100 days of coronavirus: How are telcos coping with increased demand during the pandemic?

Operators have taken a series of steps in their fight against the contagion, from increasing network bandwidths to offering free upgrades

A 5G network promises an internet speed of up to 1.2Gbps, which will gradually reach 10Gbps — more than 100 times faster than 4G. Reuters
A 5G network promises an internet speed of up to 1.2Gbps, which will gradually reach 10Gbps — more than 100 times faster than 4G. Reuters

With millions of people working from home, resorting to high-capacity internet services like webinars, webcasts and videoconferencing software in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, fears of network bottlenecks have grown.

Ensuring an uninterrupted flow of connectivity by making the best use of existing resources has become the top priority of telecoms operators.

Telcos have taken a series of steps in their fight against the contagion, from increasing network bandwidths and scaling customer relations resources to offering free upgrades and urging customers to use bandwidth wisely.

“We are operating in a time that is both challenging and rife with opportunities … a great chance for businesses and governments to enhance their smart solutions,” says Bocar Ba, chief executive of the South Asia, Middle East and North Africa (Samena) Telecommunications Council.

Operators need to “re-prioritise network resource utilisation and increase international broadband capacity”, as they run 4G and 5G services to meet increasing data demands during these challenging times, Mr Ba says.

Dubai-based Samena is a tri-regional group that represents a community of telecommunications firms, manufacturers, regulators and academics.

Average download speeds have been “fairly reliable” in both Europe and the US, despite surges in data traffic by up to 50 per cent in some markets after the coronavirus outbreak, says Matthew Kendall, chief telecoms analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

UAE speed tests. Source: Ookla
UAE speed tests. Source: Ookla

“Slight drops in fixed broadband performance have been registered in countries such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain, but speeds have largely remained within reasonable bounds around the average.”

In markets such as Europe and the US, operators are working continuously to add capacity to ease bottlenecks. But network capacity issues may be less readily remedied in developing nations, like Afghanistan, Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana, still running on 2G or 3G networks.

Globally, operators have taken measures including expanding radio network capacity – particularly in residential areas – to accommodate increasing traffic. They are also offering free benefits to customers. For example, in Kuwait, all Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) have granted customers 5GB data per day free of charge for one month.

In Jordan, operators have committed to providing access to the government's educational platforms to ensure schooling continues uninterrupted. In Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Turkey, MNOs are increasing data bundles at no extra charge.

A pedestrian, wearing a protective mask, walks past an advertisement for 5G network services at an EE store, operated by BT Group Plc, in Birmingham, U.K., on Monday, April 6, 2020. Telecom masts that enable the next generation of wireless communication were set on fire in the U.K. in recent days, apparently by people motivated by a theory that the tech helps spread the coronavirus. Photographer: Darren Staples/Bloomberg
A pedestrian walks past an advertisement of BT Group. The telco said it is not expecting any slowdown in services because of coronavirus. Bloomberg

Etisalat, the UAE's biggest telecom operator, expanded its CloudTalk Meeting service by allowing 50 concurrent participants to join an online meeting and discussion.

It is also offering customers upgrades to their existing TV and internet bundle to a new unlimited plan at no extra charge for three months.

“Operators have also expanded backhaul transmission network[s] to accommodate any additional traffic requirements,” says Mr Ba.

A backhaul is a high-capacity line that transmits a signal from a remote network to another site, usually a central one.

“Etisalat is fully committed to supporting businesses during this unprecedented period through solutions and services to ensure that there is no business impact on their operations,” says Salvador Anglada, group chief business officer of the telco.

Etisalat’s network is resilient, dependable and secure, the telco said in a statement emailed to The National. It is also being proactively assessed to manage anticipated increases in bandwidth and mobile network demand, it added.

To assist operators worldwide, the International Telecommunication Union – a UN-backed internet and telecoms agency – has launched a Global Network Resiliency Platform.

