Response to COVID-19

One week into UK Lockdown

One week into the UK’s lockdown to reduce infection from the coronavirus COVID-19, and we take a look at some of the actions and consequences for the telecoms sector

The UK lockdown

Today will be one week since the Government’s unprecedented announcement that effectively put the country into lockdown to combat the spread of coronavirus COVID-19. On 23 March 2020 Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave an address to the nation outlining new measures to reduce our day-to-day contact with other people in order to reduce the spread of the infection. This involves:

  • Requiring people to stay at home, except for very limited purposes
  • Closing certain businesses and venues
  • Stopping all gatherings of more than two people in public.

Every person in the UK must comply with these new measures, and the relevant authorities including the police have since been given the powers to enforce them through fines and dispersing gatherings.  The Government has said it will look again at these measures after three weeks, and relax them if the evidence shows this is possible. However, the lockdown could go on for six months and the country may not return to its normal way of life until the autumn.

The Government has designated telecommunications under the key worker category. This is including but not limited to network operations, field engineering, call centre staff, IT and data infrastructure, 999 and 111 critical services.

Like all other sectors of the economy the lockdown has brought major change for telecoms. Operators and their trade associations have been responding accordingly, acting on specific guidance and looking to clarify guidance when rules appear unclear. This is on top of their day jobs of running their networks and ensuring infrastructure can cope with increased and different demand patterns as home working and remote schooling become the norm for much of the UK population. Operators, like other businesses, also have to look at and plan ahead for what may come, working through the knock on effects and consequences for staffing levels, maintenance and new deployment, just to name a few.

Network performance appears to be holding up

According to our partner Thinkbroadband, which has been running speed tests for years, UK broadband is yet to show any widespread meltdown. Figure 1 shows the average (median) download speed for a number of broadband providers from 24 January 2020 to 23 March 2020 up to 6pm – this is was the first day when many workers started working from home and when remote schooling began for many pupils. It implies that the networks of BT, EE, Plusnet, Sky, TalkTalk, Virgin Media and Vodafone, saw speeds holding up.  Thinkbroadband will continue to publish speed updates – more details can be found here.

Figure 1: Speed tests for selected broadband networks 24 January to 23 March 2020. Source: Thinkbroadband

Writing on 27 March 2020 Thinkbroadband noted that its daily monitoring of the fixed line providers had not resulted in any alerts during the week and that “speeds look boringly normal”.

This is backed up by a chart showing details of aggregated internet traffic levels from internet exchange LINX from 10 February to 28 March 2020, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Aggregated traffic levels at LINX 10 February to 28 March 2020. Source: LINX

There is evidence that the greatest rise in traffic so far is related to the daily Government briefings, as illustrated by Figure 3 showing EE’s mobile traffic levels.

Figure 3: EE traffic levels weeks commencing 9 March and 16 March 2020. Source: EE

Indeed the largest spike is attributed to the PM’s announcement at 8.30pm on Monday 23 March 2020, shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4: EE traffic levels on 23 March 2020. Source: EE

According to a statement by ISPA (the Internet Service Providers Association), the ISP industry is working flat out to maintain network performance. The organisation notes: “From managing demands in the network to fixing issues as they arise, the industry is on the frontline of enabling customers to stay connected with friends and family and continue working from home at this important time”.  Indeed an article by the BBC’s technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones nicely illustrates the role broadband and digital tools are playing in this crisis compared to what may have been 15 years ago.

ISPA says that feedback received from its members suggests that the UK internet is coping well. It says that ISPs continue to monitor the traffic across their networks and are well placed to handle increased remote working. Peak network demand for ISPs is traditionally in the late afternoon and evening when more bandwidth-heavy services like gaming and video streaming are in use. Previous examples of significant events have been well handled and networks are still below peak network demand seen during large video game releases. ISPA points out that remote working generally uses less data-heavy activities like email and video conferencing.

Given that an internet user is a maker and receiver of traffic, regardless of whether they are working from a home or business location, it will affect where the traffic is going but the overall pattern will not change massively. ISPA also talks about the role of the wider network in ensuring internet performance, which is not just down to the connection from the local cabinet to the home. The internet ecosystem, including core and access networks, applications, peering and content distribution networks all play a part in an end users’ internet performance.

ISPA claims that UK networks tend to have less congestion than their European counterparts meaning there is more room to absorb peak traffic. UK networks are also used to carrying lots of video content over the internet, including live sport.

