Individuals working from home during the pandemic are noticing the sluggish speed of the internet, something that they may have experienced occasionally before the lockdown. The reason is simple – with the masses turning to the internet for almost everything under the sun, the internet’s underlying infrastructure is bound to get strained. The burden is specifically being felt in two areas – home networks and services supporting these home networks.
The broadband at home is accustomed to peak activity at certain hours of the day, say, when people return from work and browse from home. However, the transfer of work and learning to home networks has led to new peaks of internet use, with several users sharing the same internet connection to run data-intensive apps that were previously reserved for offices and schools. The current copper DSL/Ethernet-based broadband service or cable broadband is different from the enterprise-grade internet broadband service provided in schools and offices. This means that it was not originally built to withstand this kind of pressure. DSL speeds are limited by distance from the exchange, which means a lot of homes may not be able to get high speed broadband over DSL. Adding to the problem is the erratic nature of Wi-Fi routers at homes, low capacity broadband plans and network congestion as several people are streaming content and using bandwidth-hogging apps on the same Wi-Fi network.
How are ISPs coping?
Before assessing the impact of the pandemic on the internet, it is essential to understand the difference between home networks and enterprise broadband networks. Enterprise connections generally require dedicated bandwidth to transfer huge files, exchange emails, enable video conferencing and run enterprise applications, while residential connections are used for content consumption, for which shared bandwidth is ideal.
In the present situation, it is the residential networks that are being used for remote meetings, learning and file sharing, eating up much more bandwidth than what was initially provided. Some have suggested infrastructure sharing between internet service providers (ISPs) to solve this issue, but that is not feasible because of the intense competition. In fact, it is not even necessary.
Tier 1 providers have upgraded their core bandwidth to meet the requirements of ISPs. However, at the access level, these ISPs must upgrade their switches to cater to the surge in traffic, mainly on account of video consumption on collaborative work apps and OTT entertainment apps. The spike in internet usage was expected when the news of the pandemic hit the world in January 2020. Leading ISPs in the country were foresighted and began working on bandwidth optimisation early on to prevent disruption in service. Some of the contingency measures taken by ISPs were upstream internet bandwidth upgrade to meet the sudden increase in demand; enhancement of their in-house city-wide coverage capacity through optical fibre networks to optimise the back end; capacity addition on the access network layer; and upgrade from last mile to fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) to eliminate bottlenecks due to excessive usage. FTTH allows ISPs to cater to the increased broadband speed requirements for home users during the lockdown.
Today, in times of the pandemic, broadband has undoubtedly emerged as the fourth pillar of survival in addition to food, clothing and shelter. To ensure continuous and quality service, ISPs have emerged as the new corona warriors, constantly ideating and implementing new features to keep the internet strong. In the short and medium term, ISPs can look at the following measures to make way for the new normal successfully:
- Invest in digital infrastructure such as virtual agents for customer care to minimise contact and reduce the workload for human agents.
- Extend network capacity by up to 50 per cent to support remote working and learning.
- Support the population through continuous supply, especially in rural areas, and through free Wi-Fi hotspots and waivers for small business owners unable to pay their bills.
- Carry out regular budget forecasting for optimised cash flow.
In the long run, ISPs must consistently work towards creating more resilient network capacities and omnichannel experiences for their customers. Shifting their IT infrastructure to the cloud, training virtual agents, and increasing the infusion of AI/ML into the network will make businesses more agile and reduce costs over time. Another key focus area would be cybersecurity as the post-pandemic era will see an increased digital access level and a consequent increase in digital threats.