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COVID-19 – Home Working Probably Won’t Break UK Broadband

Tuesday, March 10th, 2020 (2:06 pm) - Score 9,179

Over the past few days a number of newspapers and websites have run with stories claiming “experts” are predicting that the United Kingdom’s broadband ISP networks “will be unable to cope” if millions of people start working from home during the COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak, but such reports can be misleading.

Remote working is of course nothing new to modern business culture, although the degree to which it’s supported often depends upon the job you’re doing (you can’t do much work from home if your job is being a waiter in a restaurant or on a factory assembly line etc.), as well as how capable the IT and network setup is at your place of work. Suffice to say that many jobs, especially practical ones, simply don’t translate well or aren’t possible to do from home.

NOTE: See our H2 2019 broadband coverage report to see where the UK stood at the end of last year (here).

Meanwhile larger or more IT centric businesses will often have their own internal Virtual Private Network (VPN) platforms, which enables employees to login and access their work when at home or while travelling aboard. Smaller businesses may similarly allow some work to be taken home, although data protection laws (GDPR) could restrict what work they’re able to do without a proper system in place like larger firms.

Crucially the vast majority of work that ordinary people tend to do is actually fairly lightweight in terms of its data impact upon a broadband network. For example, sending/receiving emails, database updates, replying to online messages, writing reports, filling in forms and answering calls (assuming VoIP, so as to avoid using personal lines) are all common office tasks that would be possible on even some of the slowest home broadband links.

For example, a couple of years ago I had to keep ISPreview.co.uk updated, upload images and check emails while flying over the ocean with access to only a congested Satellite link, which struggled to maintain a 1Mbps download (c.0.2-0.5Mbps upload) at best with extremely high latency (well over 1000ms) and the odd disconnection. Horrible, but it just about worked and that’s an example of very poor connectivity.

What about more demanding tasks?

Several recent reports have highlighted examples of video conferencing calls and en masse internet trading as areas that could strain existing broadband links, which may be true for a smaller proportion of overall jobs but there are other considerations here too. Video conferencing calls do benefit from better upload speeds in particular, but most codecs can scale down their quality to work on slower lines (not ideal but workable).

As for trading, we can only assume the example is a reference to High Frequency Trading (HFT), since ordinary trading would be fine on many slower lines. By comparison HFT tends to require very specialist private leased lines or bespoke Microwave links to get the absolute best possible latency (i.e. you’d usually need a lot more than even a domestic full fibre FTTP line to properly conduct this sort of work). In any case such trades aren’t going to impact wider network capacity, not least since they’re mostly time rather than data capacity dependent.

However, there are certainly plenty of jobs that could, in some parts of the country, prove to be more problematic. Any job that requires a significant amount of data transfer (e.g. graphic design, 4K/8K video processing, mass data processing / backups) may be harder or even impossible to achieve in areas where only slow ADSL lines exist. Likewise even some better connected FTTC (VDSL2) areas may struggle with some of these (e.g. lines can be as slow as 2Mbps in some areas).

Overall though many of these data intensive tasks tend to be in the minority and are thus unlikely to stress ISPs much more than, say, a busy day caused by major online software / video game update(s) or the mass streaming of big sporting events.

Arguably a bigger challenge could occur when the demands of greater remote working clash with those of a typical family environment (heavy video streaming and downloads etc.), particularly if COVID-19 results in the closure of schools. In the above scenario we could see the combined impact causing a slowdown in service speeds at some providers on some connections, but they should still cope (i.e. they won’t crash but general traffic management may kick in to balance load).

Some just need to upgrade

One easily overlooked factor here is that a lot of people live in parts of the UK where significantly faster broadband connections or packages are already available, although for one reason or another the individual may have chosen not to upgrade (e.g. lack of awareness about the faster services, being stuck in a long contract term with their current ISP and the higher price of faster tiers may discourage adoption etc.).

