How networks are adapting to the new normal

Shifts in data traffic have changed drastically as COVID-19 continues to separate many of us from our normal lives. But how are networks adapting? In our latest blog post, we look at the changing traffic patterns in networks worldwide, and clarify what Communication Service Providers (CSPs) can do to meet demand.

With dozens of countries on lockdown, and millions working from home, there has been significant pressure on the infrastructure of many cities across the world. Healthcare systems, school systems, and businesses are all under stress.

Right now, connectivity is key. Fixed and mobile telecommunications networks have become an even bigger part of the critical infrastructure. It’s keeping millions of us in work, it’s enabling families to keep in touch with loved ones, and friends to continue their Friday night social – albeit from the comfort of their living room. But where are the shifts in data traffic happening?

Staying connected: the key shifts in network traffic

In the last few weeks, we’ve seen major shifts in traffic moving from downtown to suburban and residential areas, as more lockdowns mean less mobility and movement into the cities. Mobile broadband networks have experienced this traffic pattern shift with a decrease of data traffic in urban areas and an increase in suburban and residential areas. But as people are moving less, and working from home more, the largest share of traffic increases are being absorbed by the fixed residential network (WiFi, essentially), where the increase has ranged from 20% up to 100% in different networks around the world. WiFi within the home is where the action is now.

Streaming services are seeing major increases in use, to the point where services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube have decreased the quality of its streaming services to avoid capacity constraints.

The ‘Lockdown Effect’: How networks have been impacted since the coronavirus outbreak.

There have also been significant data increases in bi-directional services, such as software and apps for video calls and tools for smart working. Video conferencing service Zoom saw a 535% rise in daily traffic in the past month as more people use video conferencing to carry out daily work. Stress in these particular services are predominantly on uplink capabilities – the process of uploading content. In Italy, for example, where the lockdown has been one of the most stringent, data relating to upload traffic has grown by 40% in some networks.

In times of crisis, it’s good to talk, and by far the biggest change we’re seeing is in voice services. For example, voice-over WiFi services have seen increases of 90% for some US-based service providers, and a staggering 180% in the Netherlands. In Europe, for example, Spain, Germany and Switzerland have seen a significant increase in mobile voice calls of up to 50% in recent weeks.

We’re in an exceptional situation, but this doesn’t mean that consumers are ready to lower their expectations on performance from applications like gaming, streaming or videoconferencing.

The impact and actions being taken by CSPs

Service providers have reacted quickly in the last few weeks to adapt to this ‘new normal’, taking temporary measures to help customers, and society stay connected in these challenging times. This includes either increasing the “bucket size” or allowing unlimited data for a short period of time. As a result, some mobile networks are experiencing an increase in data traffic. In countries that have been severely affected by coronavirus in the last few weeks we’ve seen the following:

In Spain there have been increases in mobile data packages of up to 60 GB without an increase in price. There have also been free subscriptions for certain services on offer.

In Italy, where there has been a strong increase in voice traffic, service providers have offered an increase in monthly packages of up to 30 GB, all of which have been free of charge.

In France there’s now free access to various TV channels, and several service providers are offering 1 GB data with a lower-tier plan.

In general, the impact so far for service providers is that network performance is not affected by these major shifts in traffic. In fact, we’re seeing a slight improvement in some performance indicators, due to the reduction in handovers, as people are less mobile, and due to offloading to WiFi. So far, so good. But in these uncertain times, what can service providers do right now to manage their networks and the continued changes in traffic patterns?

Meeting demand: Our recommendations for CSPs

Now more than ever, service providers need to consider the importance of planning and optimizing their networks. At Ericsson we’re staying close to customers, and supporting them in everything from network re-planning and reassigning assets to managing capacity and performance in these crisis situations. However, here are some immediate recommendations:

  • It’s important to monitor any traffic changes, especially when subscribers are moving from urban areas with radio base station sites that are well equipped for high capacity demand, to more residential areas where installed equipment might not be to the same level as in normal high-traffic areas. Network optimization might be needed to deal with the new traffic situation
  • Reexamine how the network deals with high load situations in mobile broadband networks. One key methodology is the Flow of Users solution. The approach aims to build more network capacity by serving data users in real time, and minimizing their connection time. This, in turn, allows for greater control of the arrival rate in the network, in order to maintain a steady flow of users
  • Consider deactivate throttling, as it has a negative impact in the load (serve users as fast as possible instead). The exception here is lawful service throttling for streaming services, which can reduce load
  • Radio expansions and spectrum additions might also be required to cope with the increased traffic demand

The future is unknown, and right now it’s nearly impossible to predict how long, and to what extent, these major shifts in traffic patterns will continue. That’s why planning and prevention are key to meeting the demands for network performance, providing quality user experience and importantly, enabling people to connect in this uncertain time.

Learn more

Hear Stevan discuss the ‘corona effect’ on networks on the Ericsson News Podcast.

 

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