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More than 90% of UK’s fixed lines meet the challenges of working from home

Study from network benchmarking firm Umlaut reveals that despite fears over whether UK networks could cope with mass remote working, only very few fixed-connection users faced limitations

As the UK went into lockdown in March, many people feared that the domestic telecoms providers would not be able to cope with unprecedented loads on their networks, but new research suggests that the existing infrastructures have coped remarkably well.

The study, from mobile network testing and benchmarking consultancy Umlaut, analysed fixed-line network performance in the UK. The survey found that in most households, data speeds were “perfectly adequate” for most video-conferencing applications and only a tenth of connections faced limitations when consumers used them to work from home. Furthermore, it showed that only when video platforms were used in addition to other applications at home were there noticeable mass restrictions.

In its study, Umlaut examined more than 345,000 broadband lines and over 70 million samples in the UK through a crowdsourcing approach between March and May 2020. In this way, the fixed network’s speed could be indirectly determined with the help of Umlaut’s anonymised data, when smartphone users were connected to their home via Wi-Fi.

The benchmarking methodology focused on customer-perceived network quality, and the company said the results show that working from home will increasingly have its place in the world of work. Video-conferencing applications such as Zoom, which enjoyed a 169% annual increase in sales in the first quarter of 2020, have been the clear winners. Separate research revealed that by mid-June, use of Microsoft Teams had grown by 894% compared with its usage during the week beginning 17 February.

Umlaut found that over 97% of the lines supported at least SD video quality of 0.6Mbps, the minimum requirement for a video chat. By default, however, video conferences take place in HD quality of 1.5Mbps or HQHD quality of 3Mbps. It found that around 90% of UK connections were capable of supporting such higher-bandwidth video chat. Umlaut pointed out that the situation would become more difficult if video platforms with UHD streaming at 15Mbps were used when working from home. However, more than half of the connections surveyed were capable of supporting UHD streaming and problems with the connection could often be traced back to shared connections or the terminal device.

Regionally, there was no major difference between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. England came out best with just under 56% of UHD-capable connections, with Northern Ireland at 54%.

Hakan Ekmen, CEO of Umlaut Telecommunication, said: “Overall, the results of our crowd-based evaluation of fixed lines in the UK are encouraging. More than 90% of the lines in the UK have easily met the challenges of working from home. We only see restrictions when video platforms with UHD streaming are used in addition to video conferencing.”

But even if the worst fears of March were not realised - thanks to proactive measures taken by the network operators - other studies have found that a significant minority of UK internet users believe the quality of their online experiences has diminished since lockdown. Research in June 2020 by YouGov found that a third of Brits (35%) believe that, contrary to assurances from network providers, they had experienced worse internet performance than they did pre-lockdown, with 7% saying their household connection is “much worse” than before.

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