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The Internet’s ‘new normal’ - the good, the bad and the heroes

Updated: Jul 8, 2020

At least half of the world is currently in some form of lockdown as governments attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 and 'flatten the curve' of infection rates.

While such measures are crucial to save lives, the economic costs are nonetheless devastating. Wherever possible, communities, organisations, individuals, and businesses are using the Internet to stay connected, provide services and keep the (somewhat smaller) wheels of commerce turning. 

The digital economy has kicked in to enable what’s being touted as the world’s biggest work-from-home experiment. For those who can access the Internet and use it to their advantage - be that for delivering on a deadline, watching a movie, buying food or even getting a medical check-up - it’s working well, for now. So well, in fact, that Google and others like it have said that their employees will be working remotely until at least 2021. Twitter has announced that its employees will be working from home ‘forever’.

Africa’s demand for online access is not only growing in terms of volume; more users are demanding higher speeds and better quality connectivity too. I think Seacom’s 15% increase in South African data traffic is indicative of how people are now behaving. Workonline recently announced its connection to France-IX to expand its peering capacity in Europe, whilst also increasing its transit and backbone capacity across Europe (which is it impressively able to do remotely after the implementation of Covid19 related planning) to meet the growing demand in Africa.

Many FTTX providers have won popularity points recently by increasing packages and offering more bandwidth at no extra cost, however, there have been concerns that this may set an unsustainable expectation. It’s all well and good increasing the size of the motorway to allow for more traffic and less congestion of the last mile, but if rest of the global networks (such as undersea and terrestrial cables, peering ports, etc) haven’t also been upgraded this can lead to a worse experience for all. Some much-needed recent good news is the announcement that 2Africa, the impressive new subsea cable to serve the African continent and Middle East region, is going ahead and is fully funded by leading undersea cable network operators such as Facebook, MTN GlobalConnect, Orange, STC, China Mobile International, Telecom Egypt, WIOCC and Vodafone. The build will be led by Alcatel Submarine Networks (ASN). All going well, I’d presume that this exciting boost to the continent’s Internet capacity will start to impact the local markets in 2024.

While COVID-19 threatens human health, it has also put the health of Africa’s Internet ecosystem at risk. What we do know is that tech supply chains have been disrupted and hardware manufacturing has been hampered. Some questions I have been asking myself of late are:

  • Will the new cables, 2Africa and Equiano, go live on time?

  • Will the Internet ecosystem be able to continue meeting the continent’s huge increase in demand for Internet connectivity if new cables are delayed?

  • How will consumers react to fluctuating prices should supply drastically wax and wane and wax again?

  • Price volatility is going to be par for the course as we figure out the ‘new normal’; how will network operators, particularly the outfits less resistant to big market swings in the short to midterm, respond?

I think, given all the questions we face, that it’s important to approach the Internet’s ‘new normal’ with pragmatism. We’re going to have to give a little to get a little, let alone some form of normality. This calls for patience, calm, flexibility, dedication and a realistic attitude to what is and is not possible. What’s more, as Internet access fast joins Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, our Internet engineers and technicians should be lauded for the heroic work they are doing while navigating a combination of constrained operating conditions, global uncertainty and individual anxiety.

In fact, I think this is one of the most important shifts to come out of this period of total upheaval. Now more than ever we need to acknowledge the men and women who are working hard in testing conditions to keep the Internet on. These specialists rarely get the credit they should and yet they are out there every day, facing enormous challenges (not to mention irate clients) fixing and splicing fibres, connecting people and innovating solutions. The health of the Internet depends on them and they deserve our applause.

We are living in extraordinary times. Yes, we face a lot of unknowns but when has the world ever stood still? One thing is for sure though, the Internet is going to play an even more central role in all our lives going forward. Look at the online retailers, digital banking platforms, virtual meeting apps, online teaching/ learning, collaborative tools and platforms, and live-streaming entertainment channels. They are all enjoying massive growth right now, and only enabled through the provision of reliable Internet connections, secure data centres, and the rest of the digital economy.

As with any crisis, the speed at which COVID-19 has transformed our society and economy presents many exciting opportunities as well as unnerving challenges. We can either dig our heels in and fear the worst or we can adapt to our changing circumstances with gusto. I don’t know about you but I’m choosing the latter.


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