Deemed an essential service, telecommunication is a vital tool in keeping the populous safe, and as social distancing drives work meetings to the virtual space, school closure has moved classrooms online as well. Now more than ever, friends and families rely on their phones and computers to keep each other updated.
Since March 16, Telus reported that home internet usage has gone up by 25 per cent. During major events like government news conferences, its mobile data has seen periodic peaks of 40 per cent. General text messages have increased by 30 per cent, while video picture text messages rose by 50 per cent.
In its network traffic analysis during the pandemic, Nokia reported an unprecedented 20 to 40 per cent increase in peak traffic globally, usually in the evenings, in just four weeks. For reference, most networks see a 30 to 45 per cent growth per year. Teleconferencing apps saw a 300 per cent growth in usage.
Additionally, as Canadians sink deeper into social distancing to flatten the curve, digital entertainment has usurped all other forms of recreation. Nokia found that stuck at home by school closures, kids have driven up gaming growth by 400 per cent. In addition, Netflix use during the day is beginning to replicate traffic typically seen in the evenings, jumping by 54 to 75 per cent in peak viewing hours.
Network traffic increased on all fronts
A majority of users choose to connect to Wi-Fi while indoors to save on cellular data. But during the pandemic, Opensignal found that while Wi-Fi usage has increased, so did cellular usage.
In its recently published mobile experience report, Opensignal found that Canadians spent 10 to 15 per cent more time on Wi-Fi between Jan. 6 and March 22. Countries with stricter quarantine rules were even higher. Wi-Fi use time in Italy rose between 15 to 20 per cent. Spain saw a 20 to 25 per cent increase.
“You’d expect that with more people spending time on Wi-Fi, there would be less pressure on cellular networks,” said Ian Fogg, vice-president analyst at Opensignal. “What we were seeing is not necessarily that change happening. In Italy, for example, we saw cellular speeds drop. At the same time, we saw time on Wi-Fi of smartphone users go up.”
Fogg explained that telcos relaxing data caps played a role in letting users more liberally consume data. Workers in essential service industries–healthcare, police, supply chain and others–heavily rely on their cellphones as well. Moreover, cellular data is more reliable than Wi-Fi in areas with poor internet access.
The increased traffic is testing Canada’s network infrastructure integrity. Bell, Telus, and Rogers have acknowledged the increase, and are confident that their network infrastructures will be able to handle the demand. Ontario-based ISP TekSavvy said it had to increase its peak network capacity by 20 per cent, while Distributel had to adjust to a 50 per cent increase in usage.
Most telcos have removed or relaxed internet data caps for their subscribers.
Still, when services surged, especially during peak hours, even customers of Canada’s biggest telcos have complained about service interruptions.
“Telus had a lot [of complaints] this week,” said Lisa Severson, communications stakeholder relations officer at Eastern Ontario Regional Network. “I was speaking to a rep from one of the major carriers, and he lives in the Ottawa area. He has good connectivity and with everybody in Ottawa accessing the networks to work from home, even he was finding a bit of issue with his own network.”
Severson, like her family and colleagues, is working from home. Living in a small town, she has also noticed service interruptions in her own household but wasn’t quick to blame the telcos for her connectivity woes.
“You’ve got laptops, iPads, smart TVs now,” Severson enumerated. “What folks don’t understand is that in your home, all the devices that utilize that connection…you split it between all of those devices.”
In other words, devices that were once used staggered throughout the day are now running simultaneously, thinly dividing the bandwidth between them on the home network.
Even still, Canadian telcos are going strong. Telecom Consultant Mark Goldberg also mentioned the complexity of the telecom systems and innumerable potential failure points that may not always attribute back to the telcos.
“I am unaware of any of the facilities-based carriers having sustained capacity issues,” Said Goldberg. “Recognize that there are millions of possible points in the networks where congestion can take place – from within a household all the way through to the applications’ server (or in the case of voice – at the destination).”
Rural areas need more robust networks
Increasing network traffic has accentuated Canada’s dire need to improve its underserved rural community networks.
The Innovation, Science, and Economic Development (ISED) clearly stated that “Canada faces a national connectivity gap. Rural Canadians face the daily challenge of slower, less reliable internet access than those in urban centres” in its Canada connectivity strategy outline.
