State of the Network and a Shout-Out to Network Heroes

On display in my house is a 1926 Kellogg wall phone.  I can’t use it to place a call, but it looks great.  It’s crafted from beautifully finished oak with a candlestick earpiece and a small platform for taking notes.  It still has the original internal components, including a magneto and dry cell batteries.  The antique phone connects me to a proud lineage of engineers, technicians, field personnel, customer service staff, and network professionals (among many others) who have built this industry.  I’ve worked in telecom my entire career and have been awed by the response from operators around the globe to the current situation.

While so many service businesses have shed workers and are fighting for survival, other sectors are faring better.  Streaming services like Netflix and online retailers like Amazon and Walmart are seeing demand surge.  We’re all familiar with the ascension of Zoom from an enterprise video-conferencing provider to a social media sensation.

What do each of these online services have in common?  They are dependent, of course, on ubiquitous, reliable, and relatively cheap communications services. Our digital devices connect us to the people we care about, summon food, keep us entertained and allow many to continue their education.   Communications services have enabled the new “normal”: Do laundry, watch children, stroke a pet, finish a meal… all while joining a conference call!  We’ve perhaps never leaned so heavily on global communications networks.  And by extension, we’ve never been so dependent on the people building and operating these networks.

Yet both networks and communication service providers (CSPs) are under stress.  Core networks are quite resilient and tend to be robustly engineered with the capacity to accommodate sustained surges in demand.  Edge networks, on the other hand, particularly where there is a legacy copper plant and coax, are often running hot.  No doubt, this is leading to frustration among many as their streams of Tiger King drop packets.  Wireless networks have seen changes in usage patterns and subscriber locality, double-digit increases in peak traffic, and some erosion in average data speeds in many regions.  Broadly speaking, mobile operators have been handling the workload without significant impacts on customer experience.  This is a testament not just to good planning, but to the ongoing work of network professionals who are monitoring and continually optimizing network performance.

On the business side for CSPs, it’s been a mixed bag.  Demand for consumer services is holding relatively steady.  However, the overall economic climate will lead to an erosion of business services revenue.  Before the crisis, Analysys Mason was projecting a modest 0.7% increase in telecoms revenue.  Their revised forecast predicts a 3.4% decline across developed markets in 2020.  Despite this, operators are adding workers to their rolls to handle frontline services and are increasing salaries for essential workers in some situations. CSPs are stepping up in many cases to offer deferred payment plans, increased data caps, and contributions to various charitable causes.

As quoted in the Financial Times, Hans Vestberg, the CEO of Verizon, said, “staff who have continued to work in the field to support customers — be they engineers or shopworkers — deserve credit. Those are the heroes.”

I could not agree more.  Certainly, we all owe a big dose of gratitude to the frontline workers who are staffing health care facilities, delivering groceries, and looking after public safety (among so many other essential services).

At the same time, frontline workers in the communications industry continue to be dispatched to customer locations (wearing PPE!), enter manholes, climb towers, and staff the few retail outlets that are open.  Behind them are network professionals who are staffing NOCs, data centers, and war rooms to provide critical operations support.  They are so essential that CSPs in India are making temporary living arrangements for them near telco facilities. No doubt, such accommodations are being made worldwide, with communications workers rising to the challenge of keeping global networks running.

So here’s a shout-out to the Network Heroes!

To understand the challenges faced by CSPs in offering quality video content over mobile devices

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