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Level 4 is here - tech experts weigh in

Peter Griffin, contributor. 26 March 2020, 7:59 am

So we are now at Level-4, the vast majority of us are camped out in our makeshift home offices testing the limits of our broadband connections - and the family's patience. What could possibly go wrong?

Network load

When it comes to broadband capacity and mobile network functionality, we should be fine, says Professor Dave Parry, Head of Computer Science at AUT University.

"Broadband capacity is huge - its very difficult to see it being overloaded, even with a massive increase in demand. International links are currently more than is needed and extra capacity is being added all the time."

We are certainly seeing big spikes in data usage. Chorus, which runs the copper-line network and much of the ultrafast broadband network (UFB) said network traffic at one point early this week reached 2.75Tbps (terabits per second), higher than the Rugby World Cup 2019 peak of 2.6Tbps.

Most ISPs have temporarily dropped fixed-line broadband data caps knowing that families will quickly chew through 80 or 100GB (gigabytes) a month with everyone at home.

While the core networks seem up to the job of keeping us connected and productive, your type of connectivity, from fibre to ADSL and 4G mobile data, and your home networking set-up will, to a large extent, determine your experience.

There's more concern about the voice network following network disruption on Monday as people excitedly took to the phones to talk about the looming lockdown.

"The overload of the telephone network was not surprising given the unprecedented nature of the government's lockdown announcement," says Joe Burton, Senior Lecturer in the Political Science and Public Policy Programme and the New Zealand Institute for Security and Crime Science, University of Waikato. 

"The bandwidth consumed by Skype is not likely to impact overall network availability. In some countries, Internet Service Providers have limited bandwidth for certain internet uses, such as high definition streaming or gaming, but the pressure on the system appears to be manageable in New Zealand at this time."

Serious data network outages now would prove hugely disruptive and future disruption to voice services can't be ruled out, but our telecoms networks are robust and our telcos are on high alert to spot bottlenecks, employing traffic shaping and caching measures, to deal with network stability.

Risk of disruption: Medium 


A bigger threat is the potential for identity and data theft, malware infection and falling for internet scams as we break from our usual locked-down networking environment and cybercriminals look to exploit the Covid-19 lockdown measures worldwide.

"The majority of cybercrime surrounding the coronavirus appears to be spear-phishing - where an email recipient is fooled into clicking on a malicious link," says Burton. 

"People should exercise extra care in dealing with any email with a coronavirus subject line, make sure to verify the email address and the integrity of the sender of the email and should report instances of serious cybercrime to the authorities."

Associate Professor Ian Welch, School of Engineering and Computer Science, Victoria University of Wellington says such scams attempt to exploit the 'affect heuristic', which relates to how our emotions affect our decision making.

"In lay terms, we rush to judgement," says Welch.

We click on the link in the email or Facebook message that looks like it came from a colleague, or an important public health body updating us on Covid-19. 

"So phishing emails or Facebook messages (I've had my fair share of those recently) are about using fear to make people do the bad thing which is to click on that link or maybe rush a payment through to someone apparently in need," says Welch. 

"The FBI has recently warned about this. In this case, it's about promises of money for your details via economic stimulus. These details are used to extract your money!"

Then there's general network security. Your work computers are likely to have firewall and antivirus software on them and even two-factor authentication enabled for secure log in to them. But if you are doing work on your own personal machines, you could run into trouble.

"The biggest issue in terms of working from home and security is going to be using the family computer," says AUT's David Parry.

"If everyone uses it and it hasn't had regular security patches then it could be compromised from something the kids may have downloaded. Home internet is normally as safe as anywhere as long as you haven't turned off security to install it. Some public internet may not have security - you can tell by seeing if there is a padlock on the WiFi system icon."

The last thing you want to be dealing with now is a computer that's rendered inoperable due to a ransomware attack, or some sort of identity theft incident. Update the security patches, make sure the firewall is on and be on high alert for scams.

Risk of disruption: High

Time to learn

Tens of thousands of students are now at home and four weeks of lessons and learning still needs to take place for most of them. Education providers have varying levels of involvement in e-learning. This is a serious test to see how they can assist their students get through in times of disruption.

"The biggest issue with online education is keeping the communication going - both with teachers and with other students," says Parry. 

"Virtually all approaches use discussion areas or something similar. If you can, avoid email, but communicate in a discussion forum then people can see each other's questions and often answer each other. Just putting slides or even videos of lessons online is not as good as having a plan to communicate - one way might include having special times when you will be 'live'."

Dedicated e-learning platforms can be accessed remotely, but may not work in the same way as accessing them on campus.

"Having the same experience from home is more challenging because different participating devices and their enabling networks are not identical in terms of performance," says Dr Syed Faraz Hasan, Senior Lecturer (Communication Engineering and Networks) at Massey University.

"Being in class with a teacher or lecturer is still the best way to educate. But we are all getting better at online provision of education," says Waikato's Burton. 

"Universities have been developing online teaching and modules for years, and we should be able to replicate the classroom experience and provide good learning outcomes for students." 

Even if coursework can't be transformed to e-learning platforms effectively, we have enough collaborative working, messaging and document storage tools at our disposal to get through, with the usual video conferencing platforms allowing students to stay in touch with classmates, teachers and lecturers.

Still, with Massey's controversial DigitalPlus plan to ramp up online learning in favour of physical classes at its Auckland campus and more Covid-related disruption possible, online education may have an opportunity to shine.

Says Burton: "We should look at this crisis as an opportunity to upskill in online learning, and read good academic research about what can make it most effective."

Risk of disruption: Medium

Peter Griffin is one of New Zealand's leading tech commentators. Follow him on Twitter at @petergnz or contact him on [email protected] 



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