Redoing the math: the impact of COVID-19 on broadband networks
As the world moved into lockdown to protect against COVID-19, fixed broadband networks took on the lion’s share of responsibility for keeping the world connected. Traffic grew 30-40% overnight, driven primarily by working from home (video conferencing and collaboration, VPNs), learning from home (video conferencing and collaboration, e-learning platforms) and entertainment (online gaming, video streaming, social media). Analyzing data1 from several different countries before and immediately after lockdowns were introduced shows:
- 30-60% increase in fixed broadband traffic.
- 50-130% increase in fixed voice traffic.
- 70-80% increase in Wi-Fi calling.
Broadband service providers dealt with the immediate challenge very well but now need to consider the long-term implications for their networks. The changes in digital behavior are likely to continue, with many more people relying on their home connectivity and still the possibility of periodic lockdowns until a vaccine is found. Governments must also look at the role broadband plays in post-COVID societies.
There are three key areas to consider.
Connect the unconnected
Almost a billion households in the world still have no fixed broadband connection. These unserved households are, at best, economically vulnerable, unable to earn a living or contribute to the economy. But at worst, they lack access to potentially life-saving information and certainly life-enhancing e-health, e-learning and social connectivity. These households must be seen as a priority as we look at the lasting impact of COVID-19 on societies.
New minimum service levels
However, connecting the unconnected is not enough. The multiplication of simultaneously connected devices, users and households, the high-bandwidth apps like gaming, and especially the increase in upstream traffic from video conferencing have reshaped service levels. Simulating these new digital behaviors in Nokia’s bandwidth modeling tool shows that the minimum recommended bandwidth to comfortably work, learn and play in lockdown is 50 Mb/s downstream and 15 Mb/s upstream. This should be seen as the new minimum service level for connected societies.
The typical network design assumption that not everyone needs bandwidth at the same time (statistical multiplexing) no longer works. Previously, an operator with a GPON network may have retained a 1 Gb/s overhead to make sure they can support peak demand from premium subscribers. With a 30-60% increase in demand during lockdown, this overhead has been wiped out. This means that even well-served areas (for example, Gigabit fiber networks) need to be reassessed to make sure that subscribers get the speeds they are paying for.
Government broadband plans were drawn up in a pre-COVID world where digital behaviors were relatively easy to predict. Without question, these plans need to be rewritten to account for the vital role that broadband plays in the new normal.
The most urgent question is how to incentivize and facilitate broadband deployments to connect the unconnected. Everything from subsidies, taxation, private investment incentives, rights of way regulations up to and including government-owned broadband utilities should be considered.
In addition, governments and operators should come together to consider the new minimum service levels required for the new normal. Operators whose typical plans for around 10% traffic growth per year have seen 4 or 5 years of growth almost overnight. This implies that network upgrades must be accelerated. Not only a switch to NG-PON fiber-to-the-home technology, which also addresses the surge in upstream bandwidth, but with consideration to 100G aggregation links and terabit switching capacity.
Finally, meeting the needs of these new digital behaviors in a timely fashion will require all of the tools at our disposal, with fiber broadband networks and mobile networks complementing each other to bring better broadband to more people, more quickly.
These are not necessarily simple endeavors. They need a good deal of thought—and a great deal of investment. But if COVID-19 has shown anything it’s that broadband connectivity is vital for protecting citizens and economies and that the cost of not investing in broadband is too great to even consider.
1 Source: Operators, Ookla, Akamai, Sandvine, OpenVault, Comscore, Vendors
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