Italian networks having a bit of a wobble under the strain

Although Italian networks seem to be holding-up under the increased traffic, data from Opensignal and MedUX suggests there has been material levels of service degradation.

What is worth noting it that while performance is seemingly suffering, there is not a threat of a full internet black-out in the impacted regions. Customers might just have to be a bit sympathetic to the circumstances and wait a bit longer.

Starting with the mobile networks, Opensignal measured the performance of the networks over a six-week period, starting at the beginning of February and finishing towards mid-March. Over the first five weeks, network performance was consistent, though from March 10 onwards, the beginning of the lockdown in the country, there was a very notable decline in 4G download speeds.

Although these numbers are still at speeds which might be tolerable, the longer the lockdown continues, the more people will be working from home, the greater the strain will be. This is far from a threat of the networks shutting down due to increased traffic, but it is a degradation which people will have to be aware of.

At the time of writing, the Italian Government has warned that while the COVID-19 impact was stabilising in the Northern regions, there were signs of increased effects in the Southern regions. Should there be a significant flare-up in the South, it would suggest the lockdown would continue across the country, instead of drawing to the end as some had been hoping.

Looking at fixed broadband networks, MedUX has done some analysis on the performance of Telecom Italia, Fastweb, Vodafone and Wind. Once again, the networks are holding pretty steadily, but performance has been impacted.

While there has been an impact on networks throughout the country, Piemonte, Lombardia, Toscana, Emilia-Romagna, Campania, and Sicilia have had a more material impact.

During the week beginning March 9, MedUX notes there has been up to a 50% increase in latency for FTTH during morning hours and up to 150% increase during afternoon hours. For FTTH and VDSL services, there was also a 15% decrease in compliance with contracted download speeds. The team also noted a 15% increase in web loading time and a 10–15% increase in the start-up and loading time of videos during the afternoon on the worst effected days.

Although these statistics are a slight dampener, the networks are still continuing to perform their duties. It might not be the lightening speeds which are promised in adverts, but these are extraordinary times where consumers might have to offer some flexibility to the telcos.

Europe asks Netflix to save networks by restricting HD streams

European Commissioner for the Internal Market Thierry Breton has been on the phone to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to officially request the streaming service slow down downloads.

Under the hashtag #SwitchToStandard, Breton has asked Netflix to enforce a slow down on customers who might be tempted by HD standard content. With HD content requiring 4-5X more data than SD, the threat to networks is quite apparent as more of the population are forced to stay inside and binge watch any new recommendations.

The issue being faced by the telecommunications industry is the perfect storm for network congestion.

Firstly, video consumption places much more of a strain on networks than any other type of internet traffic. These applications are incredibly data intensive, and while Netflix only requires a consistent 5 Mbps connection to function properly, the consistent streaming over sustained periods of time by millions of customers starts to add up.

Over the first half of 2019, video accounted for 58% of the total downstream volume of traffic on the internet, according to network management firm Sandvine, with Netflix accounting for 15%. Another issue which home broadband networks might face is more people connecting devices to routers.

“People are watching a bit more YouTube than normal (because it is a great source of information from a wide variety of sources) to try and figure out what is actually going on and to learn about what they should be doing,” Cam Cullen, VP of Global Marketing at Sandvine said in a blog post.

“And unlike normal, where their usage is divided between mobile networks, work, or school networks, and random wifi hotspots, it is all centred on home networks.”

With more people working from home, more devices are going to be connected to the home broadband networks as opposed to mobile, public wifi or more powerful work networks. Video conferencing will become much more popular, people skiving will have something on the TV, while kids needs to be kept busy as well. With parents attempting to work, whacking an episode of Paw Patrol or Pepper Pig on Netflix might have to suffice.

Another element to consider is the rise of online gaming, both on consoles and mobile devices, which will also be running off home broadband networks. Telecom Italia has attributed a material proportion of the 70% surge of internet traffic on its networks to increased use of games such as Fortnite and Call of Duty.

Italy, France and Spain are all countries which have gone into full lockdown mode, while it seems it will only be a matter of time before the same happens in the UK. Without the pub, clubs, cinemas, theatres or gigs to distract consumers, more will turn to the endless treasure trove of harmless comedies and rabbit hole documentaries to fill time in the evenings.

