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Remote work could cause mobile network problems in a pandemic

Experts said the extra traffic caused by new remote workers could put a strain on mobile networks, but it could also cause businesses to rethink how work gets done.

The move to make remote work the norm during the coronavirus pandemic could push mobile networks to the brink.

The pandemic has led to unprecedented changes, one of which has been the scale at which employees have been working from home. Mobile networks in the UK reported problems on March 17, although the carriers denied it was connected to the rise in home working.

Still, industry observers said the infrastructure that companies rely on to deliver work-at-home services such as video conferencing, virtual desktops or even phone calls could experience disruptions in the face of prolonged heavy usage.

Mark BowkerMark Bowker

"The spike in activity that has been initiated with work-from-home policies is going to test potential network choke points, bandwidth constraints and the ability of collaboration apps to scale to new levels," said Mark Bowker, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. 

Issues already?

Forrester Research principal analyst Dan Bieler said he had already heard reports of certain elements of mobile networks being under strain, and, anecdotally, said he had been on calls in which the quality and connectivity was not what it had been.

Dan BielerDan Bieler

"That's not entirely surprising," he said, given the larger percentage of people now working from home.

Bieler noted that everyone who has the same mobile phone carrier within a certain area is sharing the wireless spectrum. The mobile network could be under particular stress, he said, in areas where people use their phones as hot spots to conduct business.

"If you're in a rural context, you're already on relatively shaky ground when it comes to cellular connectivity," he said.

Bill Menezes, senior principal analyst at Gartner, said it was difficult to tell whether networks had been affected so far.

"[There's been] a couple of reports of issues in some areas -- dropped calls and whatnot -- but that's the kind of thing that could happen at any given time," he said.

An extended peak

To some extent, Menezes said, networks are built to handle high traffic, but such events are brief. Weekends, for example, create a similar situation, with many streaming Netflix or playing video games.

Bill MenezesBill Menezes

"These [networks] are designed to handle theoretical peak usage, but not necessarily when the peak is shifting -- it's coming not only on the weekend, but Monday through Friday now," he said. "It's conceivable that you'd start seeing some bottlenecks in areas -- especially on the cellular network -- that weren't designed for the constant high level of usage the way the wired broadband networks were."

People with inefficient home internet connections, Menezes said, might start using their mobile phones as hotspots, furthering the strain on the network. If mobile traffic climbs above weekend levels, he said, there could be disruption.

It's conceivable that you'd start seeing some bottlenecks in areas -- especially on the cellular network -- that weren't designed for the constant high level of usage the way the wired broadband networks were.
Bill MenezesSenior principal analyst, Gartner

"If you look at events that have happened in the past -- like the Boston Marathon bombing -- even the first responders, who had network prioritization for making calls or doing data sessions, were having trouble getting through, simply because of the overwhelming volume of usage," he said.

Dealing with heightened traffic

Should the use of mobile phone networks exceed what the available infrastructure can provide, experts said, there is not much carriers can do in terms of bolstering capacity.

"Ultimately, the network infrastructure we have right now is the network infrastructure we will have in four months, six months -- however long this situation will last," Bieler said.

Beyond how long a network improvement might take, carriers may be leery of spending billions of dollars at a time when the economy is uncertain, according to Bieler.

"Nobody knows how long this will last," he said. While it is unlikely people will be working from home for years on end, Bieler said, carriers face a lack of certainty.

Menezes said they may instead look at other means of freeing up bandwidth.

"One of the things they can do -- and they've done this in the past -- is slow data speeds if the network gets too congested. Obviously, that's not an optimal type of situation," he said. "It could either be slowing down speeds for the heaviest users -- folks who are home and are trying to use 100 gigabytes of data because they're doing online gaming. They may be the types of people who are throttled first."

Another approach, Menezes said, would be a general throttling. For example, limiting everyone to standard-definition video streaming as opposed to 4K.

Bieler said carriers in Italy and Spain have already announced some form of throttling.

Given the hammering the economy has taken, Bieler expects to see the continuance of work operations -- ensuring companies keep cash flowing and get projects done on time -- given precedence over personal entertainment.

Encouraging people to use networks at off-peak times, Menezes said, could be another way to reduce the strain.

"You see the same thing with utilities, setting up time-of-use pricing. During peak hours, it costs more to buy electricity than during the early morning or evening," he said. "That's not necessarily going to help people who have to work from 9 to 5, but the carriers could use those types of methods."

The future

Bieler said it will be interesting to see how the move to mass remote work will change the way people work and communicate. If the networks can indeed support the additional traffic posed by working and learning from home, it may lead to a fundamental shift in the way things are done.

Enterprise Strategy Group's Bowker said the situation might emphasize how functional technology has become at enabling mobility and flexibility.

"[This is] a time to recognize how valuable business collaboration tools are during times like this and how employees, students, front line workers [and so forth] are staying connected and productive," he said.

Among the areas that might be rethought, Bieler said, could be international business travel.

"Is it necessary for someone to travel to New York for a two-hour meeting?" he said.

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