Report on network performance from BT

BT’s Chief Technology and Information Officer, Howard Watson, wrote on 20 March 2020: “The highest peak we’ve seen in evening traffic was 17.5Tb/s, driven by videogame updates and streaming football. In contrast, daytime usage, during working hours, generally runs at about 5Tb/s. Since Tuesday this week [17 March], as people started to work from home more extensively, we’ve seen weekday daytime traffic increase 35-60 per cent compared with similar days on the fixed network, peaking at 7.5Tb/s. This is still only around half the average evening peak and nowhere near the 17.5Tb/s we have proved the network can handle”.

He added that with network monitoring, a few changes to usage patterns as a result of COVID-19 had been noticed [as of 20 March 2020]:

  • A five per cent decrease in mobile data traffic, as a lot of people are connecting their mobiles to their home wifi, rather than using the cellular network.
  • Data usage is peaking at around 5pm, the time of the Prime Minister’s daily briefing [as mentioned above].
  • Mobile traffic is becoming more evenly distributed across the country, as people travel into urban hubs less frequently.
  • Roaming traffic is falling by about 10 per cent per day, with a 55 per cent drop over the last five days.
  • An increase in mobile voice call volumes, which is to be expected, and which is well within the levels the network is built to handle.
  • Organisations are also seeing increased numbers of connections into their corporate Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and conferencing services. This may mean that companies need to think about how they optimise use of these private networks, or increase their provision of such services.

Moves by over-the-top players will also have an effect on customers’ perception of broadband performance. For example, Netflix was reportedly going to lower its streaming quality across Europe by 25 per cent, and there are reports that the bit rates being served to customers could have decreased by more, possibly by over 50 per cent.

Treatment of vulnerable customers

On 29 March 2020 the Government announced an agreement had been reached with the industry on the treatment of vulnerable customers. Following discussions with the Digital Secretary and Ofcom, the country’s major telecoms providers have agreed a set of commitments to support and protect vulnerable consumers and those who may become vulnerable due to circumstances arising from COVID-19.

BT/EE, Openreach, Virgin Media, Sky, TalkTalk, O2, Vodafone, Three, Hyperoptic, Gigaclear and KCOM have all agreed the following commitments, which became effective immediately:

  • All providers have committed to working with customers who find it difficult to pay their bill as a result of COVID-19 to ensure that they are treated fairly and appropriately supported.
  • All providers will remove all data allowance caps on all current fixed broadband services.
  • All providers have agreed to offer some new, generous mobile and landline packages to ensure people are connected and the most vulnerable continue to be supported. For example, some of these packages include data boosts at low prices and free calls from their landline or mobile.
  • All providers will ensure that vulnerable customers or those self-isolating receive alternative methods of communication wherever possible if priority repairs to fixed broadband and landlines cannot be carried out.

These commitments are in addition to a range of supportive measures offered by the individual providers to their customers affected by circumstances arising from COVID-19. Some operators had already chosen to relax data caps and usages.

Ofcom published seven tips for consumers on staying connected during the COVID-19 crisis on 24 March 2020. It has also warned of emerging scams using calls and text messages that contain misinformation and could lead to fraud.

Home visits for repair and installation

Virgin Media has provided details on how its engineers will conduct homes visits including sending new customers the self-install QuickStart pack which means there is no need for someone to visit the home. This service is currently available at no extra cost.

Hyperoptic has said that in keeping with its responsibility to help maintain the nation’s broadband networks, carrying out repairs and connecting new customers that do not have reliable, quality broadband already, it is prioritising works in the following order for the time being, subject to review as the situation develops:

  1. Vulnerable customers – making sure vulnerable customers have access to connectivity and are prioritised.
  2. Existing customers – maintaining network connectivity for all existing customers.
  3. New customers – connecting new customers where their existing connection is sub-standard for the needs of their household.
  4. New customers that already have access to quality broadband – it will continue to connect customers that have alternative high quality broadband where it has available engineering resource.

According to INCA (the Independent Networks Cooperative Association) Openreach has said that it will only allow its engineers to enter a customer’s home where a repair is required. INCA says there are concerns that this approach could negatively impact providers whose focus is more on providing new connections. The trade association is also concerned about the potential impact on vulnerable people currently self-isolating who may be trying to buy a new connection. However, it acknowledges this is very much a live debate, and is keen to hear views on the optimal approach.

Ongoing work including streetworks

ISPs employ tens of thousands of people in frontline roles, including engineers and call centre staff. Like other businesses, the impact of COVID-19 means additional safety checks and precautions may need to put in place and there may be an impact on call centre operations and data centres.

