As India battles COVID-19, a lockdown has been announced to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
With all essentials services operational, providing internet to mobile and broadband users has become a challenge for telecom companies. India has more than 630 million mobile users and about 19 million have broadband connections.
With the lockdown, many Indians are working from home. As a result, the telecom service providers are seeing a 10 percent surge in web traffic. This is posing a unique challenge for telecom operators.
On March 24, when a day's curfew was announced, the telecom operators observed a surge as the country came to standstill, and Indians were at home.
In later days, Bharti Airtel, a service provider, noticed that their customers began upgrading to more speed and bigger data plans. Looking at this, they send a reassuring note to their customers saying, "We understand that your network needs would evolve during this difficult time, as you work from home. We have taken several measures to improve your experience – from accelerating our roll outs, upgrading quality of service where possible and advancing our investments to meet your requirements." The pressure on mobile networks has increased as most users are choosing that over broadband.
Randeep Sekhon, CTO of Bharti Airtel, explains, "On the mobile network side, we are seeing shift in traffic hotspots and peak usage hours and are geared to meet this demand. Home broadband customers are now upgrading to faster speeds and larger quota plans to support work from home and study for home needs. Airtel's B2B customers are utilizing 4G dongles, home Fiber connections and larger enterprise bandwidths which are all being serviced smoothly."
The demand for data dongles has also doubled during the past few days and many retailers are asking for a week's time to replenish their stocks.
Telecom body Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) has said that the telecom industry is strongly aligned to the government's mission of controlling the COVID-19 outbreak by providing adequate resources and enabling work from home for technical teams working across the facilities. This is to enable undisrupted services to the customers 24/7. The industry body has said that no additional spectrum is required to maintain stability and quality of network amid the COVID-19 crisis since the steps taken by the government to ease pressure on networks during the three-week lockdown is sufficient. Some of the steps include directing streaming services to reduce their content from HD to SD, local municipalities working with telecoms to bring sealed towers back online, and redistribution of traffic on the network.
As India enters the second week of lockdown, disruptions have begun. Aditya Kapoor, who works with a cyber security firm has been home since then. He has started facing issues with the internet connection for the last two days. "Initially when the lockdown was announced the internet speed was good but in the last few days, we have been facing issues with the speed. At least once a day I have to reboot my broadband system to get the optimum speed."
The COVID-19 cases in the country are rising and there are chances of the lockdown being extended. In such a case, the telecoms will have to make a contingency plan to upscale broadband.
Telecom operators have already started the ground work. Rajan S Mathews, director general of COAI, said in a letter to the finance minister.
"Telecom service providers have invested and will continue to invest significantly in the telecom infrastructure (capex and opex) and it has enabled to meet the increased demand for telecom services. There has been a severe disruptive impact on the global supply chain, demand and supply elements and most importantly, on the cash flows of the companies due to the slowing economic activities. This downturn will have an impact on all payments including those of employees, interest, loan repayments and taxes."
The uncertainty of the situation weighs equally on customers and service providers. As the days pass, the internet ecosystem will have to assess and appropriate steps will have to be taken for people to stay in touch with their loved ones in these days of isolation.