How operators are meeting demand – and more – during COVID 19

By Robin Mersh, CEO of Broadband Forum 

April 15, 2020

Since COVID-19 wreaked devastation on the world, a number of countries have been in lockdown to help reduce the spread of the virus, leading to a record number of people working from home and staying indoors. The impact this has had on broadband networks has been nothing short of remarkable, with double-digit growth reported across the board in quarantined countries.

According to NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, based on data it aggregated from Charter Communications, Comcast, Cox Communications, GCI and Midco, downstream peak usage is up 20.1% since March 1. This is likely to be driven by the use of OTT services and gaming downloads, while the increased use of video conferencing apps has seen peak upstream usage surge by 27.7%.

Operators’ response to managing this extra traffic has been quite phenomenal – a testament to the ongoing programs to add capacity and upgrade networks. So exactly how are operators across the globe coping with this spike in demand?

Be prepared

Comcast is among operators to put out individual figures relating to its network usages during the COVID-19 crisis. According to the company’s President of Technology, product and Xperience Tony Werner, peak traffic rose by 32%, with this going as high as 60% in cities such as Seattle and San Francisco. The operator is reviewing network usage every five minutes and runs around 700,000 speeds tests per day across the network.

Despite the huge peak in demand, Werner said this has all been within the capacity of the network, putting this down to Comcast constantly adding bandwidth to facilitate future needs. The operator does this between 12 and 18 months ahead of predicted usage trends which typically show increases of about 40% per year, allowing the operator to stay a step ahead of what has been seen in recent weeks.

Novel network management

Vodafone is another operator which has seen a huge change in behavior for its voice and data traffics, with a 30% increase in internet usage. To overcome these challenges, the operator has changed the way its managing voice and data traffic across its complex network of fiber optic cables, copper wires, base stations, exchanges, masts and antennae. This includes redirecting traffic during busy periods so traffic is spread across the network as opposed to creating bottlenecks.

The operator’s Chief Technology Office Scott Petty explained that of the reasons behind the change is due to where people are accessing the internet. As most people work in cities, the usual traffic surge during the day in these locations particularly near train stations, offices and restaurants. This means less capacity is required in more residential areas. However, COVID-19 has turned this pattern completely on its head, with this trend mostly affecting mobile traffic as less people use work desk phones. To ensure its network can cope with this, Vodafone has added additional big boxes to its core network.

According to Petty, bigger challenges are being presented by Vodafone’s fixed broadband network. The usual peak period for broadband usage is between 8pm and 9pm but as more people are increasingly working from home, have online lessons and watch more streaming sites such as Netflix, the busy period is being extended throughout the day. To combat this, Vodafone is current looking at increasing capacity in its central core network and aggregation zones, as well as at BT exchanges where engineers are increasing the number of links that can be handled.

We’re in this together

Comcast and Vodafone provide just two examples of how operators are copying with the current unprecedented demand and according to the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (etno), operators across the board are working around the clock to ensure networks and the services they run continue . The changes in the patterns of telecoms and internet traffic being seen are all being dealt with seamlessly, thanks to sophisticated and upgraded network architectures.

It is a credit to operators that throughout the COVID-19 crisis, despite the strong increases and changing patterns in data traffic, there has been no significant disruption to broadband across the world.

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