A new report from British regulator Ofcom shows that, all things considered, networks fared reasonably well in spite of the pandemic. And there is a plan afoot to introduce more safeguards into the network to ensure future challenges can be managed more smoothly.
In Ofcom’s 2020 “Connected Nations” report released in December, the regulator revealed the good news that, based on data submitted by UK operators, there was only one notable service outage. That occurred in March 2020, just before the first national lockdown was announced and as people began working from home en masse. This resulted in an increase in the frequency and duration of mobile voice traffic, which in turn led to congestion in IP-based traffic between mobile operators.
Ofcom analysis of network-related incidents
The UK government was unusually prescient in that it had, prior to the pandemic, begun to sharpen its focus on improving network resiliency, including collecting significantly more data on network performance at the beginning of 2020. This has enhanced Ofcom’s ability to analyze root causes and then understand any correlations between them.
Because of this enhanced visibility, Ofcom believes it has already identified a number of “themes” in its analysis of network-related incidents:
- Backhaul Transport – Ofcom identified numerous instances in which disruption at a single transport node caused a loss of service that cascaded across numerous additional sites, in turn impacting a large volume of users.
- Access & Aggregation – Incidents within local access and aggregation networks have occurred on a “regular and sometimes frequent basis,” disproportionately impacting small local clusters of customers impacted on a repeated basis.
- Interconnect – The migration from traditional public-switched telephone networks (PSTN) to IP networks continues to pose challenges for operators, as well as the requirement of interconnecting with so-called ‘over-the-top’ providers.
- Grey State – Though still a small factor, Ofcom identified multiple instances in which operators with a combination of 1) insufficient node redundancy and 2) inadequate node visibility have had a single point of failure when, for example, a circuit fails without the operator realizing.
- Change Management and Testing – Sloppy change management and incomplete testing practices introduced single points of failure that impacted some customers’ ability to access emergency services.
Plenty of challenges remain
In order to solve these challenges, Ofcom is providing anonymized data directly to UK operators. In addition, it has established a Resilience Working Group in partnership with those operators in order to develop best practices and create a Resilience Assessment Framework.
That framework may be even more important with new challenges facing the UK in the next few years. Most notably, the UK’s plans to switch off its copper-based PSTN by 2025, in an environment in which many UK citizens still rely on copper, will create enough challenges to keep Ofcom busy for the next five years.