Coronavirus: BT reassures UK of network’s resilience

Just a week after issuing assurances that its network was capable of dealing with the added load from vastly increased numbers of people working from home, BT issues further details on infrastructure resiliency

As we near the end of the first week that millions of Britons have been forced to work at home to prevent the spread of coronavirus, BT has been forced to rebut media stories suggesting that its networks will be unable to cope with the extra traffic of millions of home workers.

On 13 March, in a bid to alleviate worries in both the business and consumer communities, Howard Watson, chief technology and information officer of the BT Group, published a video with the express purpose of clearing up any confusion and offering reassurance on home working resulting from the coronavirus.

In the video, Watson said the BT network was capable of dealing with peaks of traffic that reached about 17.5 terabits per second between 8pm and 9pm, mainly driven by people streaming video, in particular football, and playing games. He added that, from monitoring its core and access networks, this peak, which BT manages routinely, was more than four times the amount of traffic that goes out from business sites to datacentres during a working day.

But only a week later, and as tougher restrictions around Covid-19 begin to take effect, and as more people contemplate a future of working from home for an extended period, BT has felt obliged to release specific details of how it is able to cope with potential spikes.

In the updated statement, the telco said the Covid-19 outbreak was causing changes to the way its networks were being used and that the resilience and capability of its networks have taken on even greater importance and that to reassure the public, and in particular businesses, it was necessary to publish some facts about the BT network’s capability.

BT noted that, fundamentally, the UK was one of the world’s most advanced digital economies, so the company had overbuilt its network to compensate for our love of high-definition streaming content, video gaming and other bandwidth-hungry applications. It emphasised that the online conferencing services and video-calling applications that teleworkers were likely to be using consume far less bandwidth.

Pinpointing the challenge that BT was facing, Watson said: “Daytime usage, during working hours, generally runs at about 5Tb/s. Since Tuesday this week, as people started to work from home more extensively, we’ve seen weekday daytime traffic increase by 35-60% compared with similar days on the fixed network, peaking at 7.5Tb/s. This is still only around half the average evening peak, and nowhere near the 17.5Tb/s we have proved the network can handle.

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“Organisations are also seeing increased numbers of connections into their corporate virtual private networks (VPNs) and conferencing services. This may mean that companies need to think about how they optimise use of these private networks, or increase their provision of such services.”

Watson said such measurements gave BT confidence that the additional load on the broadband network was well within manageable limits and that BT had plenty of headroom for it to grow still further. That said, he emphasised that BT was not complacent and was monitoring the network closely, and collaborating with the other UK networks and content companies to identify any issues and resolve them as quickly as possible.

Watson added that if more capacity was needed, BT engineers were on standby 24/7 to make that happen.

Read more on Telecoms networks and broadband communications

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