On 27 March 2020 a meeting took place between industry and Government to consider the matter of streetworks. According to the GLA, given the very low levels of traffic, this could offer a substantial opportunity to progress with otherwise disruptive streetworks, bearing in mind of course the need for safe working practices and also minimising the risk of commencing major streetworks that cannot then be completed promptly due to increased numbers of infections and/or self-isolation amongst workers.

Following these discussions a joint letter was circulated by the Department for Transport, HAUC England, HAUC UK, JAG, Street Works UK and DCMS giving guidance on streetworks in light of COVID-19. The letter notes: “All of our works are vital in keeping goods, key workers and emergency services moving, deliveries flowing, and safeguarding the provision of utility services to support the NHS, local communities, homes and businesses. Utilities and Highway Authority works promoters will be best placed to assess which of their works are essential to enable a fully functioning network whilst considering the risk to both their workforce and the public and this advice is aimed at supporting and enabling these works”.

The DCMS has advised that should anybody be engaged with a highways authority that does not appear to be following this guidance, or should a worker be prevented due to not having key worker status, this information should be flagged immediately either by contacting the department directly or through Street Works UK.

There have been multiple reports of staff who are working on streetworks being on the receiving end of abuse from members of the general public, who believe that the gangs are flouting Government restrictions. Clear signage and adherence to the guidance can help to protect these key workers.

Physical Infrastructure Access

There were reports suggesting that Openreach had effectively stopped taking orders for Physical Infrastructure Access (PIA). This is not the case and Openreach is continuing to accept orders. However, given that the operator is prioritising Critical National Infrastructure issues there may be delays in enabling PIA, as indeed with other services provided by Openreach to its communications provider customers.

Consultations and future deployment

There have also been DCMS and industry discussions about various other streetworks related issues, including potential supply chain concerns on elements such as power, availability of contractors, building supplies including tarmac, and issues around refusal of access to buildings (both private and public sector landlords). These matters will certainly gain traction as time goes on.

Ofcom announced on 24 March 2020 that it will publish a revised version of its proposed Plan of Work for 2020/21 at the end of April 2020 that takes account of the coronavirus crisis and provides a revised timetable for its work. However, it confirmed:

  • With immediate effect, it is suspending all existing consultation deadlines and information requests and putting on hold new consultations, decisions and information requests.
  • It understands that the implementation of new obligations may need to be delayed. Specifically, it is discussing with Government the implementation deadlines of the European Electronic Communications Code.
  • At the same time, it needs to ensure markets operate with integrity, and measures to ensure fairness for customers remain important. Accuracy in broadcasting is essential, and it will expedite any standards enforcement cases involving potentially harmful broadcast content relating to the coronavirus.
  • It will take a pragmatic approach to enforcement during this time. Compliance with regulatory obligations continues to be important. However, it recognises that the impact of the coronavirus means that it will not always be possible to meet these obligations. In such circumstances, Ofcom says that industry should take decisions that support critical services, vulnerable people and those who are relying on communications services. It will support those decisions where they are in the interests of consumers and businesses.

Another area is that of broadband voucher schemes and ISPReview reports that a number of such schemes both from the Government and various local or devolved authorities, are likely to be impacted by the current situation. It also notes that existing broadband rollout contracts may also face challenges particularly given tight build deadlines that may be built in. It reports that the Building Digital UK (BDUK) team is “mindful of this” and where it can be “demonstrated that projects have been delayed by COVID-19” then they will look at these “pragmatically at the point at which we can quantify the extent of the delay and the financial impact.”

According to Thinkbroadband, while those building the networks may have slowed down or shifted to working on fault repair the sector is yet to see a slowdown in deployment. From looking at other events such as Christmas holidays and major storms it believes that it may be a few weeks before any knock on effect will be seen on rate of full fibre expansion. Meanwhile Government policy remains unchanged with the aim to have Gigabit for all available by the end of 2025.

To keep the situation under review information will be required from industry. INCA for example, has been asked by Ofcom to help by reaching out to smaller service providers and operators to gather feedback on network operations. The trade association has put together a brief survey that will provide helpful data to Ofcom. The information provided will be made available only to Ofcom (and in aggregate form to DCMS) to help monitor the situation and inform policy decisions for the sector.

Useful links and telephone numbers

INCA has opened a COVID-19 helpline, running 10-3 daily on weekdays: Call on 0330 113 2070 for guidance or advice on current CIVID-19 best practice; the email is open 24/7.