Mark Goldberg

Cautiously celebrating our communications networks

“What if, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the internet had buckled?”

An article in The Atlantic this weekend asks us to consider that question.

In “The System That Actually Worked”, Charles Fishman takes a deep look at how major communications infrastructure companies have been able to cope with the sudden and dramatic increase in traffic, a shift that has been sustained for 2 months now.

By the end of April, network traffic during the workweek was up 25 percent from typical Monday-to-Friday periods in January and February, and showed no signs of fading. That may not sound like much, but imagine suddenly needing to add 20 percent more long-haul trucks to U.S. highways instantly, or 20 percent more freight trains, or 20 percent more flights every day out of every airport in the country. In fact, none of those infrastructure systems could have provided 20 percent more capacity instantly—or sustained it day after day for months.

Most sectors of the economy have been structured for ‘just-in-time’ provisioning (as an aside, I will admit that I have been known to say that many government works projects use ‘just-too-late’ provisioning, waiting too long to repair roads, add capacity, add subway routes, increase hospital space, perform maintenance, etc.). Telecom carriers can’t afford to design and build networks that way.

The pandemic has shown us the downside of perfectly optimized systems—from the supply of ICU beds and virus-sampling swabs to the availability of baker’s yeast. We’ve been desperately short of all three of those things precisely because we’ve spent years tweaking supply chains so we have only exactly the amount we can use right now, without the “waste” of empty ICU beds or idle swab-making machines. In that way, what has saved the internet—redundancy, flexibility, excess capacity—reflects not just a different design philosophy, but a different underlying economic philosophy as well.

The extreme growth rates in internet traffic we have experienced through the years have led to significant changes in how carriers design networks and manage their capacity. The most recent CRTC Communications Monitoring Report observed that average monthly residential internet usage increased by 25% year over year between 2017 and 2018.

In regulatory terms, ‘working fill factors’ (“WFF” and defined as “a measure of the utilization of a facility”) are used in costing studies to recognize there always needs to be some level of planned, non-working, capacity for various types of equipment. Way back in 2003, the CRTC set a standard WFF. Last summer, the Commission rejected specific factors proposed by Canada’s cable companies and phone companies when the Commission developed its wholesale rates decision (a subject of numerous appeals). Adjustments to WFF can have a significant impact on cost-based rates.

Fortunately, in real life, network planning engineers don’t practice their trade based on out-dated or hypothetical factors set by the regulator; they design and build communications infrastructure with buffers to have sufficient flexibility to be able to handle unpredictable changes in traffic loads, such as the dramatic shifts in demand we have seen over the past 2 months. There is an important lesson to be learned from our experience over the past few months.

The Fishman article acknowledges that “there have been hiccups.” With people online all the time, networks are experiencing a substantial increase in traffic, and consumers are experiencing some short-duration outages. “Your laptop — or the apps you’re trying to use on it — may well be advising you, from time to time, that your internet connection is weak. But that’s hardly surprising, given that we’ve taken growth that would happen over a year or two and compressed it into six weeks.”

The article celebrates the people who have been working so hard behind the scenes keeping communications systems running through the pandemic. “[The internet] has stayed on because people out there are keeping it on. The internet’s performance is no accident, but rather the result of long-term planning and adaptability, ingenuity and hard work.”

As the author writes, our telecom services don’t seem tangible, especially when so many of us use mobile devices or untethered Wifi connections for our computers, but for the companies that build and run them, our communications networks are intensely physical. Thousands of technicians, repair people, and engineers “mask up, glove up, and make sure that there’s enough service for hospitals, or that failed equipment is replaced quickly.”

Take a moment to celebrate Canada’s communications networks and the people who have kept them running at world leading levels of performance.

“It’s worth appreciating the internet as an unsung hero of the pandemic. It has stayed on because people out there are keeping it on. The internet’s performance is no accident, but rather the result of long-term planning and adaptability, ingenuity and hard work.”

Comments are closed.