The People Keeping the Internet On

Keeping the internet running smoothly during the coronavirus crisis isn’t business as usual

Chris Stokel-Walker
OneZero
Published in
5 min readApr 28, 2020

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An Openreach engineer inside the broadband exchange at the Openreach training center in Peterborough, U.K. Photo: Joe Giddens — PA Images/Getty Images

Jamie Goate first started setting up phone connections and broadband links 20 years ago, when he troubleshot dial-up internet connections and routed copper phone wires back to junction boxes. But he didn’t get his biggest job until about a month ago.

The U.K. National Health Service (NHS) had called his current employer — Openreach, a subsidiary of the multinational telecommunications firm BT Group — to help it set up field hospitals for treating Covid-19 patients inside existing conference centers. “They didn’t really understand what they needed,” says Goate. “It was just a call to arms.” Goate arrived on the site within an hour of receiving the call for help. Normally, Openreach promises to deliver connectivity within 30 days. Goate’s team identified and delivered a solution within 15 hours, working around a fast-moving construction site.

It wasn’t a simple job: The team installed more than 1,000 voice over internet protocol (VoIP) telephones and an ultrafast Wi-Fi connection needed to control the ventilators keeping patients alive. It also created direct-routed connections to two other city-center hospitals so that patient data could be accessed at the field hospital through a private network the NHS runs and installed two separate ethernet lines to provide high capacity for other services. The hospital opened on April 3, with Prince Charles remotely delivering a speech.

“Without the connectivity, the hospital wouldn’t be up and running,” says Goate.

Broadband engineers, installers, and other people who keep the internet working, like Goate, are considered essential workers in many of the stay-at-home orders issued by governments around the world. They’re a key but often overlooked piece of the team that keeps hospitals online, emergency services connected, supermarket distribution centers viable, and locked-down populations connected.

And all of that requires monumental changes in the infrastructure of our internet.

Akamai, a company that powers content delivery networks (CDNs) — a technology that allows people to watch videos, download software, and visit…

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Chris Stokel-Walker
OneZero

UK-based freelancer for The Guardian, The Economist, BuzzFeed News, the BBC and more. Tell me your story, or get me to write for you: stokel@gmail.com