Likewise in a fair few locations, where fixed line broadband is poor, then it is sometimes possible to adopt a 4G (mobile broadband) service instead. This has become more attractive now that all of the major operators – Three UK, EE (BT), Vodafone and O2 – have introduced “unlimited data” plans. The catch is that mobile performance remains highly variable, both from place to place and operator to operator.

Equally if an individual only needs to upgrade because of the demands being placed upon them by work then, assuming a better service is available, this may raise a more complicated question about who should pay (a tricky conversation to have with your boss).

Likewise some upgrades may incur a bit of downtime or involve a lead time of several days or weeks before the service goes live, which are issues that could create additional problems for a mass move to remote working. Speed and capacity are not the only issues.

What do ISPs say?

No analysis, even a simplified one like this, would be complete without actually asking some broadband ISPs for their thoughts and we’ve today canvassed nine of them (including all of the largest players and some of the smaller ones). Broadly speaking, none of the providers to have responded so far appears to be particularly worried and all say they can increase capacity to cope with rising demand.

NOTE: Data consumption rises significantly each year, so ISPs are in an almost constant cycle of upgrade and capacity management. They know how to handle it.

Simon Davies, Director of iDNET, said:

“We are very well placed and prepared for an increase in customers working from home. Our services are truly unlimited which means that customers are able to stream as much Catch-up TV, video and movies as they like, and many do just that most evenings.

So our network has scaled to support the huge increase in video streaming that has been a significant trend over the past few years. Consequently we see correspondingly less traffic during the working day which leaves plenty of underused capacity on our network for home workers.”

A Vodafone Spokesperson said:

“We have been adding capacity and minimising congestion at busy aggregation nodes to meet the growing demand for our home broadband service. We have achieved good results already after the live streaming of football over the Christmas period generated record levels of internet traffic.

In addition, we are working hard with our critical national infrastructure customers to test their business continuity planning and expand capacity where required. We have a dedicated team set up to do this. This is in addition to providing virtual private network services, videoconferencing, VoIP and cloud and hosting services to businesses so they can conduct virtual meetings and share information quickly and securely from remote locations.

We have conducted tests on our own internal network and continue to do so to ensure we have ample capacity to allow any number of employees to work from home if necessary.

The same applies to mobile. If large numbers of customers stay at home then we move capacity around to ensure they continue to receive a strong signal. We get to put this to the test every time it snows in the UK.”

Martin Pitt, MD of Aquiss, said:

“On balance we don’t expect to see any issues, with traffic to be in line with a public bank holiday or where snow has resulted in a large percentage of customers to be home based. We already have the network modelling in place to cater for those.

However, we are potentially in uncharted waters. As a precaution we have already taken steps to increase and activate backhaul extra capacity and have the assurances in place from our upstream suppliers of equal measures. We are more than confident that no issues will arise or customers experiences will be impacted. Furthermore we have completed and tested all our systems to allow our own staff to be homeworking based, in the event of any Government advise to do so.

Where we are seeking clarity from our suppliers and establishing protocols, is around Engineer visits for both new provisions and faults and how those maybe impacted.”

Paul Stobart, CEO of Zen Internet, said:

“We are following the circumstances around COVID-19 closely, and continue to monitor the Government’s guidance and advice.

As a responsible broadband provider our network is carefully managed so that Zen’s customers consistently receive the internet speeds that they’ve come to expect. This helps for us to plan and cater for any spikes in traffic caused by increased demand.

We have seen no increase in daytime traffic on our network, so the working from home effect has not yet happened, but if it does, we are ready for it. We have full confidence in the resilience of our network capacity, and will be in a strong position to facilitate the needs of our customers in the instance that more need to begin working from home.”

A BT Spokesperson said:

“BT’s networks are built to support ‘evening peak’ network capacity, which generally equates to at least ten times daytime (working hours) demand, driven by streaming video, sports content for example. As a result, we’re confident that the UK’s broadband network could handle mass-scale home-working in response to Covid-19.”

