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Gary Bolton: Under the Stress of COVID-19, the Networks That Held Fast Were Symmetrical Fiber Broadband

Broadband Breakfast Staff

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Gary Bolton, Vice President of Global Marketing at ADTRAN

During this pandemic, broadband networks across the world have been put to the ultimate stress test, expected to support an overnight transition to work-from-home for most businesses, multiple video users from households for two income knowledge worker families plus distance learning sessions for children.

Network bandwidth traffic grew as much as 40 percent within two months, growth which a typical service provider would see over the course over an entire year. It was unimagined territory as peak residential broadband usage shifted from evenings to daytime weekdays and became the new network normal in short order.

April 2020 research conducted by RVA for the Fiber Broadband Association documented a dramatic shift in video conferencing, with surges in usage spanning health care, education, remote work, and telemedicine. Legacy technologies such as xDSL and cable were stressed to their limits and beyond while fiber networks incorporating symmetrical bandwidth from day one didn’t drop a packet.

Fiber operator Lumos Networks saw an overall increase of network traffic of 32 percent, with peak usage occurring between weekday work hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., a shift from traditional peak usage in the evening. The biggest applications increase occurred in video-based collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom that required symmetrical bandwidth.

Lumos customers wanted greater upload speeds for video with the company easily able to accommodate them through its use of fiber and its associated management tools.

Compare that to the experiences of users on copper and cable networks designed for asymmetrical services, plenty of downstream bandwidth for streaming but precious little for upstream video sessions. A family of four with two parents trying to participate in video meetings and the children in separate distance learning sessions overloaded available upstream bandwidth from households, effectively resulting in bandwidth “rationing” with priority given to remote work if no other arrangements could be made between conflicting work meetings and class time.

Cable operators, especially those leaning on legacy coaxial plant and not having “fiber deep” networks extending from the core and as close as possible to customers found themselves scrambling to reshuffle RF frequencies and implement more node splits to open up upstream bandwidth as a short term fix for the demand in symmetrical bandwidth for telemedicine, conferencing, and K-12 distance education.

On the other hand, service provider with all-fiber networks proactively implemented free speed upgrades to their customers for the duration of the quarantine in many cases, not waiting for customers to ask. Fiber provided flexible options for both operators and customers without forcing anyone into an untenable position.

Providing basic broadband services to areas without it drove a variety of rapid response efforts by community leaders and service providers, such as the Huntsville, Alabama, city school system deploying emergency Wi-Fi hotspots in school parking lots for students to enable them to complete their school year online if they didn’t have other available connectivity options — after all, McDonalds and other public Wi-Fi options became unavailable when restaurants and public libraries closed.

While admirable, nobody believes such improvised measures are a long-term solution and certainly do not provide the bandwidth necessary to support both distance education and remote work options.  Local, state, and national governments clearly recognize the need to improve underserved areas with insufficient broadband and extend broadband access to unserved areas, but progress to enhance and extend existing networks will be capital intensive and take time without all stakeholders working together.

Two other “lessons learned” have emerged from the COVID-19 crisis. Sometimes the weakest link isn’t in the last mile delivery but the last 20 feet of the home network. Off-the-shelf low-cost Wi-Fi routers may not provide adequate in-home coverage, especially with a need for families to spread out as much as possible for work and school.

Wi-Fi mesh network solutions, preferably approved or supplied by the service provider and easily self-installed by the customer, have been identified as the single biggest and best thing to improve home connectivity after fiber is turned up.

Social distancing measures have made broadband self-installation and self-service a virtue instead of a service provider ideal. Customers and technicians are reluctant to interact under threat of COVID-19, so sending a box of easily installed plug-and-play equipment keeps everyone health while freeing up personnel time to deal with network-level hands-on tasks. On-line self-service via web portal and mobile app goes hand-in-hand with self-installation, enabling customer to upgrade speeds and add new services without a call center session.

Going forward, the “new normal” will include a more engaged symmetrical communications on the network. Flipped classrooms and online learning become the norm in education. Work-from-home has been shown to be 20% more efficient for many job functions. Employers will not ignore the cost savings and productivity improvements and their employees will hard pressed to go back to a world of sitting in commuter traffic.

The pandemic has forced even the slowest adopters to join Zoom video appointments with their doctors and will not want to go back to sitting in crowded waiting rooms.

The world has changed and unfortunately those communities without fiber broadband have been left behind. Even the COVID-19 Relief Funding program involves an online application process. Small business owners without a robust broadband connection missed out on COVID-19 grants, which were distributed on a first come basis.

Never has the digital divide been more prevalent, work-from-home, school-from-home, remote healthcare and critical online government services all require broadband connectivity. We all need to embrace lessons learned from COVID-19 to improve and enhance their infrastructure towards building a true 21st Century Network while governments recognize gigabit-class broadband as the necessary utility for today’s age.

Gary Bolton joined ADTRAN in 2008 as vice president of global marketing. Bolton has influenced FCC and congressional proceedings on the broadband stimulus, the National Broadband Plan and Universal Service Fund Reform. Prior to ADTRAN, Gary held executive positions in high tech start-ups and publicly traded companies. He holds an M.B.A. from Duke University and a B.S. in electrical engineering from North Carolina State University. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

BroadbandBreakfast.com accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC. 

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