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Telcos face a big challenge to keep India Inc connected

March 25, 2020 16:09 IST

Companies have activated a comprehensive pandemic response plan with requisite risk mitigation protocols for keeping networks working as telecom is an essential service.

Telecom companies are dealing with an unprecedented challenge, other than COVID-19 - of providing seamless internet services for a smoother work-from-home for India Inc.

In a bid to do this at the available capacity, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea have said they are doing everything to keep the situation under control.

 

Companies have activated a comprehensive pandemic response plan with requisite risk mitigation protocols for keeping networks working as telecom is an essential service.

It is learnt that Airtel has a full-fledged contingency plan in place to deal with any event.

This includes quarantining any of the company’s critical network operating centres and call centres, among others.

The company has enabled each location to operate in a distributed as well as virtual way.

Every team has also been broken into two in order to reduce the number of people on a site and make the workplace safer.

The company has started the process of monitoring and managing networks from different locations in case any geography is not accessible for some time.

It has also enabled work-from-home for its employees through secure connections.

“Airtel’s networks are in business continuity planning mode and are fully prepared to support any exigency.

"Our mobile, fixed broadband, DTH and fibre networks are fully geared up to serve customers in the emerging scenario,” said Randeep Sekhon, chief technology officer (CTO), Bharti Airtel.

All operations are running smoothly with over 80 per cent employees working from home seamlessly, he said.

A comprehensive pandemic response plan with requisite risk mitigation protocols has been activated while ensuring continuity of mission critical processes for keeping our networks working as telecom is an essential service, Sekhon added.

“We are strictly adhering to the government’s instructions while operating the telecom network uninterruptedly as an essential service during this crisis,” a Vodafone Idea spokesperson told Business Standard.

Vodafone Idea has a litany of flexible work policies that enable flexible working hours, work from home and working from different locations across the organisation.

“This has allowed us to respond quickly to the current situation by enabling our workforce to adopt alternative forms of work.

"Majority of our staff members across offices are working remotely from home,” he said.

The firm is also reviewing its business continuity plans across all operations.

“Our centralised network monitoring facilities, across multiple locations like Pune and Hyderabad, have been prepared for any kind of emergency evacuation due to the corona threat at any particular building,” Vodafone Idea said.

“Adequate provision has been made to provide resources, enabling work from home for technical teams working across these facilities. This is to enable undisrupted services to our customers 24X7," it added.

All of the company’s enterprise services continue to be monitored through our own network operating centres and operations to ensure business continuity, Vodafone Idea said.

The spokesperson added, “We are continuously monitoring the traffic pattern and are confident of handling the growing demand of voice and data services during the lockdown.”

On Monday, the Cellular Operators’ Association of India (COAI) asked the Centre to instruct over-the-top players like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Zee 5 to take steps for easing the pressure on network infrastructure.

This pressure is due to increased demand for online video streaming, amid lockdown and quarantine measures.

COAI has also approached streaming platforms, cautioning them about surge in digital use, thus straining network infrastructure of telecom operators.

It urged companies to take urgent steps like temporarily switching to SD (standard definition) from HD (high definition) streaming, removing high bandwidth- consuming advertisements and pop ups, and replacing them with public announcements on awareness regarding the virus.

In a letter to the telecom department secretary, COAI has said, “Due to lockdown and quarantine measures in parts of the country, a sudden surge in demand for online video streaming is also expected.”

COAI said that during this crucial time, it is absolutely essential for the streaming platforms to cooperate with telecom providers so as to manage the traffic distribution patterns that are likely to strain the network infrastructure “at a time when it is needed for various critical requirements."

Sources said that data consumption in the last few days has gone up by 15-20 per cent and consumption of HD data requires 6-7 times higher bandwidth.

Therefore, companies have requested the government to intervene and mandatorily ask people to switch to standard definition, the way countries like the US have done in the current scenario.

As data usage jumps, telcos ask govt for more spectrum

India’s fixed broadband penetration is only 6 per cent. Thus, bulk of the pressure due to the work-from-home traffic (around 70 per cent of total traffic) is expected to be on the cellular network.

Surajeet Das Gupta reports.

Telecom operators have demanded additional spectrum urgently on a temporary basis from the government, with traffic surging 15-20 per cent from Sunday.

They say such a move will help them cope up with the unprecedented increase in data usage as a result of “work from home” and “self-quarantine” across the country.

A senior executive of a telco that saw a spike in data traffic, said: “We saw a huge spurt of 15-20 per cent in dense areas on Sunday, when there was a call by the Prime Minister to stay home.”

Last week, the traffic stood at only 10 per cent, according to feedback given by telcos to the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI).

In a letter to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), the COAI has demanded additional spectrum for both “access and backhaul microwave” for a short term, and temporarily as they need to augment their capacity to meet the growing demand.

COAI director general Rajan S Mathews, however, said they were still waiting for a response from the government.

The COAI has also sought expedited permission from the DoT for tower enhancement from states (as they ramp up capacity), extension in minimum roll-out timelines by six months, and consent to go for digital acquisition of new customers instead of physical documentation (will reduce time to on-board customers) - given the sharp rise in new subscribers.

According to BofA Global Research, India’s fixed broadband penetration is only 6 per cent.

Thus, bulk of the pressure due to the work-from-home traffic (around 70 per cent of total traffic) is expected to be on the cellular network.

India has only 19 million fixed broadband users compared to 630 million (3G and 4G) users.

Analysts say operators like Airtel are not charging for installation or security for new customers of fixed broadband, while ACT has upgraded speed to 300 Mbps at no extra cost.

BSNL, meanwhile, is offering free-of-charge broadband for a month to those who have a BSNL landline.

The demand from COAI is valid, considering that the Federal Communications Commission in the US has granted AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and US Cellular temporary access to more spectrum to enable them to increase their wireless capacity for around 60 days.

DoT, which is planning to go for a mega spectrum auction, has no shortage of airwaves in various bands from 700Mhz to 1800Mhz, besides the 5G spectrum that it could release in times of crises.

Mobile networks have been working at 60-65 per cent capacity. However, the COVID-19 impact has sent their traffic up 20 per cent.

While the COAI says it still has capacity, a long lockdown of cities and offices could lead to more pressure on the network, and might call for more temporary spectrum capacity.

COAI has already received a positive response from over-the-top platforms, which consume about 30 per cent of their network capacity to use less bandwidth.

Hotstar (300 million customers), Zee5, and Viacom 18-controlled Voot have already committed to use less capacity, and shift customers from high definition to standard definition services, if the need arises.

Photograph: Darren Omitz/Reuters

Megha Manchanda in New Delhi
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