AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Net traffic is surging. Companies around the world are sending workers home. Cities are shutting down all but essential services. As America hunkers down, will there be enough online capacity for our isolated digital lives? NPR's tech correspondent Shannon Bond reports.
SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: More people are shifting to the digital world these days as life outside the home is put on hold. It's already playing out in South Korea and Italy. People are watching videos, playing games and reading lots of online news.
MATTHEW PRINCE: So they shifted to doing more online chat, more video streaming - which almost doubled in those countries - more visits to news sites, which went up 30% to 60% - online gaming.
BOND: Matthew Prince is CEO of CloudFlare, an Internet infrastructure and security company. Here in the U.S., Internet traffic jumped 20% late last Friday after President Trump declared a national emergency. In Seattle, traffic is running 40% higher than in January. And as video chats replace face-to-face meetings, peak Internet use is happening in the middle of the workday.
PRINCE: Usually, that peak would happen kind of in the evening, when people get home and start watching Netflix. And in Seattle, what we're seeing is that peak is now happening at 11:00 a.m. local time.
BOND: With so many people working outside of their offices, that's putting a strain on computer networks. Luke Gamon is a research scientist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. He usually spends his day in the lab, but his university told everyone to start working from home last week. Gamon told me over Skype that he figured he'd get some writing done and catch up on academic papers. But when he went to log on...
LUKE GAMON: I basically failed at the first hurdle, which was connecting to the university VPN.
BOND: Universities, companies and other organizations use virtual private networks, or VPNs, to let workers securely access their systems even if they're not in the office. CloudFlare's Matthew Prince explains.
PRINCE: You can think of it as almost a castle and moat strategy, where all the employees and all the secrets of the business are in the castle, and the bad guys are kept out through the moat.
BOND: He says VPNs like draw bridges that let certain people into the castle, like employees who are on the road.
PRINCE: But those draw bridges, they were never built to accommodate the entire workforce being outside of the castle.
BOND: Castles are emptying out everywhere as cities ban non-essential gatherings, schools close down and many employees are ordered to work from home. It's a big test for companies whether their systems can handle such an abrupt shift. Patrick Sullivan is chief technology officer for security at Akamai, which delivers Web content.
PATRICK SULLIVAN: There is some level of scrambling there - right? - for people that maybe didn't build in a plan for the level of remote work that we're seeing.
BOND: One provider, Atlas VPN, says VPN use was up 53% in the U.S. last week and more than doubled in Italy. Demand for online video and chat tools from Slack to Zoom to WebEx is also increasing. Microsoft's Teams messaging software suffered outages on Monday as lots of people logged on in Europe and the U.S. The company says it's addressed the issue. While people might have a hard time with some software, Matthew Prince says the Internet as a whole can handle the extra load.
PRINCE: The Internet was really designed from the beginning to respond to literally a nuclear emergency.
BOND: And if you find your video calls are glitchy or slow, experts have a suggestion - talk more. Audio uses less bandwidth.
Shannon Bond, NPR News, San Francisco.
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