Andrew Glover, Chair of the Internet Services Providers’ Association (ISPA), said:

“The possibility of the UK having to remotely work over the next few months has led to questions about the ability of ISPs to handle the additional workload of employees working from their homes.

ISPs are ready to handle any potential extra bandwidth and consistently assess the demands that are being put on their networks. Businesses and companies will need to ensure that their own systems, e.g. their server setup, support a potentially significant increase in remote connections to accommodate the potential increase in traffic from their employees.”

The generally agreed conclusion above is that consumers shouldn’t expect their broadband service to go kaput. Providers have a lot of tools at their disposal to raise or manage network capacity when required. On the other hand there’s still an element of uncharted territory about the whole COVID-19 situation and thus nobody should take it for granted, but ISPs seem to be well prepared.

The fact that some reports have also confused issues with speed in the local access network with that of the ISPs core or wider network capacity – two different sides of the same coin – certainly doesn’t help matters. The race to upgrade the nation to full fibre and gigabit-capable services is of course vitally important and we’ll all benefit from that but, as above, many core business tasks can still be done on significantly older and slower lines.

Arguably the biggest real-world problem is likely to stem from the fact that many businesses simply aren’t properly set-up with the right software, network (VPN etc.) or processes to support the full range of remote working across all of their divisions.

We are currently awaiting responses from several other ISPs and will update this article as those arrive.

UPDATE 2:45pm

Added a comment from BT above.

UPDATE 3:48pm

Added a comment from the ISPA above.

Leave a Comment
22 Responses
  1. Avatar The Facts

    Home working with 128k was fine a while ago.

  2. Avatar joe

    Ppl working from home is a trifle. Its deciding to bing netflix with their kids sent home from school that will drags the speeds down.

    • Avatar A_Builder

      AJoe

      Quite

      Although spare a though for WFH on an ADSL connection – that might struggle!

    • Avatar joe

      Not ideal, although most work would still be fine unless you are a high data user (most workers aren’t)

    • Avatar James

      Not so sure. I can stream iPlayer just fine, but when my ISP peers into the network hosting my corporate VPN I get packet loss and the mouse doesn’t move smoothly across the screen. Thankfully the helpful NoC team are willing to modify the BGP local-pref to prefer a different upstream, which generally sorts this out.

  3. Avatar Alex

    I have worked from home for over 9 years and having seen my router stats it barely uses any bandwidth. What hits bandwidth is my teenagers on YouTube/Netflix when they come home from school/college.

  4. Avatar Ferrocene Cloud

    The only thing that is going to seriously impact the networks is whether the network operations teams are well enough to work, and if field engineers are available and it’s safe to dispatch them. It’s not impossible to see a situation where engineers are only allowed to work on critical infrastructure with severe risk to human life or other disruption to vital services.

    A bit of extra VPN traffic isn’t a massive concern.

  5. Avatar AnotherTim

    I’ve worked from home as a software developer from the days of dial-up, and gone from that through ISDN, ADSL, ADSL2+, FTTC, and back to ADSL and then ADSL2+. Currently using 4G and desperately looking for anything better as it is getting slower and is just no longer possible to cope with the growing size of data I need to download & upload.
    I think a lot of people will struggle to work from home, not just due to the bandwidth (particularly uploading), but also with issues with things such as VPNs (e.g. there are a lot of issues with VPNs raised on the Plusnet forums) as the ISPs are not able to help.

    • Avatar ianh

      I think this is where a lot of people go wrong. If you’re on a crap line or moving huge chunks of data, you need your machine to be where the data is.

      This is very much attainable using a virtual desktop and you would therefore be limited to an amount of traffic that wouldnt be any worse than a documentary on netflix.

    • Avatar AnotherTim

      Virtual desktops can be useful, but don’t help at all if you have to swap hardware cards around a lot.

