exciting and it will enable new experiences we have not yet imagined. But we must remember that to truly deliver on its promises, we must look beyond the hype of faster connections alone to transform business on the Internet.
James Kretchmar, CTO, Akamai Technologies Inc