March 19, 2020

UK networks face “unprecedented demand” as coronavirus forces school closures

By Lucy Ingham

The combination of a surge in home working and the closure of schools across the UK is set to place “unprecedented demand” on mobile and broadband networks during the coronavirus outbreak, which will likely lead to a sharp drop in speeds and service quality.

This is according to Mike Osborne, non-executive chairman of business continuity firm Databarracks, who predicts that networks are going to struggle once school children join the UK’s army of home workers.

Having already advised anyone who can to work from home to help limit the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, the UK government is closing schools across the nation on Friday 20 March, meaning children will add to the strain on mobile and broadband networks.

“When the schools close, we will have a new mix of massive home working combined with the country’s population of schoolchildren gaming and streaming content at the same time,” said Obsborne.

“This is going to put unprecedented demand on broadband and mobile networks. There have already been question marks raised about how providers will cope – only this week we saw customers from EE, O2, Vodafone and Three all reporting issues.”

Coronavirus closures could compromise the speed of UK networks

According to Osborne, this spate of closures is likely to translate into lower speeds for users of UK mobile and broadband networks, as they become increasingly congested.

“Nearly all personal and home communication networks work on a contended basis and we all share the available capacity,” he explained.

“Think of it like motorway traffic during rush hour – lots of people all going in the same direction at the same time creates bottlenecks.

“That is what is what is going to happen if much of the population work from their home internet and mobile networks, combined with a high use of gaming and streaming services. Speed and quality of service will become compromised.”

How businesses can mitigate the problem

For businesses, the advice is to find alternatives wherever possible, rather than be wholly reliant on UK networks to support home working during the coronavirus outbreak.

“The challenge is that now we are really relying on these networks. Organisations are already in trying circumstances doing their best to maintain operations with staff working from home,” said Osborne.

“All the work that has been done securing access, providing devices and collaboration apps is immaterial if staff can’t connect.

“The key will be to remain flexible and look for alternatives wherever possible to reduce the strain. An example we’re hearing is organisations advising staff to use landlines (so long as it’s safe to do so without exposing your number externally) and covering those costs.”

He also urges employers to give staff the agency to help develop solutions that work well for them.

“Ultimately, the problem many businesses will face is that while some employees do regularly work from home, the vast majority are office-based and therefore don’t,” he said.

“It’s going to be a testing time, but now we need to think about continuity from the point of view of home working. Our offices have diverse comms to make sure we can keep operating if there is an issue with one connection or provider.

“We can apply those principals to home working too. We don’t have the central control that we would have in an office, so organisations need to work with staff to outline the options available to them and empower them to make those decisions.”

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