Network planning in the age of Covid-19

17 May 2021 | Gareth Wilmer

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The global-scale transition to homeworking in the past year has brought major changes for the telecoms industry, as for all other sectors. But apart from the need to redeploy staff internally, networks have seen a significant impact too. Gareth Wilmer writes

While carriers have seen segments such as roaming plummet during the pandemic, demand for connectivity has surged. This has been a saving grace for the industry in cushioning the adverse impact, but has created its own challenges through the need to accelerate network upgrades and digital transformation to deal with current and future shocks.

“Compared to many other industries, I’d say we’re blessed, because our services are even more demanded these days than before,” says Bertold Frech, vice president of business steering and marketing at Deutsche Telekom Global Carrier (DTGC).

DTGC, he says, has been able to handle the challenge of meeting this increased demand, initially because it already set aside spare capacity in case of emergencies and later by boosting capacity. Those factors helped it to deal with an unprecedented 30% spike on the network in voice traffic in March 2020 as Europe first entered lockdowns, followed by rises in data traffic as people worked from home.

Frech says the company’s backbone network normally sees about 20% data traffic growth year-on-year, but this has more than doubled in the pandemic, leading the carrier to upgrade faster. He estimates that DTGC is currently adding 20 to 30 terabits of capacity every 12 months, as well as increasing capacity at customer interconnection points by 30% in the past six months.

In the past year, meanwhile, the surge in use of videoconferencing tools such as Zoom, Webex and Microsoft Teams has accelerated the transition of voice traffic into the over-the-top (OTT) space and put higher demand on data capacities, says Frech – in some cases boosting traffic to those platforms by up to 10 times.

“It has also increased quality requirements for IP traffic because obviously you want fluid video with no interruptions,” he says. To meet this need, DTGC has connected some of these platforms directly into its internet backbone, leading to closer link-ups with OTT players.

Frech explains that although there is a need to cater for future uncertainty when deciding how to plan network upgrades, the past year has given the team a better idea of “sensitivity” to change, with

DTGC enhancing virtualisation and colleagues on the finance side being more open to pre-investing to deal with potential shocks. In addition, Frech expects direct interconnections between carriers to grow to help add resilience.
Resilient agility

Emmanuel Rochas, CEO of Orange International Carriers, says the pandemic has highlighted the importance of nimble, converged networks and assets given the swiftly changing dynamics that the pandemic has shown can happen between corporate and consumer use. The carrier has therefore sped up its virtualisation programme.

“Now we’re really working on converging everything on a single infrastructure with layers of virtualised services to make sure we can allocate in a very agile way our network resources,” says Rochas. “The more automation we have in our network, the easier it is to cope with these types of challenges.”

Last year, the company saw data traffic on its network increase by about 70%, up from 40% in previous years. That meant a lot of work at first, but this has helped prepare Orange IC for the longer-term future. “It was huge, very hectic work on the network to make sure we upgraded all the links that needed to be upgraded,” says Rochas.

Meanwhile, Orange has carried out activities such as ramping up transatlantic capacity since early in the pandemic – noting an unprecedented surge in traffic on that route at the time – and working with ISPs in the Middle East to implement upgrades and support schooling from home.

Some initiatives have seen slight delays because of the crisis, says Rochas. However, Orange has still been able to move ahead with mega-cable projects, including the new Dunant and AMITIÉ transatlantic subsea cables, with Rochas emphasising that such diversity of routes is crucial in the current climate. Where additional investments have been required to meet increased demands, these have been counterbalanced by the corresponding additional revenue, he says.

Cloud connections

At BICS, Johan Wouters, SVP of infrastructure and sourcing, emphasises the enhanced relevance of cloud communications with the evolution towards homeworking, which he believes is here to stay.

Earlier, says Wouters, companies were using cloud computing more on an ad hoc basis, but robust, secured connections are now seen as an essential function. “It was an existing evolution already, but the evolution has been accelerating because digitalisation and the use of cloud computing has increased so strongly,” he says.

He points to BICS’s Cloud Connect service, which offers customers direct connections to cloud providers including Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud. The company has also been implementing a web portal to enable more automated provisioning.

