The COVID-19 data surge isn’t a temporary blip – it’s probably permanent

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Image credit: NicoElNino

Thanks to COVID-19, data traffic is spiking as more people work from home and stay indoors. But telcos shouldn’t count on volumes returning to normal.

Never mind the Mobile World Congress – you know COVID-19 is a serious threat when they cancel the Eurovision Song Contest.

It seems almost every event is being canceled or postponed – with the notable exception of the Olympic Games in Tokyo (which is sort of understandable, if not advisable) and Spring Break in Florida (which is not at all understandable and in fact rather stupid).

The rash of event cancellations is a good and wise and absolutely necessary thing as part of the broader goal of social distancing as much as possible to ‘flattening the curve’ of COVID-19’s infection rate. But it obviously comes at a painful cost for the event organizers, the venues and the cities whose economies benefit from such events. In fact, the disruptive impact of COVID-19 extends far beyond events. Just about every industry that relies on gathering large groups of people in one place is getting clobbered – from hotels, airlines and cruise ships to restaurants, pubs, theatres, day-care centers, shopping malls, gyms and more.

On the flip side, social distancing and staying home has been good for e-commerce sites and food delivery apps like Deliveroo and FoodPanda, as well as all-purpose super-apps like Grab that let you order all kinds of products and services, and outsource errands that you’d otherwise have to leave home to do yourself. It’s also been great for streaming video services, as well as webconferencing apps such as Zoom that has become the go-to platforms for everything from remote working and online classes to worship services.

As you might expect, this is also resulting in lots more data traffic on telecoms networks. Just this week, internet exchange operator DE-CIX said it has seen average data traffic at its exchange in Frankfurt alone increase 10% since Wednesday last week. That includes a 50% rise in videoconferencing traffic (including Skype, Teams, and WebEx) and a 25% increase in online and cloud gaming. Meanwhile, all of DE-CIX’s Internet nodes worldwide are reporting a 20% increase in demand for additional capacity since the beginning of March.

Luckily, for the most part – and at least for now – anecdotes about telcos and ISPs worldwide buckling under the load have been few. Notable exceptions include almost every mobile operator in Britain, where EE, O2, Vodafone, Three and GiffGaff all experienced service outages earlier this week, reportedly due to an upsurge in remote working. And then there’s Australia’s NBN. (Obviously. – Ed.)

But how long operators can continue to handle the load will depend on how much spare capacity they have, their ability to add more and how quickly all this extra traffic continues to grow. Obviously, operators have been planning capacity upgrades to handle projected data traffic growth in the coming digital 5G/IoT era. But it appears that COVID-19 has accelerated that projected growth dramatically, and if telcos are hoping this is a temporary surge that will drop back down to normal once COVID-19 blows over … sorry, but there’s a high chance that this is the new normal.

The plague years

According to a number of reports, even if the curve is flattened to manageable levels, that doesn’t mean COVID-19 will go away – it just means we can handle the number of cases without overwhelming the healthcare system. But the coronavirus will still be out there, and if social distancing is relaxed, new outbreaks are inevitable. The only two things that will stop the coronavirus is herd immunity (which could take years and kill millions in the process) or a tested vaccine that can be made widely available and affordable, which will probably take at least another 18 months.

What happens between now and then depends on how we adapt to this reality. There are a lot of predictions about how remote working and the ‘shut-in economy’ will go mainstream. But that would require universal, affordable and unlimited broadband everywhere, as well as all businesses being sufficiently digital and automated to facilitate remote working. If you’ve followed this site long enough, you’ll know we’re nowhere near that point yet.

And that’s before you factor in the point that most humans need some kind of social life outside the house – even if it’s just to take a walk in the nearest park. Social distancing can only be sustained for so long, both socially and economically.

What to do? According to Technology Review, if we can’t keep everyone cooped up forever, we’ll need better ways to detect and monitor who is potentially infected with COVID-19 (or the next pandemic).

This is likely to involve lots and lots of surveillance using big data and mobile technologies. Indeed, this is already happening to various extents. Singapore’s meticulous tracing and online documentation of people in contact with virus carriers is already legendary. In China, South Korea, Israel and Hong Kong, we’ve seen mobile apps and network data being used to track potentially infected people, warn you when you might be near one of them, and enforce home quarantines. Facebook’s Disease Prevention Maps uses the company’s treasure trove of aggregated big data to help public health officials map out existing and potential hotspots and clusters.

All of this naturally raises issues of privacy, false positives and social stigmas, so governments should proceed with caution, especially if they don’t want more panic on their hands.

But as the Technology Review piece explains, we could be looking at a scenario where, for example, in order to board a flight, attend a major sports event or enter a government building, you would be required to sign up for a service that tracks your smartphone. You might also need an app on the phone that monitors your vital signs or proves that your vaccinations are up to date (powered by blockchain, no doubt). Maybe this would last until COVID-19 is under control. Or maybe – like taking our shoes off at airports – it will be permanent.

Either way, it’s not hard to see what this implies for the telecoms sector. Demand for ubiquitous connectivity and unlimited broadband has never been greater – the question is whether that demand has arrived too soon. Operators need to get to grips quickly with the possibility that the capacity demand they had forecast to arrive a couple of years down the line is here now, and – like COVID-19 – is not going to recede in a couple of months.

This is particularly true for operators that have removed data caps from their broadband plans to facilitate remote workers and shut-ins – a nice gesture, but one that was probably encouraged by the notion that they would only have to do that for a month or two, rather than until the end of next year. (Also, now that they’ve just demonstrated that throttling is unnecessary to keep the network from overloading, they’ll be hard pressed to put the data caps back on.)

If operators want to be the heroes of this story, they’ll need to make sure they not only have the capacity to support this new reality, but the flexibility to support customers, enterprises and even NGOs and governments who now depend on them for a lifeline.

EDITED TO ADD [March 23, 15:10]: After this article was submitted for posting, Netflix, YouTube and Amazon announced they would be reducing their streaming rates in the EU to reduce the load on internet infrastructure, making the point that content providers also have a role to play in making sure there’s enough capacity to keep the data pipes up and running.

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