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How has remote working impacted Britain’s mobile networks?

With those who are able to now working from home, networks have had to react quickly to meet increased demand. Our guest explains what’s being done.

This is a guest post by Kevin Hasley of RootMetrics. All views expressed are his own, and not necessarily shared by Which?. 

Mobile usage has increased to support all of this unprecedented working from home, but that extra mobile traffic is now taking place in locations that operators haven’t historically provisioned for.

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Networks typically never see this type of usage pattern and have smartly planned for city centres and business districts to handle high traffic and demand during the 9-5 core business hours.

After all, under normal circumstances, that’s where most of the mobile traffic would be during the day. Those same provisions weren’t necessarily made across suburban and residential areas, but that’s where the added mobile traffic now is.

Anecdotal stories suggest some users are having trouble making calls, sending messages and connecting to the internet in locations where they’d expect to do so. Let’s look into this.

Voice vs data calls

Call usage has increased in the last couple of weeks as we keep in touch with families, friends and colleagues, and this is putting previously unseen stresses on call networks.

Making traditional calls could be more difficult as each cell tower can only handle a finite number of requests at one time. Our research suggests more indoor voice calls may lead to more blocks than typically seen.

It takes time for operators to gain more spectrum or build more towers so don’t expect short term change now. But there’s good news to keep in mind too – call service is prioritised by the networks.

This does only relate to traditional Voice over LTE (VOLTE) calls, so bear this in mind if you’re using apps such as Teams or Whatsapp, as they classify as a data service which won’t receive the same prioritisation. 

Data is needed more than ever

As you can imagine, time on Netflix, video games and other forms of entertainment (and work of course) has skyrocketed. 

It’s no surprise that more people are using mobile data to access these digital services as well as their work programmes.

One move to be applauded is the move from many broadband and even mobile operators removing data limits during the crisis. This has enabled more of us to access more data on our current contracts and is a welcomed initiative. 

The great indoors

Working and staying at home are making indoor performance even more critical to users. The UK has a few unique factors to keep in mind with indoor mobile usage.

For one thing, the UK typically uses denser construction materials in home building than in, say, the US. It’s harder for a cell signal to get through this type of material than just wood framing.

Second, our mobile networks have less bandwidth at lower spectrum levels, which is the spectrum that is most crucial for getting through thick walls. 

So, if you’re trying to take a call at home and having difficulty, you may find yourself better off sitting near a window, which is easier for the signal to penetrate through. 

WiFi calling is also an option if you’re still struggling to get a signal. But keep in mind that it can be at the mercy of broadband traffic, which is also being stressed at the moment.

A post-lockdown future

Whether we will be working and staying at home for weeks, months or longer, we’ll have to wait to see.  

But remember that advances in 5G rollout and 4G network upgrades over the last couple of years have helped put us in a better position to be able to stay at home, work from home and help save lives. Signals aren’t yet perfect for everyone, but progress has been made.

For instance, our initial testing of 5G for BirminghamCardiff, and London showed that 5G led to substantial and impressive increases in speed.

Those 5G networks are often first launched in those now empty business districts, but as 5G expands we’ll be in an even better position. 

How have you found your mobile connectivity performance over the last couple of weeks? Let us know in the comments below.

This was a guest post by Kevin Hasley of RootMetrics. All views expressed were his own, and not necessarily shared by Which?. 

Comments

If increased use is causing problems for mobile networks as a result of remote working or simply people keeping in touch with friends then surely the answer is to ask people to minimise use at certain times of day. If no-one asks, consumers are unlikely to help.

The other alternative is to apply restrictions such as Netflix has done in reducing streaming quality: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-51968302

I’ve been making frequent FaceTime calls during the lockdown but I can go back to calling friends on their landline if they have one.

Phil says:
1 May 2020

Strange, we never get these problems with landlines.

I’ve not had any broadband connection problems and if anything the mobile signal here is better than it usually is which I put down to fewer idiots driving around with mobile glued to ear.

I agree with you, Phil. I am on the landline for two or three hours most days, usually talking to other people on their landline. Reception is good and the phone is convenient and comfortable.

I am sorry to hear that there are transmission difficulties for mobile phones. Somebody rang me this afternoon on her mobile and it was a struggle to make out what she was saying. She was obviously twirling around – as they do – and wandering in and out of a good signal. A mobile phone is a good reserve device but I still prefer to use the landline.

Those working from home are likely to be using the mobile phone provided by their employer, for calls and a variety of other purposes. Kevin has explained that the increased demands on the mobile networks including increased use for work and leisure appears to causing problems.

