BandwidthX Blog

Crisis Causes Mobile Traffic Pattern to Shift: Impact & Operator Reactions

Dan Zagursky

VP, Strategy & Business Development

This blog post is the first in a series covering:

  • Network impacts and operator actions resulting from COVID-19
  • The long-term impacts on networks as our work-from-home culture grows
  • Operators’ financial health and need to focus on network resiliency
  • The advantages of network sharing as operators adapt to these changes
  • New techniques in network sharing to better address challenges

The global upheaval experienced during the last several weeks is manifesting itself in many aspects of our daily lives. Through this unprecedented crisis, we have stripped away many of life’s extraneous elements to spend time with our immediate families while sheltering in place. However, to maintain contact with the outside world, access crucial information, communicate with family and friends, work and learn remotely, and entertain ourselves, we are more dependent than ever on connectivity.

Network operators have been thrust into the spotlight as wireless and wireline networks handle significant traffic shifts that are likely here to stay as new remote work patterns extend beyond the lockdown. Several network operators, analysts, and media outlets have been reporting on these changes and the need to react to them. There is no doubt that every network operator is studying and planning changes to adapt to this new reality.

Network impact

As more people stay home, new strains on data networks are emerging. A Telecoms.com article states, with home broadband networks not necessarily designed for such a rapid increase in data usage consistently throughout the day, the networks are likely to become strained very quickly as parents and children both fight for connectivity resources.” It goes as far as saying that networks will likely “get a test the likes of which the telcos have never seen.”

Overall, network operators are thus far indicating that their networks are withstanding these changes; however, their announcements and actions are indicative of possible stresses and ongoing adjustments to staying ahead of the demand. One common theme –  daytime traffic has shifted away from business areas to residential areas as people work, study and communicate more from home. Another major change is a sizable increase in upload traffic due to video conferencing as pointed out by Tuncay Cil, CSO of ASSIA, in his blog post.

Those with home wireline broadband connections are primarily connecting via Wi-Fi. However, clearly a significant amount of added demand is making its way onto wireless networks. AT&T CEO, Randall Stephenson, reported a 40% increase in mobile traffic with a portion of the new demand coming from telecommuters. (source: The Verge, 3/22/20). According to Nokia Chief Solutions Officer, Wilson Cardoso, in his recent LinkedIn post (regarding Latin America), networks have experienced the demand shift to residential areas and seen 16-50% growth with the peak usage distributed between 2pm and 10pm.

Cisco’s VP of Product Management for Service Provider Infrastructure, Kevin Wollenweber, studied traffic flowing through peering exchange data to understand the consumption increases and shifts. His observation is that “traffic that was normally concentrated in what was previously peak hours of usage—which are typically after schools get out or in the evenings—has now increased throughout the day due to teleworkers, online gamers, and people streaming high resolution videos. On the right is the traffic growth for countries during different time periods. (source: Fierce Wireless from Cisco, 3/27/20).

Here are some additional observations regarding network usage impact in Europe and the US:

  • Verizon CEO, Hans Vestberg, reported a 20% increase in web traffic. While the data usage growth has been moderate, there has been a dramatic change on where and which applications it is consumed. (source: RCR Wireless, 3/20/20)
  • Spanish operators as a whole are reporting a 40% increase in IP network traffic while mobile networks have seen a 50% and 25% increase for voice and data, respectively. Messaging has seen a fivefold increase. (source: Fierce Wireless, 3/16/20)
  • Italian networks are “wobbly under the strain.” They seem to be holding up to the increased usage, but according to a report from OpenSignal there has been a material service degradation. (source: Telecoms.com, 3/26/20). The chart below from OpenSignal shows the 4G/LTE download speed reductions from mid-morning until around 10pm. These decreases in throughput look to roughly be in the 20% range. Telecom Italia CEO, Luigi Gubitosi cited a 70% increase internet traffic over its landline network (source: Telecoms.com, 3/16/20)

Network operators issuing statements are likely those who are handling these changes better because their networks were operating with enough headroom. Thus, the impacts to throughput and user experience were less. It would be interesting to see how operators, who have not issued statements and had perhaps less underutilized capacity, have been faring. Going forward, analytics services such as OpenSignal, Ookla and Tutela should provide a good indication of quality of experience based on measurements taken from end user devices.

Some industry voices are expecting a long-term impact on wireless and wireline networks due to the COVID-19 crisis – the exact impact has not yet been understood. “But even if the virus disappears in the summer, as everyone now prays, it will have a permanent effect on the way people work, live and play. Network operators, plus the companies that make their equipment and design their software, have acquired an even more critically important status almost overnight...Lifestyles will change forever. Once the modus operandi of social misfits, home working will become the norm. Education and healthcare will shift online. In the hobbies and activities people have pursued outside the home with friends, COVID-19 will create a void the Internet may have to fill.” (source: Light Reading, 3/18/20)

Operator reactions

How can operators remain nimble as the assumptions and demand patterns on which they designed, planned and deployed their network capacity changed overnight? How have they reacted initially and what is their plan to meet this challenge going forward?

