BT says the UK network is sound as a pound

Late last week, BT’s CTO Howard Watson made a few comments about the coronovirus crisis’s effect on our networks (see BT CTO: “Broadband well within manageable limits”) which were intended to reassure the UK public. Like Omnisperience he is concerned about the misinformation being spread in a less than tech-savvy general press. (See Why is my broadband slow? And what can I do about it?)
Here’s a summary of his main points and our views on them:

  1. HW: ASSERTION – The UK is one of the world’s most advanced digital economies
    Omnisperience: FALSE – This is just a marketing statement. How are you measuring “advanced” or “digital” and it begs the question – says who? In terms of broadband speeds or FTTH/FTTP we’re clearly not. This statement is just meant to make us all feel better.
  2. HW: ASSERTION – The fixed broadband core is built with a lot of headroom. It did not fall over when it coped with 17.5Tbit/s of traffic a few weeks ago.
    Omnisperience: TRUE – There’s plenty of capacity in the core networks.
  3. HW: ASSERTION – Use of mobile calls is increasing. Mobile data traffic has dropped. People should shift to VoIP and broadband. The mobile network is coping.
    Omnisperience: TRUE (with caveats) – People are using mobile calling and data because they have work mobile phones they can use. It’s true that shifting to VoIP would help networks cope. This does not take account of poor mobile quality though, with many people reporting they could not access mobile networks (which won’t show up in BT’s data) or that calls were dropped (which should show up in the data but which wasn’t mentioned).
  4. HW: ASSERTION – Daytime usage on BT’s network is generally 5Tbit/s and has increased to (only) 7.5Tbit/s.
    Omnisperience: TRUE (with caveats) – We have to accept that BT is telling the truth in terms of data being carried. However, this tells us nothing about congestion, just capacity and data carried. We haven’t reached peak yet because last week a lot of people didn’t work in earnest, because they were shopping for food, getting their home office ready, dealing with kids or contacting relatives. This week will be a better test of the networks because all the kids are at home and many more people will be homeworking.

BT’s update on network traffic

  • Normal data traffic on BT’s broadband network during the daytime in the UK is 5Tbit/s.
  • There has been a 35-60% increase in broadband traffic to 7.5Tbit/s.
  • The biggest load on the broadband network ever recorded was 17.5Tbit/s.
  • There has been a 5% decrease in mobile data traffic.
  • Traffic of all types is peaking at 5pm (when the prime minister gives his daily statement).
  • Mobile traffic is being “spread more evenly”.
  • Roaming traffic has decreased by 10% per day and by 55% over the last 5 days.
  • VPN traffic has increased and businesses may need to redimension their VPNs.

Omnisperience view
Howard Watson’s statement provided an interesting update on the state of BT’s networks and how they are coping. We think he’s correct in believing that UK core networks will cope with the additional traffic that’s expected. Although we also think that all service providers are in undiscovered territory here because we’ve never had a situation where everyone was at home and using the network. The quoted 17.5Tbit/s speed was experienced due to an update to Red Dead Redemption 2, the release of a new Call of Duty game and Champions League matches. (see The bandwidth hog rides again) The latest situation could see all of the above plus business traffic combined to see even higher levels of network usage that are also less predictable than previously.
However, where the statement was somewhat opaque was that while it provided quite a bit of detail on capacity it did not cover Quality of Service or Experience. It’s not capacity that customers are going to complain about, but the actual quality of service they receive. Quality of Service is not just about throughput, but about network availability, packet loss, reliability and so on. Quality of Experience involves more than the core network performance, including the performance of access networks (both mobile and fixed) as well as devices, applications and so on.
Omnisperience is confident that the UK’s service providers will rise to the challenge of addressing the new traffic patterns they are experiencing, but we believe it’s imperative they are transparent about what’s really happening. Telling customers that all is well when their perceived Quality of Experience is very different will simply undermine confidence. It’s important to admit where we’re struggling and to explain what the industry is doing to address it, as well as what customers could do to help. Being told “we’re fine” when that is patently not the case (see EE, O2, Vodafone Down and Virgin Media is down – service crashes for mobile customers across the UK) is not the way to improve customer confidence.
In contrast, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson gave a more nuanced appraisal, saying that while the networks were coping well the company was experiencing some stresses. “We’re seeing some signs of stress. We’re having to go out and do some augmentation of networks… But right now the network is performing quite well,” he said in an interview with CNN.
One thing that could help us get some time to adapt is the imminent arrival of the Easter holidays, with parents staggering their holidays to care for kids. If we’re lucky, and the weather is good, there might be gardening going on and fresh air, plus offline activities, which will gain us some vital time to adjust our networks to cope with new traffic patterns.