Ideeed – It shows how much we lack in resilience, how unprepared we are for doing things differently, and how poor the mobile network coverage is outside the main concentrations of people.

Over the years the balance of phone tariffs, for both landline and mobile, has changed from variable costs [call charges] to fixed costs [line rental, network charges] so many people have abandoned the landline as an unecessary expense, but it has its uses if your home is being turned into an office or other form of workplace. I would expect employers to contribute towards the extra costs of staff working from their own home – heating and energy, telephone bills, postage, other resources and to develop sensible HR and H&S policies to regulate it.

I am not convinced that working from home will continue at anything like the present level after the emergency. It is very disruptive of normal family life, most UK homes do not have enough space to set aside a room for use as an office, and even ‘paperless’ functions seem to generate a need to produce and store documents. From a management perspective it is not an ideal arrangement as contact and interaction is greatly reduced. I would imagine it could give rise to its own stresses and working difficulties.

I can see part-time home-working increasing but if everyone wants to be absent from the office on Fridays the pressure on public transport on the other working days will not diminish.

So many jobs require attendance at a particular place hospital, shop, school] or involvement in a particular activity with fixed or special equipment [farming, manufacturing, service industry] that home working is an irrelevance for most workers, but as usual tthe metro-centric media think the commuting classes are the only people who matter.

There have been plenty of people pushing for improvements in the mobile network and every year we see improvements in coverage. The current situation was unexpected but may help push the mobile networks to improve capacity.

I see part-time home working (say one or two days a week) as a way of making a worthwhile reduction in commuting, but that’s a subject for another Convo.

I agree with your final paragraph, Wavechange, but feel it is fair to say here that unless the infrastructure for proper connectivity across all parts of the country is brought up to a good standard in the near future we cannot address the commuting issue, whether it’s by car or train, and its attendant problems of emissions, pollution, energy demand and safety.

Throughout our discussions I’ve been supportive of improvements to the infrastructure, John. I suspect that it might be more useful to invest in providing better 4G coverage than venturing into 5G in selected locations.

The current lockdown has approximately halved the nitrogen dioxide pollution by reducing use of transport. Reducing commuting will take a lot more than providing reliable mobile networks and fast broadband. We need to get more people within walking or cycling distance from work. The number of people walking and cycling during the coronavirus outbreak is encouraging and maybe this might lead to less commuting.

Yes, that’s right, but there is no coherent dispersal policy at present to reduce the impact of the conurbations.

It’s motor traffic that causes the emissions and heavy pollution Commuting by train doesn’t cause much but is already full to capacity.

I can’t see that there is much more to say in this particular Conversation.

Phil says:
2 May 2020

Our admin and HR departments are working from home. They all have company mobiles and are communicating with us by text and e-mail much as usual.

I learnt from my time studying with the OU that it’s nigh on essential to have an area devoted to work where you can leave everything out and not have to pack and unpack it all every day. Few modern homes have sufficient room.

The internet currently consumes 10% of the world’s energy, more than air transport, and is set to increase especially with the growth of “cloud” storage, something that working from home is going to put extra demands on.

The amount of energy used in operating the internet is huge, as you say Phil. My suggestion is to charge customers on the basis of use rather than have unlimited tariffs and put an end to energy-intensive activities such as bitcoin mining.

Those working at home will probably have installed a VPN to access the servers belonging to their employer. A friend who works for DWP has been telling me about this and I used a VPN for several years before I took early retirement.

One basic fundamental lesson we can learn from the recent COVID-19 disruption is that which Lord Baden Powell taught us when we were still in short pants (or skirts) to “Be Prepared”, or in modern day terms “”Always have a Plan B.”

During these last weeks of uncertainty and anguish we have learned the importance of a back-up by investing in both mobile and landline ‘phones, also a computer plus iPad or smart ‘phone; to open accounts with two or more supermarkets, and to stagger/alternate commuter trips by working part time at home and part time at the office wherever possible and, perhaps more importantly, develop a mindset that tells us that we can no longer take anything, including the environment for granted as, unless we are “Well Prepared” and take immediate action to deal with global pollution that is threatening our health, our jobs, the economy and our very survival, there will be no “Plan B” for our grandchildren to turn to.

We don’t know whether or how long this virus will be waiting in the wings, searching for more victims in which to spread its deadly tentacles until a vaccine is made available, but as we have learned from past experience a virus has developed a unique way of mutating, rendering vaccination a temporary but almost worthless exercise and recent research also warns of the effect of too many vaccinations on the immune systems of susceptible people.

