Coronavirus: Vodafone confident of staying on the line

The coronavirus outbreak has caused the UK’s pattern of working behaviours to change completely – and network operators are confident they can cope

As the first full week of mass home working came to an end, Vodafone joined fellow operators in recognising the unprecedented demands on its infrastructure, but has also expressed confidence that both the fixed and wireless arms of its business can take the strain.

Vodafone says that, like all the other leading operators, it has seen unprecedented demand for its fixed and mobile estate and says it has learned lessons from its global estate to keep UK services up and running. On 25 March, Vodafone said it had seen an increase of about 30% in internet traffic over its fixed and mobile networks and had seen fixed telephony traffic rise by more than 25% and mobile voice traffic by 42%.

Interestingly, Vodafone said it had not seen mobile data traffic rise much, as it had moved to different locations. This was something the operator accepted it had to deal with.

However, mobile voice calls mushroomed as people used mobiles rather than work desk phones to call helplines such as NHS 111, and Vodafone said it had been handling thousands of simultaneous calls, putting a lot of pressure on voice switches.

Some bigger challenges had arisen on the fixed-line broadband network, it said. As with other suppliers, such as Virgin Media and BT, Vodafone had found that the peak period for broadband data usage was typically between 8pm and 9pm, when people come home from work and start streaming video services.

The new demands have meant Vodafone has needed to add more computing power to the core network to improve performance and increase capacity for fixed network services and adapt the network to cope with these new circumstances by managing the flow of voice and data traffic differently.

As well as the core, the company said it needed to work on the 526 aggregation zones around the UK, managing capacity for areas the size of Bristol, Manchester or part of London, and working at the BT exchanges that handle the connections from customers’ homes. Vodafone noted it was at the latter sites where congestion may occur for broadband customers and so engineers were increasing the number of links the exchange could handle.

A Vodafone UK spokesperson told Computer Weekly that another thing the operator was seeing was that the location from which most traffic was coming had changed rapidly over the last few weeks. Whereas most traffic had previously come from city centres, now much more was coming from suburbs and smaller locations as people were social distancing and self-isolating.

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The spokesperson said Vodafone UK was fortunate in that, as a company with a wide European base, it had learned lessons from what had happened in Spain and Italy in recent weeks. “We are quite fortunate to be part of a larger group,” they said. “It’s got a lot of experience of what’s happening in Italy and Spain, which are about a week or so ahead of us. So, we’re taking key learnings from there and applying them to the UK. For example, the lockdown.

“We could then take some of the learnings and get ahead of the curve, essentially, so we know where the traffic and where the build-up is going to be. For example, a lot of mobile calls are taking place to helplines, centres and so on – all that kind of stuff was increasing. So, we put in capacity in advance of anticipating that.

“Also, a lot of people are now joining conference calls and we see spikes. We are monitoring and constantly keeping an eye on the network traffic patterns in terms of adding capacity.”

The spokesperson stressed how important networks and, in particular, network engineers were in keeping everything up and running. They said Vodafone was following all the guidelines on staff safety but was keeping its engineers mobilised and able to deal with critical national infrastructure.

The spokesperson also emphasised that Vodafone was adhering to a well laid-out business continuity plan and working out the many scenarios it could still face. “Again, it’s working with our colleagues around the world to work out where we might need capacity and what trend patterns there are,” they said. “What’s happening with other markets is also very useful. Everyone now is reliant on connectivity, so we do play a pivotal role, and that’s probably not going to change any time soon.”

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