Viewpoint | 25 Mar 2020

How our networks will cope with more people staying at home

Speculation in the press and elsewhere that our networks won’t be able to cope with the increase in voice and data traffic, now that more people are working from home and many schools are closed, is categorically untrue, says Scott Petty, Vodafone UK's Chief Technology Officer.

Our networks remain strong and will cope with this health emergency – we’re doing everything in our power to make them as resilient as possible.

There will be challenges, of course – these are unprecedented times – but the vast majority of our customers will continue to have a really good experience.

So let me explain what we’ve been doing to keep the UK connected.

In short, we’ve been adding more capacity and changing the way we manage voice and data traffic across our complex network of fibre optic cables, copper wires, base stations, exchanges, masts and antennae.

Changing behaviour

Normally, most people travel to work in cities, so we make sure we have the most mobile capacity where they are – at train stations, near offices, restaurants and so on. In this scenario we don’t need as much capacity during the day near the places where they live.

But the coronavirus (COVID-19) has turned this pattern of behaviour completely on its head.

As a result, we are seeing about a 30% increase in internet traffic over our fixed and mobile networks. Also, we’ve seen fixed telephony traffic grow by more than 25% and mobile voice traffic increase by 42%.

Fixed and mobile internet traffic growth


Fixed-line telephony traffic growth


Mobile voice traffic growth


While mobile data traffic hasn’t risen much, it has moved to different locations, so we’ve had to adapt to that. But mobile voice calls have mushroomed as people are using their mobiles rather than work desk phones to call helplines such as NHS 111.

We have been handling thousands of simultaneous calls and this has been putting a lot of pressure on our voice switches. So over the last few weeks we’ve been working really hard, often overnight, adding big boxes – computing power effectively – to our core network to improve performance.

Increasing broadband capacity

Our fixed-line broadband network is presenting some bigger challenges. The peak period for broadband data usage is typically between 8pm and 9pm when people come home from work and start streaming.

Now, with more people working from home, videoconferencing and surfing the internet, and kids watching Netflix, playing games, and having online lessons, that busy period is being extended throughout the day.

So we need to increase capacity in the fixed network, and there are three main places where we can do it:

  • the central core network
  • the aggregation zones (526 around the country managing capacity for areas the size of Bristol, Manchester or part of London, say)
  • the BT exchanges, which handle the connections from customers’ homes.

Keeping the UK Connected - hashtag

The most likely place where congestion may occur for broadband customers is at the exchanges, so our engineers are going in and increasing the number of links the exchange can handle.

But this takes time to implement. In the meantime, a small minority of customers may experience some congestion and slower broadband speeds as a result.

Traffic management

Another way we’re adapting our network to cope with these new circumstances is by managing the flow of voice and data traffic differently.

When we talk about capacity, think of a water pipe – the thicker it is, the greater the volume of water you can pump through it. That’s its capacity. Now imagine lots of pipes of different lengths and thicknesses. Rather than trying to force all the water down one pipe, you want to spread the load across all your pipes to ease congestion.

And as the volume of water you need to shift changes throughout the day, you change how you use the pipes to cope with this fluctuating demand. So when one part of the network is very busy, we can redirect some of the traffic down a different pipe that’s isn’t so busy.

To sum up, our engineers are doing a brilliant job adapting our fabulous network to these changing, and unprecedented circumstances. We have the technology and the expertise needed to keep the UK connected during these difficult times.

There are challenges, but we are overcoming them. Our networks are more than up to the task.