I am more optimistic about producing an effective vaccine. Yes the virus can change but it should be possible to develop effective vaccines to new strains, as we do with the vaccine against seasonal ‘flu. At present there is a great deal of research being carried out.

Yes we should be prepared, and I wonder what BP would have thought of how we have handled the coronavirus problem. We can hold our government responsible for the continuing failure to carry out sufficient testing, which may be the reason why the UK death toll is now the highest in Europe. With better preparation there could have been sufficient PPE available at all hospitals, care homes, etc.

I’m less optimistic that we will tackle pollution. 🙁

How many world leaders does it take to contract a life threatening pollution instigated disease to awaken their consciousness sufficiently to alert them of an impending Armageddon if their heads remain stuck in the proverbial sands of time before the rest of us run out of it. Boris with his new acquisition and extended family addition has the experience and tenacity to lead the way 🙂

I do hope the Prime Minister has had a Damascene conversion because I think his somewhat nonchalant initial approach to the emerging coronavirus problem was a contributory factor in this country’s lack of readiness and preparation. There was a degree of gung-ho about early pronouncements as if stiffening our upper lips and grinning and bearing it would see us through it all.

The truth on how we seemed to be left out of an EU scheme for procuring PPE supplies and other essentials has not yet been discovered. Despite a retraction of his statement to the Parliamentary select committee by the top civil servant concerned, there remains a strong suspicion it was a deliberate act, for political reasons, to avoid involvement with the EU.

The seeming invisibility of the significance of the residential care home sector to the government, even to the government Department for Health & Social Care, was no doubt a by-product of blinkered thinking along the lines of “we must repair our reputation for neglecting and under-funding the NHS at all costs and this episode gives us a golden opportunity to do so“. That might be an unfair comment, but that’s how it looks to me.

I agree. Our current PM is essentially an opportunist, and not a terribly bright one, either. But what no government seems fully to accept is that it costs a lot of money to fund an effective health care system. That means raising NI and Tax.

That is right, Ian – but not paying billions to the EU is also a large part of the equation.

A preventive healthcare system should save money over time as well as improving the nation’s health and resistance to illness.

And being prepared for potential health calamities would enable us to have better goods in higher volumes at lower prices available when required either in strategic reserves or on call-off contracts on already negotiated terms [or ideally a combination of both].

That’s the dream, John. I’ll believe it when I see it.

The significance of the residential care home sector figures was a deliberate politically motivated attempt to conceal and dampen down the real truth behind the initial super positive declarations that “Our wonderful NHS is well prepared and able to cope.”

A super positive mindset is indicative of someone who is out of touch with reality with a tendency to interpret the facts in order to suit their own misguided ends. The news that the U.K. has the highest fatalities in Europe needs someone to be held accountable with resignations imminently called for.

I think we are looking at a case of reaction rather than pro-action. I actually stop short of personalising or even party-ising or politicising this. The word ‘mistake’ suggests willful misconduct or thoughtlessness. I don’t believe anyone deliberately made decisions that were other than was thought could deal with the crisis as it developed. Neither do I think anyone set out to spread misinformation. The press conferences have been formulaic and I can see that personal protection equipment was an issue that didn’t correlate with government statements within these. They dealt with efforts to get stuff rather than which was immediately available. That was wrong, but I do believe the huge effort that has gone into procurement. Preparedness and past history need future scrutiny. The government simply had to work with what it had at the time and do its best to get what it needed. This can be justly criticized, but not the efforts that have been made since. There are a great many variables and what ifs to this pandemic. Perhaps when we look back, these might become clearer, just now I don’t think they are that clear. I look to all those in opposition to avoid saying what has gone wrong. They should be putting forward helpful policy based on what they might do if they were dealing with this. We are where we are and it is the next actions that are critical. That which has been done is now done. History will decide whether it was well done.
Re-reading this, it has little to do with mobile networks, so sorry for barging in and not looking.

I feel for the relatives of the UK ‘s 30,000 victims who lost their lives who, in the midst of their grief, would struggle to justify the lack of protection and false claims emanating from the No.10 podiums on our TV screens.

For all of sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are “It might have been.”

John Greenleaf Whittier

When I saw this Convo I decided to stop using FaceTime and WhatsApp during normal working hours in case I was contributing to problems. After this length of time I think we would have known if demand had caused serious overload of mobile networks.

In the 1990s I had monthly phone bills in excess of £100, mainly as a result of phone conversations with the chairman and secretary of our small charity and had to pay for an extra phone line for the computer modem and fax. Now I can do video calls for no additional charge. How we have moved on.