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COVID-19 could expose NBN's vulnerabilities

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Cartoon by Mark David/@mdavidcartoons.

Last week, I addressed the issue of teleworking and e-health application in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I also mentioned the impact that this will have on our telecommunications networks.

This week I would like to go a little bit deeper into this. It is a no-brainer to predict that when schools and businesses are closing, and more and more people get isolated, there will be an increased demand on the telecommunications networks. Particularly, we will see an increase in video-based services.

Entertainment will be a very substantial element as many people will be getting bored and parents will have significant problems in keeping their children occupied.

There are already indications that traffic in data centres has increased by around 10 per cent and this is only the beginning of the pandemic.

In general, our telecommunications networks should all be able to handle the extra traffic. To be more specific, those on the fibre to the home networks will have no issues even when the use of these networks significantly increases. This will be a clear vindication of the original decision to build a nationwide fibre to the home network. 

Businesses that are connected to full-fibre networks will see the benefits of having these high-quality connections. Those companies that have also invested in linking some of their key staff to such networks will reap the benefits.

For most of the other networks, there won’t be the same outcomes. Some parts of the networks will fare better than others. They will largely follow the tribulations of the NBN. Those people that have been connected to the NBN and have not encountered any problems will have the best chances of maintaining a relatively good quality service.

Those that have been struggling on the fibre to the node networks might see things getting worse in case there will be a significant increase in traffic in their area.

It will also be interesting to see what the experience of people in regional areas will be. These networks both fixed and wireless are often the most vulnerable in the country, so the question will be if they will stand up under this increased pressure. I fear the most for the networks in these areas.

The HFC network could well be one of the most vulnerable networks. Recent data from TPG shows a deterioration of the quality of the network and again increased traffic will only make that situation worse.

The same will apply to fixed wireless networks. They also have been struggling with capacity issues and while upgrades are underway, many areas here could be affected if more people will use broadband service, especially the video-based ones.

Satellite networks will be another area of concern, as they are basically unable to handle significant increases in video-based traffic. That is the reason that they have caps and these could be a real limitation on the services they can provide.

This then brings us to mobile networks. Also, these networks are affected by traffic increase, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they in many cases will keep standing up. It is interesting to remember the problems Vodafone faced with its network with the arrival of that smartphone, its infrastructure was simply not up to it.

So, this will be a good test to see what will happen this time around. This will be very interesting to follow. If indeed the NBN starts faltering in certain areas, people might start relying more on the mobile services and this could indeed trigger what Telstra and the other mobile operators hope that more people will move to mobile networks and not bother with using the NBN.

Telstra remains boisterous with their predictions that as many as 20-30 per cent of people could prefer mobile services over the NBN. 5G could come in very handy here. If that will be the case, then this will mean serious longer-term financial troubles for NBN Co. A key message in relation to mobile services is to keep an eye on costs as using mobile networks for video-based applications could provide you with bill shock.

If possible, people should that they have redundancy built into their own residential and business telecoms requirements so that you can use one service over the other if needed. Also, they should consider other options in their neighbourhoods, such as libraries and community centres (if they are not closed).

Last, they should consider increasing their subscription so you have access to more capacity if needed.

The crisis will further show that the capacity limiting packages that are provided by NBN Co is the wrong approach. This is not about how much profit NBN Co needs to make but how to serve our country best.

Hopefully, the crisis will lead to providing more affordable, truly high-speed broadband to the Australian people. It would be a real shame if we can’t use the broadband services available in our country because of political grandstanding and pig-headedness. What we need now than ever is enough affordable capacity for everybody in the country to maximise the use of this national asset.

For the time being, let’s give the national broadband operator the benefit of the doubt and see if they can keep the country connected under increased pressure and whether they are able to provide added capacity that will be needed to look after the people who now more than ever will rely on good quality telecommunications services.

The quality of the network is not the only deciding factor. Many schools, universities, businesses and online applications are all operating in the cloud. Most of these services have never been tested for the high levels of traffic that will be going through these networks. Many schools have run tests with pupils being asked to log onto the system en masse at the same time. Most systems did stand up, but many experienced a slow level of service.

So be aware of such situations. Online shopping systems will also be overwhelmed and it might be difficult to log onto these networks. Make sure in case you become isolated, that you are aware of the status of these networks, their conditions and possible alternatives.

As many of the more vulnerable people are older, they might not be all that familiar with services such as Skype and Facetime. They might need these services to contact family and healthcare professionals, so make sure that you are familiar with these services while there is time for preparation.

Once the crisis is over, we will have a good indication of the quality of our telecommunications and online services. There is no doubt that many lessons learned will be learned from the crisis and hopefully this experience will assist the telcos to increase the quality and the resilience of our telecoms infrastructure.

Paul Budde is an Independent Australia columnist and managing director of Paul Budde Consulting, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organisation. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde.

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