Impact of Covid-19 on telecoms infrastructure

Broadband and mobile networks are facing increased levels of demand in the UK and around the world because of the 2020 Covid-19 outbreak.

Governments have required people to stay at home to slow the spread of the disease. This has led to more people going online, including during the daytime. For example, Vodafone has said demand in some European countries increased by up to 50 percent in March 2020. Businesses in the UK have also been asked to support staff to work from home where possible. This has meant more people are working remotely using their home networks.

Telecoms are part of the UK’s critical national infrastructure and have been identified as an essential service.

The National Infrastructure Commission warned in 2018 that the UK’s broadband network needed to be improved. This was necessary to ensure it could meet long-term increases in demand as more people spend longer online and using more data. Parts of the UK’s broadband network remain reliant on copper wires to connect properties to the broadband network. The National Infrastructure Commission warned that bandwidth demand might exceed the capabilities of this copper network in the next 10 to 20 years.

The Government has committed to a programme to secure nationwide coverage of gigabit-capable broadband by 2025.

Both the Government and the telecoms industry have argued that the UK’s telecoms infrastructure is resilient enough to support the current increased demand during the Covid-19 outbreak. The Government has said it has been in communication with the telecoms industry and was confident it was prepared for the impacts of Covid-19 on broadband capacity.

Openreach, the arm of BT responsible for maintaining the UK’s digital infrastructure, has confirmed there has been an increase in daytime usage on its mobile and broadband network since the beginning of the lockdown. It reported that, during the last week of March 2020, daytime demand had increased by 46 percent on the previous week. However, it said this peak in demand was not as high as that experienced over the 2019 Christmas period. This previous peak was because live football was being streamed on Amazon.

How has the telecoms industry adapted?

The telecoms industry has made changes to the way it operates during the epidemic. On 29 March 2020, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Ofcom and the telecoms industry issued a joint statement on efforts to support consumers through Covid-19. In this statement, providers announced they would remove data caps for customers on fixed-line broadband packages. This was intended to reduce costs for consumers using more data at home.

Internet providers also committed to introduce new mobile and landline packages for vulnerable customers, including the elderly. The Government has said it is working with the tech sector and civil society organisations to find ways to support vulnerable people and those self-isolating who may have problems accessing services online.

In addition, Ofcom has published advice to consumers on how to reduce strain on home networks. This includes using landlines where possible to make calls or using wifi networks to make mobile phone calls.

Video streaming

Video streaming is one of the main drivers of data use.

During the epidemic, the video streaming service Netflix announced it would be changing the way it streams content to reduce bitrates in the UK and across the EU. This followed calls from the European Commissioner for the Internal Market, Thierry Breton, for video streaming companies to reduce the amount of data their services used by moving from high definition to standard definition streaming. Similar demands for video streaming services to reduce data have been made in other parts of the world, including India.

Telecoms engineers

A further issue during the epidemic is the safety of telecoms engineers.

Telecoms engineers have been classified as key workers by the government. They are therefore excepted from the constraints on movement in place during the crisis. However, press reports suggest some telecoms companies are facing shortages of between 20% and 40% amongst their staff, including engineers, as a result of illness or people self-isolating. Openreach engineers and other employees in the sector have also faced threats of violence as a result of the conspiracy theory that the 5G network is either causing or contributing towards the coronavirus outbreak.

Openreach has said it will prioritise fault repairs over routine maintenance and the provision of new services during the outbreak in the UK. It has said its engineers will continue to upgrade the UK’s broadband infrastructure. However, Openreach will be limiting home visits and will no longer be installing new broadband connections. It has said home visits are still possible in limited circumstances, including where vulnerable customers have no other means of connecting to the network. Openreach has also advised internet providers to limit customers switching between networks to further minimise the number of home visits made by its engineers.

Image by Johnnie Pakington from Wikimedia.