Can Technology Handle the Stress of Coronavirus?

As I’m writing this, it is the morning of March 16, 2020. Why do I put a specific date and time on this? Because things at this time and on this date are moving so quickly that it’s critical for context. One week ago, although COVID-19 had begun to affect certain areas, for the most part, life in the U.S. was relatively normal. What a difference a week makes. Over the last few days, every sporting organization in the country has shut down, Broadway has gone dark, Disneyland and Disney World are closed and Vegas casinos are announcing closings, Apple has announced the closure of all stores outside China, many school districts have announced full closures or e-learning, universities are sending students home to continue classes online, and many companies are asking employees who can to work from home.

Obviously, there are many implications to all of this, with one key being the technology needed to handle these extreme circumstances. Workplace and educational software is absolutely critical in these cases. Video and chat software companies are working to keep businesses running, and the infrastructure essential to keep those platforms running must keep up with demand.

In a “commitment to customers,” Microsoft announced the premium version of its Microsoft Teams product already included with Office 365 would be available for six months free of charge even to non-O365 subscribers. Additionally, the company offers several resources for deployment for both businesses and education. Can it handle the burden? Microsoft spells out its continuity plan, noting that plan was tested during the usage spike in China in January: “Since January 31, we’ve seen a 500 percent increase in Teams meetings, calling, and conferences there, and a 200 percent increase in Teams usage on mobile devices.”

Like Microsoft, popular conferencing platform Zoom first tested its limits in China, having lifted its 40-minute limit on free video in February for that country and having done so since for schools in other affected regions. It announced a partnership with single-sign-on portal Clever to allow for a much easier rollout for schools and offers a number of helpful resources for school districts that may find themselves in uncharted territory. For a brief period, Zoom was the No. 1 most downloaded app in the Apple app store — over the hugely popular social media app TikTok. “Hope you can handle all the bandwidth usage coming your way,” tweeted one user in response to Zoom’s announcement of the milestone. Zoom CEO Eric Yuan told Forbes that Zoom’s data centers, which use cloud architecture and auto-scaling, were set up to handle surges of as much as 100 times normal usage.

Google began rolling out free access to its advanced Hangouts Meet videoconferencing for all G Suite and G Suite for Education customers, including the capacity for up to 250 participants per call and live streaming for up to 100,000 viewers within a domain — features normally available only in the Enterprise editions. In a blog, Google noted it was adding resources to support increased demand for public live streaming on YouTube.

Google Classroom, an app I didn’t know existed prior to last week, is currently the No. 5 app in the Apple App Store. It is key to a number of school districts attempting to switch to online learning.

The Seattle area was one of the first and hardest hit regions in the country, and this article outlines one parent’s experience with online learning in the Northshore School District, which went online the first week of March. While describing the tools and software her family uses, the author notes the importance of technology equity. “My family was lucky,” she notes, “but the district had to make sure every student had the opportunity to keep learning.” Computers, tablets and WiFi hotspot devices were loaned to any family that needed them. However online K-12 learning presents far more challenges than telework, and last Friday Northshore announced it was pausing its online program, citing equity issues.

Colleges and universities, which already offer a number of online offerings and are generally better-equipped for an online learning environment, are likewise rolling out policies that will keep students off campus. The University of Central Florida, for example, announced on its website that “Starting March 16, current online courses will continue as usual. Courses in other modalities, including face-to-face, will be canceled Monday and Tuesday. All faculty are expected to have their courses available online to students by Wednesday, March 18.”

But just as the lack of equity in Northridge illustrated, it’s incorrect to assume that every college student being sent home to engage in online learning, or even every employee needing to telework, has the tools. After all, in addition to computers and software, internet is a requirement for online operations, whether corporate or educational. Companies like Comcast and Spectrum are stepping up, with Comcast offering 60 days of free internet to low-income families in its service areas, and Charter Communications following suit. What type of burden does this place on infrastructure? “The network is built to sustain maximum capacity during peak usage which is typically in the evenings, so a surge during the day would be well within the network’s capabilities to manage,” reads Charter’s press release. “Charter will continue to closely monitor this dynamic situation, and is well-prepared to continue delivering reliable connectivity. Charter has extensive business and workforce continuity plans in place that will be adjusted as needed to best serve all our customers and employees.”

Comcast, as well as AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon, temporarily lifted bandwidth caps amid letters from lawmakers to all major ISPs urging them to do so in light of the increase in telework. “Unfortunately, many Americans are subject to restrictive data caps for their home broadband service — caps that could be particularly onerous given the more intensive broadband usage of households practicing social distancing measures,” read the letters.

What about the internet itself? With all of this extra demand and accessibility, can the backbone of the internet handle the strain? According to an AP report, the U.S. internet is well-equipped to handle the work from home surge. “The core of the network is massively over-provisioned,” Paul Vixie, CEO of Farsight Security and an internet pioneer who helped design its domain naming system, told AP.

Like almost everything else, technology is entering uncharted territory during these strange days of the coronavirus pandemic. Can it handle the burdens thrown at it? Can we? I say we go with optimism, and that someday soon we’ll find this blog in the archives and remember how people and companies stepped up to meet the challenges of an unprecedented global crisis.

is BPO Media and Research’s editorial director. As a writer and editor, she has specialized in the office technology industry for more than 20 years, focusing on areas including print and imaging hardware and supplies, workflow automation, software, digital transformation, document management and cybersecurity.