Despite the rises in demand, Wouters refers conversely to the huge impact on roaming from the halts in international travel. Partly as a result of this, BICS overall saw its direct margin fall 6.7% year-on-year to €303 million in 2020. Where IPX traffic has decreased as a result, the company has slowed down some extensions, says Wouters.

He highlights, however, that the overall impact has not been as negative as might have been expected, because of both the balancing effect of positive changes and the high percentage of permanent roamers on the network. “BICS is, by definition, an international company – so if travelling stops, you would expect a tough impact,” he says. “I think we have been able to limit the impact to a very reasonable level.”

Surging petabytes

Jerry Gerami, VP of wholesale solutions at AT&T, notes the soaring demand for virtual connections during the pandemic, with 468 petabytes crossing the operator’s network daily as of this March – up 40% year-on-year. The company has seen an increase in enterprise users’ adoption of cloud and also more dynamic, lower-cost technologies such as SD-WAN.
In this environment, the company has slashed cycle times by two to three times. “In some cases, services were ordered by the wholesale customer and installed the very same day,” says Gerami.

The company also launched six new “command centres” early in the pandemic to enable fast delivery of bandwidth, new circuits and unified communication services, while it has harnessed existing AI capabilities to manage changes more efficiently.

Darren Kolb, executive director of client services at Verizon Partner Solutions, says the global shift to homeworking has placed an emphasis on the global carrier community to “provide higher bandwidth, and more resilient and robust networks closer to the end consumer than ever before”.

That has also led to a need to modernise networks, he says: “This includes investments to densify and expand fibre networks, accelerate 5G home offerings, augment backbone network capacity to support 100 Gig and more, and provide nimble processes with carrier-to-carrier peering arrangements.”

On-demand networking

From a data centre perspective, Equinix has seen this ramping up of digitisation among carriers and enterprises via moves towards resilience, secure private interconnection, hybrid multi-clouds and real-time on-demand networking, says Brenden Rawle, the company’s director of interconnection for the EMEA region.

Equinix noted in its Global Interconnection Index from last October that Covid-19 had already had a “dramatic” effect on how businesses are planning their digital infrastructure, forecasting a quintupling in installed private connectivity bandwidth between 2019 and 2023.

“I think the last 12 months have shown some of the network service providers that if they embrace real modernisation of their network platform, then they can get the jump on some of the competitors,” says Rawle. Moving towards on-demand networks has proved important as people need to do things quickly, he says.

He illustrates this type of set-up with the collaboration Equinix has forged with Colt Technology Services via software-defined interconnection service Equinix Fabric, allowing enterprises to connect in near real-time to their own premises through Colt’s IQ Network footprint of 29,000 on-net buildings, and dynamically self-provision secure, high-bandwidth connectivity.

“Colt has embraced this idea of the on-demand network,” says Rawle. “It’s a really interesting proposition that brings a flexibility, reliability and resilience that enterprises feel they need on the back of what they’ve gone through.”

Meanwhile, three further Equinix collaborations with operators announced in February alone reflected the widely varying needs in the current landscape – joining with Turk Telekom International to facilitate access to Microsoft Azure, with Vodafone to build a digital hub to land the 2Africa cable system in Genoa, and with Sweden’s Tele2 to enable a private interconnect security service for IoT customers.

The latter deal reflects the need the pandemic has also highlighted for more robust cybersecurity to further bolster carriers’ resilience alongside the trend itself towards the cloud and digitisation, with multiple reports of rising threats such as DDoS attacks.

Digital transformation

“The pandemic has expedited digital transformations because of the change in traffic patterns,” says Chris Sharp, CTO at Digital Realty. “We’ve really looked at how we provide very repeatable solutions for our customers to streamline their architectures.”

Digital Realty is aiming to aid customers through its PlatformDIGITAL service, integrated with services such as AWS Outposts to enable hybrid IT infrastructure, and AI from Nvidia to enable analytics close to where the data is. “Tying that all together in a very simplistic fashion is core to what we’re achieving,” Sharp says.

Overall, telecoms operators themselves will need to embrace open ecosystems to boost innovation and accelerate new services, says AT&T’s Gerami. If they can do this and collaborate effectively together in times of crises, he thinks this will help ensure they provide a critical role.

“Telecom operators have never been more relevant than they are today, connecting families and communities while keeping businesses and educational institutions logged on,” he says.