COVID-19: Austria takes precautionary measures for internet use, despite ‘buffer’ in capacities

With the coronavirus keeps people in their homes and communication is only electronic, networks are strained. [The Hornbills Studio/Shutterstock]

The spread of the coronavirus is becoming a stress test for Austria’s internet infrastructure, as internet traffic exploded virtually overnight. To protect the country’s capacities, the regulatory authority RTR has given the green light for certain online services, like video streaming, to be throttled. But Austria’s second-largest provider told EURACTIV that the country’s networks are not yet fully utilised.

The number of simultaneously running video conferences increased not only because of people working from home but also because many families and groups of friends can only communicate with each other via video calls.

In addition, people in isolation are increasingly using streaming services such as Netflix or Amazon Prime. Last but not least, the internet is an essential source of information, especially for those who don’t have a television at home. However, bandwidth is a finite resource due to practical hardware limitations.

To secure the Austrian internet, mobile network operators have been allowed since Wednesday to throttle certain online services (e.g. video streams) in case of an emergency, while other services (e.g. government information portals) are transmitted at a constant speed.

Rundfunk und Telekom Regulierungs-GmbH (RTR), the Austrian telecommunication regulator, sent a corresponding letter to the three largest Austrian mobile operators as well as to the Association of Internet Service Providers Austria, the Association of Alternative Telecom Network Operators and the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber.

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The decision is up to operators

Such a measure would circumvent net neutrality, which is based on an EU regulation and stipulates that all data packets must be treated equally. It is forbidden, for example, for YouTube videos to be transmitted faster than those from Vimeo.

A RTR spokesperson told EURACTIV that the decision on such “traffic management measures” rested with the operators and that a “strict reporting obligation” applied. The EU regulation allows exceptions to net neutrality to prevent temporary congestion.

However, the devil is in the details. Thomas Lohninger, managing director of the digital policy civil rights organisation, pointed out via Twitter that throttling entire classes of services would be in line with EU law: for example, all video streams from 4K to HD or slowing down file sharing.

However, discrimination against individual providers, such as Netflix, would be prohibited. According to Lohninger, such a move would violate the principle of equal treatment in the EU treaties.

Still a “large buffer”

According to RTR, the current capacity utilisation of the Austrian network “gives no indication that the right to throttle certain types of traffic, granted in EU Regulation, could be exercised.”

Peter Schiefer, spokesperson of Magenta (formerly T-Mobile), Austria’s second-largest mobile communications provider, is similarly optimistic. In an interview with EURACTIV, he described the new regulation as a “mere precautionary measure,” and at the moment, he sees, “no load on the network that would make intervention necessary”.

Although he only observed the behaviour of Magenta customers, he gave assurances that the tendencies coincided with other mobile phone operators: Although people are online more, especially during the day compared to pre-corona times, there is still “a large buffer” until Austria reaches capacity.

The use of telephone networks has risen strongly, with an “all-time high” in voice volume on Sunday and Monday, but even there, there is no reason to worry that the networks will be able to withstand the increased usage.

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Swiss network under pressure

In neighbouring Switzerland, the authorities are going a step further and announced that they will “restrict or block non-essential services,” the magazine quoted the Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications as saying.

Swiss media outlets are reporting network disruptions at the largest provider, Swisscom, because telephone calls have tripled.

Schiefer could not say why the Swiss network is coping worse with the additional load than the Austrian network.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Samuel Stolton]

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