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Mobile Phone Networks adapt to homeworking lockdown

CoronavirusHow have mobile phone networks dealt with the demands of the current Covid-19 crisis? Traffic patterns, locations and demands have all changed radically. On the whole, they’ve held up pretty well but there have been a few surprises. Additional insights have been made available about population movement levels, but one area of operations has been severely affected. 

Slow but steady

OpenSignal recently published a traffic report for Italy during February and March, showing that the mobile networks had continued to provide generally good service despite so many users have moved to home working and entertainment. In the second week of March, OpenSignal observed significantly lower 4G download speed, but still reported a pretty respectable 19 Mbps in the evening.

There have been a few temporary arrangements that provide additional spectrum to operators, releasing or borrowing unused spectrum to increase capacity.

For those with good wireline broadband connections, much of the traffic has migrated across. The percentage of time connected to Wi-Fi versus mobile networks has increased, up from roughly 30% to almost 50% depending on the region. Wireline networks are seeing their peak Saturday/Sunday night traffic levels from lunchtime onwards every day.

I’ve heard from workers with poor home broadband service who now rely on mobile hotspots to remain connected to their offices. The crisis has exposed those businesses who are far less prepared for home working, whether down to inadequate laptops/computers, limited remote access licenses to office servers and limited adoption of Cloud services. One company has even asked workers to drive in and park in the car park so they can access their office network via Wi-Fi using their laptops.

Designed for data, not voice

We seem to be talking to each other more than before, using voice calls on mobile as well as messaging and video calls/conferencing. Straightforward voice calls are dealt with differently by networks. A few countries have well developed 4G VoLTE capabilities, with voice handled through LTE as just another datastream. However many networks revert to 3G (or even 2G) to handle voice calls, and older phones may not support VoLTE even where the network does.

This has led to increased strains on 3G voice capacity. Cell breathing (reducing signal power to constrain the range of a cellsite) can result in poorer signal level/quality for those furthest away from cellsites, limiting their services.

As a result, some networks are encouraging wider use of Over The Top Apps for voice calls, such as Facetime, WhatsApp etc. These continue to handle the call as a pure data stream, even if it is voice only. They also make use of inbuilding Wi-Fi where available, relieving the strain on networks not configured to cater for quite so much dedicated voice traffic.

Monitoring mass movement

Operators in Italy, Germany and Austria (and many other countries) have been providing data to health authorities that can assess the level of compliance with movement restrictions. These are reported at a macro level without identifying any specific individuals to comply with European data protection regulations.

Vodafone Italy calculated a 60% drop in movements of more than 500 metres throughout the Lombardy region.

The City of Toronto was able to identify specific locations where gatherings have been taking place, using anonymised data.

Cellphone tracking company X-Mode demonstrate their capabilities in this video illustrating how individuals from Spring Break in Florida have then returned to their homes across the US.

This data, together with levels of fuel sales (down 60%), transport usage (from automatic ticket barriers, toll gates etc.) builds a picture of how effective the measures have been.

Customer Service capacity constrained

Not all call centre workers can easily be switched to home working, and this has reduced capacity and capability significantly. That is partly due to legal constraints (eg data protection), supervising staff so they don’t copy down personal details or take screenshot photos. Call centre workers in many countries (including India) are highly supervised and tightly constrained on what data they can view and where they can access it.

Meanwhile Virgin Media announced they will recruit 500 new call-centre staff in the UK to deal with the unavailability of offshore workers. UK operator Three has shut down most of their call centres completely.

There have been appeals for customers to make full use of online portals wherever possible and to expect long delays in answering calls.

My own experience with two separate wireline providers has been variable. One insists that all service terminations require to be done by phone, but did manage to answer the call within a couple of minutes. Another was simply unable to update my email address as primary user even after calling in – they do not appear to have a process to do that without the previous user logging in, even when that isn’t possible.

Summary

Mobile networks have generally proved quite resilient and capable, adapting to the changing traffic patterns and demands. Offloading to wireline networks using Wi-Fi has increased and helped offset growing demands. Rapid reallocation of available spectrum has brought additional capacity onstream.

Data analytics provide immediate and accurate insights to governments about population movements, indicating the effectiveness of lockdown measures.

Customer service performance levels have suffered and are perhaps the least prepared for the current situation. Disaster recovery plans will be getting a thorough review in the months to come.

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