RootMetrics: COVID-19-driven network shifts ‘unprecedented, unexpected, unlikely to change soon’

The coronavirus pandemic is turning the world on its head in many ways, and its impacts on networks are no exception. In some ways, the strains that is being placed on carrier networks is exactly the opposite of what they were designed for, according to observations from RootMetrics.

“COVID-19 has created a sudden change in network usage patterns—the scale of the shift is unprecedented, unexpected, and unlikely to change soon,” said Kevin Hasley, chief commercial officer for RootMetrics, in a statement.

RootMetrics is delaying its twice-annual testing, out of concern for the safety of its teams and because network testing that would reflect “normal” conditions is impossible at the moment. But it still offered up some recent connectivity and mobile data analysis based on its trove of data reflecting how networks operate.

RootMetrics described the COVID-19-driven network impacts as “a double whammy of increased demand plus a new spatial distribution of usage.”

“Resource planning is often built around typical daytime population patterns,” the company said in a recent blog post. “The COVID pandemic has of course fundamentally altered those ‘normal’ patterns: people are now at home precisely when network engineers were planning to support their activity in office locations. This new spatial distribution of users, plus the increased demand those individuals are placing on the network to stay in touch with colleagues, friends, and families using phones rather than face-to-face communication is creating stresses networks were not designed to meet. … As [city centers]increasingly empty out in response to COVID-19, already high network traffic must now be picked up by suburban or outlying residential areas that were provisioned with different demand expectations in mind.”

The strategy of building out new technologies in heavily populated metropolitan centers also means that 5G will probably be of limited use to help carry the increased network load.

“Carriers traditionally provision new technology rollouts like 5G to cover dense urban areas first. That makes perfect sense under normal conditions,” RootMetrics said. “But as we all know, these are not normal times. If 5G networks are positioned in now empty business districts or areas that are experiencing much less traffic thanks to COVID-19 usage patterns, 5G speeds won’t matter to many consumers.”

Meanwhile, voice usage is rising. AT&T and Verizon have recently reported that voice usage has skyrocketed about 25% since social distancing measures were put in place on a large scale. RootMetrics had both good news and bad news on networks’ ability to handle more voice calls. On one hand, its testing under normal conditions shows that voice is one of the most reliable services, and it is prioritized in times of network congestion — however, the levels of congestion we’re seeing now are still likely to impact voice because of its sensitivity to even small changes in signal conditions. RootMetrics said that for carriers, indoor usage is typically considered a “cell-edge” scenario and “represents a use case that is recognized as more difficult and requiring more resources to support than outdoor performance.

“In the shifted usage during COVID-19, almost every user is at the ‘cell-edge,’ by virtue of being indoors,” the company went on. “This cumulative increase in indoor usage, in short, will eat into the overall resources of a carrier and create a more inefficient network overall.”

Users should expect to see more calls failing than they typically experience, and RootMetrics recommended using a traditional voice call rather than on OTT service or voice over Wi-Fi, which are not a guaranteed quality-of-service technologies (unlike voice over LTE).

Still, RootMetrics expressed some optimism about networks’ ability to adapt to the usage pattern changes.

“While network connections are without question stressed at times from the additional load, it’s important to keep in mind that advances in recent years (including the move toward 5G) have put us in a position to enable this type of massive and unprecedented change to work habits. Only a few years ago, this type of change would likely have been impossible,” the company said. However, it’s still not easy to abruptly re-provision towers from one area to another or divert capacity, RootMetrics said — those types of changes “often require either gaining more spectrum, especially in lower frequency bands, or building more towers.” But it pointed to the recent action by the Federal Communications Commission to allow T-Mobile US to use additional 600 MHz spectrum temporarily, and to enable Dish Network to loan 2.1 GHz spectrum to AT&T and Verizon.

“It is great to see major corporations working together to support the public during a sudden and unprecedented network demand, but we’ll all need to show a bit of patience while adapting to working from home and remember that recent network advancements have put us in a position where it’s even possible to help flatten the curve by working and learning from home,” the company concluded.

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