BT has already said it builds networks to deal with peak time traffic, therefore it does not foresee a problem, but what could be about to be unleashed is a monstrous amount of internet traffic as children are no-longer distracted by education or adults by alcohol.

All of the telcos are furiously working to increase capacity on networks which are potentially under threat, though whether the work can be done quick enough to mitigate the rise in traffic remains to be seen. It might not seem like a significant change but considering the popularity and increased use of streaming services over the coming weeks and months, downgrading to SD might have an impact if everyone makes an effort.

EE plugs transport hubs as priority for 5G

As telcos jostle for top-spot in the 5G stakes EE has added further colour to its network deployment plans, with the UK’s busiest transport hubs taking priority.

Having switched on, albeit very limited, 5G coverage in 20 cities around the UK, EE is surging ahead to expand the coverage of the high-speed airwaves. As is the standard approach to deploying a new network, the busiest hubs for connectivity are first on the agenda, with the green light lit in London Waterloo, Liverpool Street and Charing Cross train stations.

“Switching on 5G in more busy places will help to keep our customers connected to the things that matter to them the most,” said Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s consumer division.

“Our engineers are building new 5G sites every day and increasing capacity on 4G sites – all part of our ambition to keep all of our customers connected 100% of the time.”

Although some might be a bit irked that train stations are getting 5G exposure rather than their home or office, it does make sense for the telcos. These are areas which are subject to congestion and notable network strain during peak hours, and let’s not forget, 5G offers greater spectral efficiency to ensure more devices can be connected simultaneously. Addressing these network congestion challenges will be a key objective to improve customer experience.

Aside from the three stations named above, Highbury and Islington station, New Cross Gate Overground station and Shoreditch High Street Overground station are further London sites which will be given the 5G connectivity buzz. Outside of London, Market Street on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, Belfast’s Great Northern Mall and City Hall, Cardiff’s St David’s shopping centre and Morgan Arcade and Albert Square in Manchester will also get the 5G upgrade.

The coverage map is gradually becoming more attractive for those considering a 5G contract, though there are still concerns about whether enough attention is being paid to 4G networks.

“5G will undoubtably unlock a range of exciting new consumer and business use cases,” said Ingo Flomer, CTO at Cobham Wireless. “However, there aren’t many 5G handsets available and in use today. Commuters still rely on 4G to access work emails or enjoy video streaming while on the move.

“Getting reliable 4G mobile coverage is still a challenge for commuters on lots of the UK’s most popular rail routes, as well as in stations, but it needn’t be such a hurdle. Solutions exist that can overcome the challenge of providing reliable voice and data coverage in stations and rail lines – an important part of the passenger experience.

“There will come a time when blanket 5G coverage is needed. Now, however, it is important to deliver adequate 4G mobile coverage to guarantee quality of service for consumers, and support business and operator growth in all areas in the UK.”

Flomer has a genuine point. Everyone who regularly uses public transport across the UK, or use stations outside of London, will have come across the same frustrations. Inconsistent and unreliable 4G connectivity.

According to the latest Ofcom Connected Nations report, only 66% of the UK landmass is deemed to have access to ‘good’ 4G data services from all four telcos. As you can see from the table below, EE is offering the best breadth of coverage, though there is still some work to do.

Telco Geographic coverage
EE 84%
O2 74%
Three 78%
Vodafone 79%
All four 66%

Those who live and work in the city will not realise some of these frustrations. The 4G coverage map has not been completely filled in yet, and some will still fall through the gaps created by the digital divide.

One of the promises of the connected world is mobility. The idea of improving accessibility to the internet and embedding connectivity in more devices is to make people more productive and enable more people to work anywhere. Employees and employers alike will certainly be interested in this message, though the network does have to be there to fulfil the promise.

Right now, there are still too many holes in the networks spread across the UK. Some communities are being left behind, while transportation links, not just the hubs, need to be given adequate attention.

In fairness to the telcos, this is a difficult equation to balance. Bank accounts do have their limit and some companies are being asked to spend across a range of different areas. Compromises have to be made, though some might question whether the telcos have found the right mix yet.

5G might be grabbing the attention, but it will be 4G which will be the most important networks for years to come. 5G smartphones will remain too expensive for many, while it will take years to get the 5G network coverage map anywhere near as extensive as 4G. It is promising to see EE’s network gathering momentum, but we need to ensure 4G expansion is still a priority for telcos.