We rarely stop to think about the logistical challenges caused by millions of people all trying to access the internet simultaneously.
We grumble and moan if a domestic connection seems slower than usual, without really appreciating why.
Fluctuations in connection speed can be caused by various factors, but sheer demand is often a key factor.
Just as motorways slow down at rush hour due to the volume of traffic being carried, so the internet may become less efficient when large numbers of people are using it at once.
But when is the UK broadband network busiest? And what can we do to minimise our own contribution to internet rush hour?
Times of day
Overall, the UK’s internet traffic doubled last year due to the pandemic, but evenings are generally the busiest of all.
Children are doing homework or gaming, while adults are most likely to be streaming, shopping or surfing.
The historic drop-off in work-based data distribution each evening has been diminished by home working, and today’s always-connected culture.
Internet rush hour in the UK generally falls between 7pm and 11pm, while the ONS has calculated 9pm on Wednesdays represents peak time for traffic.
Broadband advertising has to take rush hour into account when discussing average speeds, rather than quoting averages at 4.45am (when the ONS reckons the internet is quietest).
Times of year
Over and above internet rush hour, there are occasional spikes in web traffic caused by specific events.
Last year, Boxing Day was the UK’s busiest in terms of web data, with Openreach alone seeing 210 petabytes of data transmitted across its network.
Considering a petabyte is the equivalent of 1,024 terabytes, it’s easy to appreciate how 210 petabytes of information might have clogged the nation’s fibre optic pathways and nodes.
Yet even the UK broadband network busiest period of the year didn’t prevent people from streaming, surfing, gaming and video calling to their heart’s content.
It’s important to remember Boxing Day 2020 heralded the start of a new lockdown. As such, the internet had to carry an unprecedented burden, which it managed comfortably.
Tips for mitigating busy periods
Firstly, download streaming content in advance overnight wherever possible. This allows you to enjoy content free from buffering the next day.
Schedule system updates and file uploads to take place overnight, such as backing up personal documents to the cloud or installing new operating system software.
If your connection is ADSL or FTTC-standard, discuss each evening’s plans in advance. If someone needs a steady connection at a certain time, other people may have to stay offline.
It might be helpful to switch mobile devices onto 4G or 5G networks during the evenings, especially if they finish each month with unused data allowances.
Finally, unplug web-enabled devices if they aren’t in use. Set-top boxes and tablets can stealthily munch through available bandwidth, even on standby.
If nothing else works – it might be time to look up better wifi deals!