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On-line for everyone – The new normal

March 24, 2020 - Frank Healy

On-line is now the new normal – for everyone. What does this mean for telecoms operators who need to deal with the huge spikes in traffic?

If you ask an insurance professional for a definition of risk they’ll probably say: it is the likelihood of something bad happening. If you ask a finance or economics professional how they define risk they’ll probably more positively say it is: variability or fluctuations upwards as well as downwards.

Much of the business world is after all driven by “steady as it goes” pension funds where predictably low levels of growth are the most sought after. Higher than “normal” levels of growth are also considered with varying degrees of scepticism: the “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” or “it cannot last” kind of argument.

The trouble with “normal” is it often doesn’t exist. Every now and again things simply change - permanently. Whether driven by relatively benign events, such as the launch of the iPhone or something way more dramatic, such as an “escalation in hostilities” or seemingly binary shifts in voting patterns or legislation or a global pandemic, there is a certain commonality. It is the sense for many that such events were unpredictable and that some things will never be quite the same.  The need for some people to suddenly bulk-buy gold or toilet paper can be pretty overwhelming it seems.  

Fortunately for those in the telecoms or IT industries, many have at least a partial sense of deja-vu. Most service providers have previously seen dramatic spikes in demand and shifts in behaviour whether it’s massive growth in services like Facebook or Netflix. Predicting the specific source of such growth can be tricky business (even in these examples, for Apple and Netflix themselves). Recent figures from Spain have shown a 700% increase in Whatsapp use during this awful virus. But such numbers won’t be too surprising for many in the industry.

The past several weeks have been a continuation in some ways. Not all resources are infinite and that includes networks. Although they have coped pretty well, limitations have however been highlighted with many networks. Services such as Netflix have felt the need to reduce their quality of service to cope with demand. Speaking to colleagues this week, it’s clear that even at-home business users are sometimes struggling to have their traffic prioritised over their kids’ favourite cartoon channel. In-home WiFi services are struggling to keep up due to surges in video-conferencing requirements.

The need for networks to cope with spontaneous and massive bursts in traffic as well as protection of critical services such as pretty much all first-responder services has come into sharper focus.

The use of policy will come into focus. The ability to prioritise traffic from one person / segment, device type, etc can help ensure the networks are made available to those who need them most. Netflix’s decision to not stream high definition videos will be very welcome. It may well be the start of network operators and governments working together to keep the networks up and running, and prioritised for critical services. Governments and operators can decide to throttle all video traffic to ensure network availability. By looking at throttling all video traffic (regardless of whether the provider is YouTube, Vimeo or anyone else) then this is ok with net neutrality legislation as it is treating all video providers as equal.

As we move to a fully on-line society new devices may have to activate rapidly and in large numbers. And if network prioritisation is rolled out, then who makes the decisions? Retail, logistics and supply-chain services are asking governments to be considered as a “critical/frontline” in many countries. There is going to be a lot of demand on operators in the coming weeks and months to ensure network availability. Policy systems will be under increased focus as operators look for creative ways to manage their finite network resources.

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