“It will collect trustworthy information on actions that policymakers, regulators and other stakeholders can use to ensure that their networks and services serve the needs of their country,” according to the ITU’s secretary general Houlin Zhao.

“Time is of the essence … this platform will give those countries, which still have time to prepare, an opportunity to learn from what is being done elsewhere – from emergency spectrum reassignments to guidelines for consumers on responsible use”.

European operators such as Telefonica, Orange and Vodafone have advised their consumers to decrease internet usage to ensure that quality of service is maintained. They have asked them to download heavy files during off-peak hours, avoid sending large attachments in emails and try using landline phones wherever possible.

A pedestrian, wearing a protective face mask, stands outside a Vodafone Group Plc store near a advertising message about their 4G network in Birmingham, U.K., on Monday, April 6, 2020. Telecom masts that enable the next generation of wireless communication were set on fire in the U.K. in recent days, apparently by people motivated by a theory that the tech helps spread the coronavirus. Photographer: Darren Staples/Bloomberg
A man, wearing a protective face mask, stands outside a Vodafone store in Birmingham, UK. Bloomberg

Last month, the Spanish telecoms sector warned that there had been a “traffic explosion” since the outbreak of coronavirus. However, BT, the UK’s largest operator, said it is fully prepared and not expecting any shutdowns or slower internet speeds.

Paris-headquartered Orange doubled the capacity on its platforms to allow people to work from home without impacting quality. It said the use of remote collaboration solutions such as videoconferencing rose massively with usage increasing by 20 per cent to 100 per cent depending on the solution.

To deal with this pandemic, the company set up a dedicated crisis unit to coordinate the decisions taken by the group on a daily basis as well as measures being implemented in each of its countries, according to the evolving situation, says Stephane Richard, chairman and chief executive of Orange.

The Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA) said its members are taking measures to manage the significant change in traffic demand globally.

“Mobile networks are experiencing an unprecedented surge of traffic in recent days as a result of more people working from home and accessing digital services,” says Jawad Abbassi, GSMA's head of Middle East and North Africa.

“Where extra network capacity is needed, this takes time to deploy … and we urge consumers to support these measures with smart and responsible use of network resources”.

The GSMA is a trade body representing more than 750 mobile operators and nearly 400 companies.

A fire-damaged telecom tower, reported in local media as being a 5G network mast on the EE network, operated by BT Group Plc, stands in Birmingham, U.K., on Monday, April 6, 2020. Telecom masts that enable the next generation of wireless communication were set on fire in the U.K. in recent days, apparently by people motivated by a theory that the tech helps spread the coronavirus. Photographer: Darren Staples/Bloomberg
A fire-damaged telecom tower in Birmingham. Telecom masts were set on fire by people motivated by a theory that the technology helps spread the coronavirus. Bloomberg.

Telcos are not required to take “special measures but they should utilise their existing resources with more agility”, according to Michael Davies, senior lecturer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who also runs the New Technology Ventures programme at London Business School.

“In most cases, the current capacity will be sufficient. [The operators] should focus on accelerating things that they would do anyway... it’s all about increasing the pace at which they do this and putting them in the right places,” he says.

However, service providers should keep in mind “when and where peak demand is high, relative to what it was beforehand”.

Increased data traffic does not equate to an increase in internet users, but to spikes in demand at certain periods.

“This is what places strain on network capacity, which is not necessarily designed to handle surges in data demand,” says Mr Kendall.

Samena urged regional governments to provide operators free access to additional spectrum on a temporary basis to allow MNOs to expand their networks.

“We also request to lower the cost of international bandwidth, particularly in markets where the international gateway is a monopoly… markets such as Kuwait and potentially Iraq are responding positively to grant operators lower international bandwidth costs,” says Mr Ba.

The international gateway is the exclusive entry point of international voice and data traffic to and from a country. This connection can be made either through satellites or international fibre cables.

Updated: April 8, 2020 11:12 AM

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