The spike in remote work and curbs on civic life to check a raging pandemic are driving up internet use, posing unique challenges for internet service providers and telecom operators.
There is an up to 10% increase in internet traffic for telecom service providers (TSPs), according to the Bank of America Securities. Bharti Airtel Ltd has said its home broadband customers are upgrading to faster speeds and bigger data plans to work and study from home. “As India’s fixed broadband penetration is around 6%, majority of the work-from-home traffic (over 70%) is expected to be on cellular network compared to fixed broadband. Most fixed broadband companies have seen demand for installation picking up in the last 15-20 days,” noted a report by Bank of America Securities.
India has over 630 million mobile (3G/4G) users compared with around 19 million fixed broadband users, indicating that a large part of the work-from-home pressure will be on mobile networks.
According to Ookla Speed test global Index, fixed broadband download speed in India increased very slightly between 2 and 9 March, while mobile download speed remained flat. When comparing with other Asian countries, Ookla found internet speeds on both mobile and fixed networks in China took a dive during the outbreak of Covid-19 in the country.
Businesses whose employees are forced to work from home are in discussions with internet service providers (ISPs) to check if some internet capacity can be reallocated from business centres to residential areas, a top executive at an IT services company said.
“But this is a very complex process involving multiple ISPs and it certainly cannot be achieved overnight,” he said on condition of anonymity. He said this is why his company could not send its entire workforce home, as they handle critical services like banking and healthcare, which cannot be run on residential internet connections.
Many users who so far used their basic phone internet connection for content streaming have begun using it for work as well. In fact, many companies are incentivizing their employees, who would normally not have work-from-home authorization, to arrange for fixed line residential internet connections. Telecom body Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) has reached out to OTT (over-the-top) content providers, including YouTube, Hotstar, among others, to cooperate with telecom firms to manage traffic distribution patterns in a way that does not strain network infrastructure. “We have already written to the streaming platforms to undertake technical measures to ease the pressure on infrastructure. We believe this will be more effective if a similar communication is sent from DoT to these firms offering streaming video services,” COAI said in a note on 21 March.
While many companies are strengthening their virtual private network (VPN) connections to allow secure and fast access, residential internet connections are largely meant for content consumption with strong download speeds, whereas enterprise connections require stronger upload speed and much more bandwidth to process large files the executive quotd above.
Rajat Mukarji, director general of the policy think tank Broadband India Forum, notes that the current situation requires a completely new way of thinking for the stakeholders of the internet ecosystem.
“We are in a situation where broadband has to be expanded at a war footing. Internet and telecom service providers will have to reimagine traffic management. It has to be a directive from the central government to the state governments as well in terms of fibre underground, infrastructure, Wi-Fi, access spectrum among many others for residential as well as public access,” said Mukarji.
Reliance Jio said it will offer free broadband service to new customers and doubled data limit for all existing customers to support work from home in fight against coronavirus.