Networks Stand Firm as Covid-19 Spikes Demand

Operators rise to the challenge as data traffic soars

Two of the most frequent questions I’m getting asked are how well telecom networks are coping with increased usage stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, and whether surging demand could lead to widespread problems with performance further ahead.

But before considering how the networks are handling the extra traffic, let’s look at how usage is changing.

Inevitably, with so many people holed up in their home, new behavioural patterns have quickly emerged. The overall trend in traffic is, of course, sharply upward, but there are a couple of interesting quirks that buck long-term industry trends.

Firstly, the humble voice call is enjoying a spectacular resurgence as people stay in touch with loved ones amid sweeping travel restrictions. According to O2 UK, the average call duration jumped 40% in just one week. In the US, AT&T has seen 44% growth in phone calls, and in Poland, Orange says that voice traffic is up 50%.

Secondly, mobile data usage has seen some substitution by fixed-line connections, as home-bound consumers connect smartphones to their home Wi-Fi networks. Data usage has enjoyed steady growth of anywhere between 20% and 50% in recent years, so it’s interesting that BT pointed to a small dip of about 5% in recent weeks.

Broadly speaking, networks are coping pretty well. One of the main reasons for their robustness is that the explosion in fixed-line broadband traffic is mostly happening during the day. Network volumes usually peak in the evening, between about 8:00 PM and 10:00 PM.

Statistics shared by BT illustrate this. The operator revealed that, to date, its record evening traffic throughput is 17.5 Tbps, driven by video-game downloads and streaming of football matches. In typical daytime working hours, this usage sinks to about 5 Tbps. This past Monday, however, daytime traffic had shot up more than 50% from a week earlier, helping the network record its highest-ever data volumes.

In recent days, Netflix, YouTube and Facebook have all agreed to reduce the streaming quality of their services in Europe to minimize the risk of network overload. The move followed pressure from European Commissioner Thierry Breton, who urged the platforms to free up bandwidth to support crucial public services such as healthcare and distance learning.

Should networks begin to start creaking, other services like online gaming may have to follow suit. Telecom Italia indicated that surging usage of Fortnite had contributed to a 70% swell in Internet traffic since the country went into lockdown two weeks ago. Still, this may not be necessary for a while, as I understand that many operators are confident that they can add further capacity to bolster their networks if necessary.

If there’s one area where networks have shown some fallibility, it’s mobile voice calls. I’ve heard several reports of dropped calls and diminished quality amid high volumes. However, consumers can easily switch to alternative, Internet-based services or simply revert to using traditional landlines, which have ample capacity. Tellingly, AT&T has seen a near 90% increase in Wi-Fi calls.

The robust performance of the networks so far is a lifeline to many households confined indoors, and it could also go some way to sprucing up operators’ tarnished reputation. At MWC 2019, Vodafone CEO Nick Read bluntly suggested that network operators were regarded “just ahead of the tobacco industry”, as he warned a new approach was needed to win back the trust of customers (see MWC Barcelona 2019: Operators).

I was therefore heartened when I heard about dozens of initiatives to ensure people remain connected and entertained. Carriers in the US have waived late payment fees and promised not to terminate services if customers are unable to pay their bills (see Carriers Pledge to Keep America Connected). Telefonica, Telstra and Verizon are among a host to offer free mobile data boosters; Swiss operator Sunrise has gone further by switching all mobile plans to unlimited data. Content providers including AT&T, UPC Switzerland and Canal+ have made some TV channels available for free. In the UK, Sky has offered to pause sports subscriptions owing to the lack of live action.

Mobile networks are also starting to play a wider role in supporting governments, for example, by sending text messages to keep the public updated on new developments related to the coronavirus outbreak. However, this is presenting some challenges; operators have not invested heavily in SMS in recent years, because substitution by online platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger has sent messaging volumes falling drastically.

As a result, a request from the UK government to send an emergency text message, shown below, to every customer found operators leaning on infrastructure no longer provisioned to support such high-traffic volumes. Gone are the days when operators needed huge messaging capacity to cope with major events such as New Year’s Eve.

Unlike some other countries, the UK doesn’t have an emergency messaging system, although one was trialled many years ago; doubtless this will be reviewed in the aftermath of the outbreak. The ability to use services like Cell Broadcast — which enables SMS to be sent to multiple mobile phone users at the same time — is important as SMS is the lowest common denominator in messaging. This means that the most vulnerable members of society, many of whom only own the most basic feature phone, can receive alerts just as easily as customers that have a high-end smartphone.

Text messages were sent out sequentially at about 1,000 per second, using each operator’s separate platform. This clunky process meant that some people didn’t receive the SMS for nearly 24 hours after others — far from an instant alerting mechanism.

CCS Insight believes that, in the future, the UK government should fund the mandatory implementation of a Wireless Emergency Alerts system across all UK networks. Formerly known as the Commercial Mobile Alert System, this technology is used in the US to provide alerts in the case of major emergencies such as hurricanes.

Separately, the European Commission has encouraged the region’s leading operators to share anonymized phone location data with authorities to help track the spread of the virus, according to reports.

Network operators have a huge role to play in times of crisis and it’s becoming increasingly clear why they’re regarded as critical national infrastructure. During the coronavirus pandemic, these companies have so far stepped up to the mark. But undoubtedly greater challenges lie ahead, and I’m sure any major disruption to service will receive widespread criticism. Maybe more than ever, this is a great opportunity for the telecom industry to enhance its reputation.