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It is testing time for telcos to check how much stress their networks can take

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In the midst of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak, video conferencing is seeing a surge in popularity due to remote working and learning and can the fixed broadband networks withstand the stress.

It is also a testing time for the telecom operators to check how much their networks can take the stress as it is happening for the first time of this degree.

The demand for data services is expected to increase as a higher proportion of consumers are forced to stay indoors and consume more digital entertainment services such as videos and gaming and, at the same time, demand for reliable home broadband speeds will be strong due to the shift towards remote working.

On the other side of the coin, telecom operators can benefit from migrating customers to higher-volume data plans.

While telcos have coped so far but they could come under increased pressure if total lockdowns happen.

Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Avaya Spaces and others have seen a surge in use and the data traffic has seen a spike on the networks as thousands of people switched to home working or watched endless videos.

Netflix, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Amazon Prime had responded to a call by European Union industry chief by cutting picture quality or bit rates to prevent overload.

“Blackouts can happen due to the stress on the network and networks are dependent for working from home and performance is expected from it,” Charbel Khneisser, Regional Director for Technical Sales at Riverbed Technology EMEA, told TechRadar Middle East.

But, he said that the telcos in the UAE are applying proper quality of service and have enough pipe in the country.

However, he said that it all depends on how many people are accessing the internet at the same time.

“When a home user opts for a 100MHz bandwidth, what he gets is 100MHz maximum but that is not guaranteed. When everyone is working from home and if lockdown happens, obviously, performance is going to deteriorate and it will have a big impact on the workloads for organisations,” he said.

Khneisser said that Riverbed has a solution that releases the stress on the network and maintains the user performance by installing agents that are installed on home desktops and laptops to accelerate the traffic and applications even when the internet quality is bad.

“To get quality, latency is the key and not the speed. People don’t have control over latency and getting bandwidth doesn’t mean quality. Cloud providers need to have express routes to streamline and optimise the traffic,” he said.

Video delivery infrastructure needs to be optimised

Home users can also prioritise their routers, some of the models, and give preference for any application to get more bandwidth and good quality.

Riverbed is giving away its Steel Head Client Accelerator software for free for 90 days, in these uncertain times, for home users to get the quality, latency and required performance.

As the traffic is increasing tremendously, an industry expert said that the networks on the access side cannot support the amount of traffic that is coming in.

“The network needs to balance the load and so the video delivery infrastructure has to be optimised and balanced properly. Whatever is there in the backend should support the frontend.  When so many people access the internet at the same time, the video quality will be low but you will still have a service,” he said.

Moreover, he said that the fibre optic fixed broadband network ensures the quality and it is much better when compared to mobile infrastructure, as the throughput is limited.

“Every cell tower has limited throughput. Telcos have to optimise it on the access side and content service providers have to optimise it on the video delivery side. Internet is access to the content but behind it, there is video delivery infrastructure, where is this video streaming,” he said.

For example, if the video is coming from the US, it has to be cached locally and there is a buffer time.

“It may not support the play out, so, the video delivery infrastructure has to be optimised properly. Throughput is important but you cannot blame only the internet,” he said.

Microsoft said that its Teams chat and conferencing app had more than doubled from 20 million daily active users in November to 44m active users as of March 18.

While other web conferencing companies did not give exact increases in figures, Bernstein Research estimates that Zoom has added 2.22m monthly active users so far this year compared to 1.99m it added in 2019.

Savio Tovar Dias, Senior Director for Sales Engineering at Avaya, said that the company has seen a 500% increase in demand in Avaya Spaces in the region due to remote working when compared to a normal period.

“The demand is expected to increase as TRA has approved its web-conferencing tool and companies are evaluating their business continuity plan and remote working strategies. We live in a country that has fantastic telecom infrastructure and the operators are planning to raise the bandwidth to cope with the surge in demand,” he said.

Special offers from Etisalat

Etisalat said in an emailed statement that its technical support teams are working 24/7 in monitoring the network and all services provided to both consumers and businesses.  

“Etisalat is putting in place necessary measures to remove any possible network congestions and recently increased network capacity.  Etisalat also boosted its international data exchange capacity to make sure people are able to use applications while learning or working from home.

The telecom operator currently has special offers where customers can upgrade existing elife TV and internet bundle to a new eLife Unlimited Plan at no extra charge for three months. Subscribers also have the option to downgrade to their old plan if they wish for no penalty during this time.  

Etisalat is working closely with the Ministry of Education and TRA to enable free mobile data for students whose families do not have internet services at home. This is to support distance learning, giving them access to specific applications identified by the ministry. The ministry has prepared a list of eligible students that was shared with Etisalat to provide them with mobile data packages.

Etisalat has also provided access to remote learning applications (Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Blackboard and Zoom) on the fixed network and Microsoft Teams, Blackboard and Zoom on the mobile network.

For a period of three months, businesses can also access for free its online collaboration platform - Etisalat CloudTalk Meeting – to help maintain business continuity by providing a secure platform to collaborate from any device, location, and network in the UAE.

In support of the ministry’s initiatives, Etisalat has granted zero-rate access to selected educational URLs, allowing students to have free access on their mobile phones without consuming any data. In addition, all eLife customers can avail free educational content (‘Madrasa’) on their TV screens.

The other telecom operator - du – did not respond to TechRadar Middle East’s queries.

Last week, both the telcos had increased internet speeds by up to 500Mbps for free to meet all customer communication needs at the comfort of their homes.

Telecom operators and the Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (TRA) of the UAE was not available for comments on whether they are in talks with video content providers to reduce their bit rates and reduce the stress on the networks.

Sukhdev Singh, executive director at research and consulting services provider Kantar, and Sameer Gupta, Principal at research firm Analysys Mason, echoed in the same voice that there could be strains but the network is capable of handling the surge in demand.

Gupta added that the fibre network can withstand the demand.

From a bandwidth perspective, he said: “More than 90% of the fixed network is in fibre but it is not the same across the Gulf. For instance, in Oman, the fibre penetration is not that high and some customers have subscribed to 20Mbps speed compared to 250Mbps speed in UAE”.

For video conferencing, he said that fixed broadband is ideal and reliable rather than 4G and 5G.

Jay Srage, CEO of technology advisory services company Centrigent and head of operations and lecturer at Michigan Ross Business School, said that any company that does not have offsite work policies and does not adjust its cost structure will have to do accordingly and increase the infrastructure on video conferencing.

In the UAE, because of budget restraints due to the outbreak, he said that telecom operators may have to cut down the budget and have targeted deployment.

“At the end, we have the infrastructure and the capacity but the question is do we have the right and consistent tools that everybody is going to use that will help the transition to a home-based lifestyle. Tools are not set up to manage such a surge in usage. In other countries, we may have capacity issues but in the UAE, it is not about capacity but the tools,” he said.