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Here’s how Internet Exchange Points are supporting Canada’s internet during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Yann Berthier
CIRA Labs and IXP Program Manager

As COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly around the world, the global internet is in the midst of a prolonged and unprecedented stress test. With more than half the world’s population currently under some form of lockdown, billions of people are spending more time online than ever before. Global data from Cloudflare shows that traffic is up between 10 and 40 percent.

In Canada, governments began implementing social distancing measures in early March, closing schools and non-essential businesses, banning large gatherings and asking people to stay at home except to buy groceries and pick up prescriptions. As a result, traffic patterns have changed and internet usage across the country has spiked.

With the heavy load on Canada’s internet expected to continue for many weeks or even months, Canada’s Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) have an essential role to play. In B.C., where Canada saw its first cluster of COVID-19 cases, the province has declared IXPs to be providers of essential services during the pandemic.  IXPs are a key component in the architecture of the internet. They act as a hub where different networks can connect with one another to exchange traffic. This is known as “peering.”

By peering with IXPs, governments, content providers, internet service providers (ISPs), and businesses serve end users directly by providing high-bandwidth and low-latency access at a lower cost than traditional transit. Figure 1 summarizes how networks in Canada connect with IXPs to improve performance and latency for users. 

Figure 1: Canada’s IXP ecosystem

IXPs also provide another important benefit: they prevent Canadian internet traffic from being routed through the U.S. It’s estimated that as much as 25% of Canada-to-Canada traffic travels through the U.S. along what are known as “boomerang routes” before returning to Canada. The more networks that peer at one of Canada’s growing network of IXPs, the easier it is for Canadian data traffic to get from A to B without being diverted south of the border. Keeping the traffic within Canada is much more efficient, typically resulting in lower latency and better performance, while strengthening the resilience of Canada’s network for its 35 million plus residents.


So far, Canada’s networks are coping well

It’s safe to say that Canada’s networks have never had to deal with the volume of traffic and the atypical usage patterns they’ve seen during the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. And while it’s true that Canadians living in rural areas are more likely to experience degraded service and higher costs, overall Canadas’ networks are coping very well. This is in large part thanks to our national network of carrier-neutral IXPs, which keep traffic local and help relieve the pressure on our cross-country transit routes.


Canadian IXPs seeing a COVID-19 data surge

Data from Canada’s IXPs shows the degree to which traffic patterns have changed during the pandemic. Data from the Toronto Internet Exchange (TorIX), for example, shows that network demand patterns began to increase during the second week of March when most schools closed and more and more people began to work from home, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2:  Toronto IX (TorIX) Traffic Data 

And it’s not just the big cities that are experiencing a surge in traffic. Smaller internet exchange points like the Manitoba IXP (MBIX) are also experiencing a pronounced uptick in usage, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Manitoba IX (MBIX) Traffic Data during COVID-19

The Calgary IXP (YYCIX), similarly, is seeing a 25% increase in overall traffic (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: Calgary IX (YYCIX) Traffic Data

Not surprisingly, data from international IXPs aligns with what their Canadian counterparts are seeing in terms of traffic patterns. In Italy, one of the countries hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic to date, usage data from the Milan IX shows the degree to which internet traffic increased when the country implemented strict country-wide social distancing measures in early March (see Figure 5). Recognizing the importance of IXPs to the strength of the country’s internet, Italy’s largest ISP, Telecom Italia, has recently begun peering at Italy’s IXPs to help ease the traffic burden during the COVID-19 crisis.

Figure 5: Figure 4: Milan IX, Milan Italy

What this usage data makes clear is that without the ability of IXPs to route traffic locally, the increase in traffic would have to be handled via traditional long-haul transit. In other words, if there were no IXPs, we’d have to handle this traffic some other, less efficient way. And that would mean increased latency and decreased performance for Canadians at a time when they need a strong and resilient internet more than ever.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Canada’s IXPs are doing everything in their power to mitigate the impact of the country-wide escalation of internet usage. The Toronto Internet Exchange, for example, is offering its existing customers free port upgrades for 60 days to help them add capacity to their networks quickly. And the Saskatoon Internet Exchange is offering free one-year memberships to public sector organizations in Canada.


What’s causing the uptick?

The reasons behind the uptick in Internet usage in Canada are not surprising. While they’re confined to their homes every day, Canadians are giving their internet connections a workout. They’re continuously reloading news and social feeds to stay up to date on the spread of the virus, the latest safety recommendations, and the many new financial assistance programs designed to help them navigate these extremely challenging economic times.

They’re also trying to stay productive in their jobs and school work while continuing to connect with friends and family in a meaningful way. As a result, the use of Zoom and other bandwidth-intensive video conferencing apps has skyrocketed over the last few weeks. And to keep themselves and their home-bound families entertained, Canadians are turning to online gaming and video streaming, both of which are significant contributors to the traffic surge.


So, where do we go from here?

With no one able to say with any certainty when the pandemic will end and social distancing measures will be lifted in Canada, what’s clear is that Canadians will continue to rely on the internet in all aspects of their lives and usage will remain at its current high levels.

For now, thanks in large part to our network of IXPs and their willingness to step up to the plate by waiving port fees and offering free upgrades, our defenses are holding.  But the IXPs can’t do it alone. They need help from Canadian network operators, including ISPs, government organizations at all levels and enterprises. So, if your organization is  not currently peering with your local IXP, we urge you to do so as soon as possible.

In times of crisis, we all need to do whatever we can to help. While peering is important for all types of networks in Canada, it’s particularly urgent for any municipal, provincial, or federal government agencies that deliver emergency updates online and provide access to the many programs being rolled out to help Canadians get through this extremely challenging time.

About the author
Yann Berthier

Yann is the Labs and IXP Program Manager at CIRA.