In 2017, only 37 per cent of rural households had access to 50Mbps download and 10Mbps upload speeds, a standard set by the CRTC, compared to 97 per cent homes in urban areas. That figure falls off to just 24 per cent when examining indigenous communities.
For residents in small towns, satellite and mobile internet access, which is provided through a hub, are sometimes their only options to stay connected. Mobile internet is categorized as a mobile service and is thus excluded from telcos’ recent internet data cap exemptions.
Lis McWalter, chairperson of West Parry Sound Smart Community Network, wrote in an email that internal tests and data from Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) showed that the already-slow network speeds in her area have further degraded during the pandemic. In some cases, the usual 5Mbps download speeds have dropped to just 1 to 2 Mbps, nearly 50 times below the 50 Mbps download standard set by the CRTC in 2015.
The Globe and Mail reported last week that residents who rely on mobile internet in Parry Sound are worried about overage charges from exceeding their data cap. As a quintessential small town, Parry Sound has just 6,000 residents and is located 225 km north of Toronto.
Severson noted the difficulties in acquiring funds to upgrade rural network infrastructures. Canada’s varied geography poses challenges to pull wires to homes in remote areas. Weak business cases further dampen incentives for telcos to invest.
“We’ve done an initial very high-level analysis of what it would cost to bring our region, eastern Ontario, up to the 50/10 [50Mbps download, 10Mbps upload] criteria set by the CRTC, and to bring 75 per cent of the region to a wired connection–so either fibre or coax cable–and then the last 20 per cent would be fixed wireless or wireless type of component..it would cost anywhere between CA$500 million to CA$700 million.”
She said that if Ontario wants gigabit service for 95 per cent of its users, it would cost anywhere between CA$1.2 to CA$1.6 billion.
In select eastern Ontario communities, target internet speed is set at just 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload.
“Without subsidy, it makes it really hard for the private sector to come into some of those more rural, less populated [areas],” said Severson.
Although companies are hesitant to invest, Chris Pereira, senior director of public affairs at Huawei Canada, underscored that while bringing towers to service remote areas is difficult and costly, investing in robust networks could help foster businesses. Those investments would lead to a better business case in the long run.
“Yes, there’s no immediate profit,” he said. “But if you bring a tower to a place like Iqaluit, for example, and let that ecosystem build under the coverage from high-speed internet, you get new businesses that are formed, you might get a larger population in the area. You get growth because it’s like bringing electricity to a town. Suddenly, people can operate a business.”
Rural network development in Canada has been laggard but steadily advancing nonetheless. The private sector has invested $100 million in eastern Ontario to bump internet download speeds up to 25 Mbps and bring 4G service to isolated communities. Small towns such as Port Hope have also been deploying fibre networks.
In its 2019 budget, the Canadian government pushed to ameliorate Canada’s network gap by provisioning CA$1.7 billion towards improving the country’s network. In total, $6 billion will be dedicated to bringing faster internet access across Canada.
The situation is less extreme on the cellular side. Opensignal’s rural mobile network experience analysis showed rural 4G download speeds averaged to about 25Mbps. Even still, it’s a fraction of what urban center networks perform. The gap is best contrasted in Telus’ network: its rural network 4G speeds is just 30 per cent of that of major Canadian cities.
Network integrity holding fast, but more challenges to come
While many would like to know if Canada’s infrastructure would buckle under the load, Fogg told the publication that it’s difficult to tell since Canada is still in the early stages of the pandemic, but has hinted that Canadians should strap in for fluctuations.
“[In the U.S.], we’ve seen the carriers there, three of them, gain temporary access to additional spectrum to add, effectively wireless capacity to cope during the crisis,” said Fogg. “There are all sorts of things happening in different countries at the moment. But I’m very reluctant to make any prediction about Canada, how everything holds up because we are in a very rapidly moving situation. And really, we’re just at the start of this.”
Despite the uncertainties, telecom experts praised Canada’s telecom infrastructures in times of traffic spikes, painting a hopeful future.
“The network management teams and engineering departments are doing heroic work identifying pain points and providing relief, despite obviously trying conditions,” praised Goldberg. “It’s remarkable that we see so few problems so far. Truly a testament to the quality of the network infrastructure that we have in Canada.”