Can the UK’s broadband infrastructure cope with home working?

The overnight need for a nation to work from home has put many technical issues under the spotlight, but none more so than the immediate and far-reaching test of the UK’s broadband capabilities. It’s not just the tasks associated with working from home, like teleconferences over the various internet-based applications such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom, but also the extra activity created by having school aged children at home who want to use broadband-hungry gaming apps, as well as make use of new streaming services like Disney+. Parents, totally overwhelmed with trying to spin both the work plates and the home-schooling ones are turning to technology for respite and that is creating surges across our infrastructure. Talk Talk reported in December that year on year our home broadband usage is up 50% – that’s quite some jump!

There have been some pivotal moments during UK lockdowns. Netflix, the popular streaming service agreed to slow down the speed at which it delivers shows to subscribers to reduce its traffic across Europe by 25%. It was suggested this move might has the potential to affect picture or audio quality for some of its 11 million subscribers in the UK. Even the big boys got involved – Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg made the observation that there were ‘surges’ in activity in certain services – including the doubling of calls across its WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger apps on a much more regular basis. Home schooling via Teams is also up, and having our school-aged children home to learn as well as play is taking its toll.

BT is clear that even if everyone works from home, they will consume less bandwidth than the usual peak traffic on the network that is witnessed most evenings in streaming TV, downloading games and other bandwidth intensive tasks – so there should still be enough capacity for work applications to run simultaneously.

UK infrastructure

BT and Virgin provide the UK with the lion’s share of connectivity via fibre to the home (FTTH) and Cable. BT has already rolled out fibre to the cabinet and is ramping up its fibre to the home (FTTH) rollout, with some two million homes passed and continues to pass around 23,000 homes per week. It has aspirations to reach 10 million completed homes passed by the mid 2020’s. Virgin currently has round 14 million homes with services but must make them all gigabit-enabled over a period of time. Project Lightening is expanding the Virgin network and installing full fibre. Then there are the many alternative network providers; City Fibre, Kcom, Hyperoptic, Gigaclear and FibreNation each with big plans too – but currently they make up for around a million connected homes between them. They will deliver a critical mass in various regional locations and cities over the next five years pulling together some of our more remote towns.

The infrastructure is being addressed, but the challenge is a costly one, and the UK has legacy systems to maintain to keep the current system functioning until there is a full-fibre one in place. The Government reiterated their plan in the recent budget to invest £5bn of public money to help spread “gigabit-capable” broadband ISP networks across the UK by the end of 2025, as well as to push it into new build homes. So, for now there may be some performance issues with connection speeds, and a reduction in the clarity of your picture on Netflix, but the infrastructure can cope with us all being at home and is being invested in longer term.

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