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UK operators brace for broadband surge

UK infrastructure operators see year of massive traffic driven by major events such as the Queen’s funeral, live sport and online gaming, and get ready for further network peaks across the Christmas period

The UK Christmas break may be imminent, but there will be no respite for the country’s leading network operators, who are predicting that the holiday period will drive the UK’s broadband networks to hit record-breaking levels of data traffic in 2022.

BT-owned broadband provision division Openreach is getting ready for a potential spike in broadband traffic on Boxing Day, as Amazon Prime screens the return of Premier League football matches. The spike comes after a year in which major events such as the Queen’s funeral, live sport and online gaming have seen networks glow.

Openreach’s annual broadband update – based on the online consumption of homes and businesses using providers including BT, Sky, TalkTalk, Vodafone and Zen – has shown that 2021’s total of 62,700 petabytes (PB) of data will be exceeded around Christmas Day, with around a week of December left. The data showed that the Openreach network’s busiest single day of the year so far – and since records began – was Sunday 11 December, when just under 229 PB of data was carried across the infrastructure.

The second busiest day was Sunday 18 September, the weekend of the Queen’s funeral, when millions of people were watching the event online and more than 216.7 PB of data was carried across the network during the day. The third busiest day for the UK’s broadband was Sunday 6 November, when 216.6 PB of data was carried across the network. There was an obvious increase in traffic between midday and 4pm, with notable events online around that time including live Premier League and FA Cup football.

The busiest months in 2022 were January (5,701 PB), October (5,532 PB) and November (5,504 PB). The busiest day of the week is typically a Sunday, with the busiest time on the network usually between 8pm and 10pm. 2022’s annual total is set to break records, perhaps as early as Christmas Day. In 2021, more than 62,700 PB was downloaded – in 2020, that figure was 50,648 PB, and in 2019, it was around 22,000 PB.

Commenting on the network loads over the year and what the Christmas holiday could bring, Openreach chief technology and information officer Colin Lees said: “We’re expecting further network peaks across the Christmas period, particularly on Boxing Day, as live football returns to our screens after a six-week absence due to the World Cup.

“The fact a glut of matches are being screened exclusively online this holiday season, coupled with lots of new devices being connected to the internet for the first time and downloading updates, we have the potential for having a bumper online Christmas with records toppling again,” he added. “We have a team of experts working hard behind the scenes to make sure there’s enough capacity for every eventuality. They’re constantly looking out for what the next big broadband traffic day could be, whether that be live sports, new film releases on Netflix or a major gaming patch.”

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Meanwhile, similar data released by Virgin Media O2 revealed a 2022 whereby people experiencing the year’s historic events has forged a new normal shaping consumer connectivity behaviours.

VMO2 noted that demand for data in 2022 saw its biggest ever year for data use on both its broadband and mobile networks, as more people went online to chat, stream, share and game. In 2022, customers downloaded 9% more broadband data per day than the previous year, with mobile traffic up 36% year-on-year.

Football was responsible for the biggest O2 mobile data traffic spikes, with the England versus Iran game on 21 November driving record spikes in mobile data traffic ever recorded on O2’s network.

Compared with England’s opening game against Tunisia in the 2018 competition, mobile data traffic was up 361%. The Lionesses lifting the Euros trophy in the summer of 2022 saw a 49% increase in household reach on the matchday of 31 July, compared with an average day, as the nation cheered on the women to make history. 

The 2022 finals of the Premier League and Champions League saw huge mobile data surges, with mobile network traffic 37% and 30% higher than their respective 2021 finals. Further, during the evening of 19 October, when Amazon Prime Video streamed five Premier League matches and the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II pre-download game was released, Virgin Media’s broadband data consumption significantly spiked before peaking at 21:20, when traffic was up 40% compared with an average weeknight in 2022.

“Looking back on 2022, it’s clear that reliance on broadband and mobile connectivity is seeing traffic and data use grow more and more,” said Virgin Media O2 chief technology officer Jeanie York. “This year, a number of major events that gripped the nation alongside huge gaming launches and the continuation of hybrid working have all contributed to a record-breaking surge in customer traffic on our network, and we see no sign of this changing.”

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