After the first weeks of this crisis, it is clear that operators are taking a multi-pronged approach drawing upon the full gamut of the digital/connectivity value chain. Many of the traditional levers mobile operators have used in the past to add capacity in their networks take longer to execute. “The operators are attempting to increase capacity, by putting more equipment into service and increasing the capacity of existing equipment, but these projects are time consuming. It might take days or weeks to scale up capacity throughout the entire network.” (source: Telecoms.com, 3/16/20)

This longer-term relief may already be in the works. However, given the new realities with COVID-19, it will be harder to implement due to social distancing or other protective measures. In the meantime, operators are also responding to the crisis in different ways.

Network operators have shown a degree of compassion that is rare in competitive global companies. In the US, on the initiative of FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, MNOs have agreed to implement consumer leniency. In addition, they have opened up Wi-Fi hotspot access for free as many customers are impacted financially. Many MNOs worldwide are making tiered service unlimited on a temporary basis. They are also making benefits available to their most vulnerable subscriber populations (additional data allotments, zero rating websites for essential information access and lowered data prices).

Telecom operators are also temporarily teaming up with their competitors to get through the crisis and communicate a more united voice to customers on best consumption practices. Most importantly, MNOs are prioritizing medical and emergency data traffic and providing access to anonymized device data to help authorities track virus patterns and adherence to social distancing policies. Some operators are also deploying small cells within healthcare facilities to ensure there is enough capacity.

In addition to being good citizens, operators are taking short term actions to protect their networks and assure service continuity. Changes already put in place by operators include:

  • Demand shaping/shifting – after the initial usage increase, Spanish operators banded together to issue a joint statement on best practices for “fair and reasonable internet usage” to conserve network resources and ensure tolerable experiences for all. These recommendations instruct users to time shift their consumption (reserve leisure consumption for off peak hours), use links to share files instead of attaching them to emails, and use landlines where possible.
  • Offload to wireline, if available – operators with wireless and wireline networks seem to be using both networks in conjunction to ensure the network with more spare capacity or where capacity can be more easily be added absorbs the data traffic shifts. For example, most such wireline broadband providers are removing data caps, which ensures that homes that would have surpassed these caps would not rely solely on the wireless network thereafter.
  • Limiting video quality – some MNOs are constraining video quality away from HD to lessen the impact on their networks. Also, digital/mobile media companies such as Facebook, Amazon, Disney, Youtube, and Netflix are reducing video quality to conserve bandwidth. In Europe, this was requested by the European Commission. It is assumed this is being implemented in a similar manner in other regions. (source: Telecompaper, 3/23/2020)
  • Traditional optimization of mobile networks especially highly utilized cells – unlocking full network capacity, checking and relieving bottlenecks, rerouting traffic from business to residential areas, and applying changes via MME, scheduler, OSS, SON or other modules/algorithms. This is part of normal MNO operations, but surely MNOs are focusing on ways to squeeze more out of their existing networks.
  • Temporary use of or lease agreement for unused spectrum – this practice seems to be more common (or at least more covered) in the US. This could be that operators in the US are bracing for consumption spikes from a government-mandated lockdown like there was in Italy (where consumption increased significantly). The FCC is fast tracking temporary authorizations for major MNOs to access spectrum that has not been deployed or not fully deployed for regional carriers. DISH Networks has particularly embraced the role of magnanimous operator with tons of undeployed spectrum that has been offered to most Tier 1 MNOs with no compensation.
  • NFV, edge and cloud RAN – while 5G network may encounter delays due to rescheduled spectrum auctions and stalled deployments, some virtualized network elements could be accelerated to flexibly deploy additional LTE capacity. “Speaking at a media briefing, Huawei SVP Victor Zhang said the telcos are prioritising projects to improve resilience in existing networks as more customers work from home. There is only so much which can be done to continue the 5G rollout as engineers are forced to prioritise the network strain which is threatening today. 5G deployments will slow down as a result.” (source: Telecoms.com, 4/1/20) For some Tier 1 MNOs in the US, it looks like they will continue their 5G network push during this crisis to not fall behind their Chinese counterparts, but in many other countries MNOs will shift their attention away from 5G and focus on improving their network resilience.

It is clear that operators will take a wide range of approaches to adapt and get through this challenge. Operators that look at more innovative approaches may inadvertently hit upon new ways to operate – that without this crisis they would have not considered. Perhaps, MNOs will be more willing to implement approaches previously discounted or collaborate with competing operators or other types of companies. How long they need to maintain these initiatives in place and which elements of the traffic patterns and solutions become part of the regular network operating environment remain to be seen.

At the same time, innovative companies are working on solutions that can help respond to the challenge of changing demand patterns. At BandwidthX, we are testing the potential in our Xpacity solution to redistribute mobile network capacity over long distances. It appears we will be able to harness MNO’s now underutilized network resources in business districts and provide more capacity for residential areas without any physical network changes. More on that in the next blog posts.

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