  6. Avatar CJ

    I’m intrigued by Vodafone moving mobile capacity around when it snows. If only they’d move more mobile capacity in my direction when it’s not snowing.

  7. Avatar Buggerlugz

    I think if high volumes of infected folk are off work sick watching netflix it’ll depend largely on which ISP they are with whether it grinds to a halt or not. Notice the word “Probably” in the story, don’t fill me with much confidence.

  8. Avatar SimonR

    There doesn’t appear to be any noticeable issues over festive periods when the kids are doing their things. A batch of WFH traffic shouldn’t bring anything down.

    Of course, a symmetrical service would be very handy…

    • Avatar SimonR

      Now, if the people maintaining the networks were not available, or the engineers keeping power to those networks were unavailable, then…

      I wonder how many companies can actually handle working from home. Some are obviously geared up for it, but many are just now considering it for wholesale roll out.

      And they will find equipment needed for these employees is currently in very short supply. Modest spec laptops are selling out fast.

    • Avatar Ferrocene Cloud

      If companies operate in such a way that they essentially have no business continuity plan, then they’re badly run and that’s on them. They’ll pay the price for their lack of planning.

      As someone who maintains of the large networks, business continuity plans have gone into effect and we can run the network working from home if required. Every single major provider will have their plans implemented.

  9. Avatar James

    I read the comments from Vodafone, BT, Zen etc, but consider that a company has it’s VPN headend in Germany. How good is their international capacity? Also, there are two corporate strategies for remote working, one is based on Citrix/RDP type which is jitter sensitive, the other is a VPN client which could download large volumes of data if someone opens a large email archive for example. These are two quite different demands on the network and it will be interesting to see which performs best.

    • Avatar Ferrocene Cloud

      It’s also going to depend on who the provider is in Germany, as well as the UK. Vodafone UK and Vodafone Germany would almost certainly go across the Vodafone global network AS1273 so the traffic would be under complete control by Vodafone the entire way. If the end ISP was DT, then traffic would probably get handed over to Cogent somewhere in London.

      Internet traffic can be a complicated beast. I’ve had to explain to my customers that once we hand traffic off there’s nothing more we can do – this was to a customer who wanted to know why their new VPN wasn’t as good as their cancelled leased line. Or explain that we can’t do anything to resolve an issue with their remote site’s ISP and their transit provider half way around the world, several ASes away from our demarcation point.

      Capacity is basically a function of money.

    • Avatar spurple

      The company can easily call their ISP and upgrade their backbone capacity. The prices for upgrading capacity aren’t prohibitive once you’re past the initial install and activation. Also, they can deploy QoS, which their equipment probably has in a nice and (not)easy to use GUI.

  10. Avatar Fred

    I work from home and currently use rather poor Vodafone 4g due to lack of options (Truespeed are installing FTTH in our village at the moment). Over Christmas the service was next to unusable – probably due to much higher demand over the festive period. As for VPN access, my employer is well set up on that front, not expecting any real issues there. I suspect that a shift towards home working may have a lasting effect on people’s behaviour?

  11. Avatar CarlT

    HFT is done between computers so I would hope that’s not the trading they are referring to.

    I would imagine they’re referring to home traders.

  12. Avatar James

    For those who are interested many Swiss workers started home working alongside the schools closing yesterday. For reasons I don’t completely understand the mobile network and the fixed line SIP telephony were overloaded and it seemed to take a few hours for Swisscom to increase capacity. https://m.20min.ch/schweiz/news/story/Swisscom-kaempft-erneut-mit-Stoerung-18901454

  13. Avatar Will

    Its the last day of school before the shutdown and Virgin has pretty much ground to a hault in Oxford.

    Things like Netfix and fortnite need to have their bandwidth allocation throttled.

    We are on Virgin Business and instead of getting 100mb we are on 6mb.

    Voip quality is really bad.

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