Telco networks light up as COVID-19 powers traffic surge

COVID-19 lockdowns that forced Australians indoors for most of 2020 has put local telecommunications networks through their paces, as they cater to the ever increasing data demand from customers.

The latest pressure point is expected to be the upcoming socially-distanced New Year’s Eve, which Telstra says will see its mobile network carry 92 million messages, a spike of 80 million compared to last year.

Telstra says it is ahead in its 5G rollout.
Telstra says it is ahead in its 5G rollout.Credit:Louie Douvis

Overall data appetite of consumers is also on the rise, with data usage on Telstra networks expected to come in at 4.75 petabytes compared with 3.6 petabytes last year. With usage clocked at 1.3 petabytes in 2016, this year’s estimate highlights why local telcos are scrambling to bolster their respective networks.

Telstra’s network engineering executive Channa Seneviratne said the pandemic has added an extra dimension to how networks are run, as more consumers work and connect with their families through apps and devices.


“Given the year we all have had, people are reaching out and desperate to connect at the end of the year, so this is really driving the spike in traffic, particularly during New Year’s Eve.”

Meanwhile, Optus’ network has also been processing considerable traffic loads over the holiday period. Mobile data demand peaked on Boxing Day at 685 Gbps (gigabits per second), higher than the 532 Gbps recorded during same period last year.

“Similar to previous years, the network team continues to observe an increase in mobile data usage and reduction in mobile calls year-on-year,” an Optus spokeswoman said.

Telstra, Optus and TPG are investing in 5G technology to add more capacity to their mobile networks and 2021 is shaping up as a critical year for the industry as new spectrum becomes available to the operators.

“By the end of this year, we [Telstra] will have 5G coverage to 50 per cent of the population; we have had pretty solid take-up since the launch of the new iPhone, and by next year 5G should be helping us on the mobile side of things,” Mr Seneviratne said.

The load on the fixed broadband networks has also picked up during the pandemic, with daytime peak traffic on Telstra’s network increasing by as much as 70 per cent when compared to early March, when the pandemic had just made its presence in Australia.

One major driver of demand on the fixed networks is video games, with gaming updates (Call of Duty and Fortnite) making up the bulk of the 10 top traffic events, with some customers downloading file sizes of up to 30 GB (gigabytes). Meanwhile, the 2020 migration of work from offices to homes has also seen uplink traffic (that is, data that flows from users’ laptops back to the network) on the fixed network jump by more than 100 percent during the day, as video conferencing was widely embraced.

“Immersive gaming is going to become a lot more prevalent and even as we come out of the lockdowns, I think we will work differently and the changes we have seen in the traffic patterns are here to stay,” Mr Seneviratne said.

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