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SA’s telcos expect data usage boom as remote working becomes norm

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With many South Africans now working from home because of the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in the country, mobile operators are expecting a surge in mobile data usage.

ITWeb interviewed local mobile network operators to gauge their networks’ preparedness to deal with the rapidly emerging mobile workforce as the pandemic spreads across SA.

As of yesterday, the Department of Health confirmed 116 cases of the deadly virus in SA. Fortunately, there have been no fatalities in the country. Yesterday, KwaZulu-Natal premier Sihle Zikalala confirmed “patient zero” – the first South African infected with the coronavirus – has recovered.

Globally, at the time of publishing, there were 220 346 reported cases of COVID-19, with close to 9 000 deaths and near 86 000 recoveries.

In SA, as across the world, coronavirus has caused organisations to transition their workforce away from an office environment to work from home.

Educational institutions are also encouraging the use of e-learning resources as much as they can, as some local universities reported cases of the virus on campus.

For example, this morning, the University of Cape Town confirmed a staff member had tested positive for COVID-19. This is the second confirmed case of COVID-19 at the varsity.

Uptime confidence

In a statement to ITWeb, Jacqui O’Sullivan, executive for corporate affairs at MTN SA, says it is still too early to calculate the exact amount of data being used for work from home or e-learning situations.

“As you know, most companies started implementing work-from-home this week after president [Cyril] Ramaphosa’s public announcement on Sunday.

“We can, however, confirm that we have seen an increase in traffic from both individual customers and business customers.

“We continuously monitor our end-to-end network capacity throughout the entire network operation. We have several measures in place to deal with various scenarios. To assist us in maintaining network uptime, we appeal to the public to report theft and vandalism of our infrastructure,” says O’Sullivan.

In a statement this week, MTN SA said it is focusing on network continuity and taking precautionary steps to safeguard its employees, suppliers and customers from COVID-19.

Vodacom says it is making sure it has sufficient network capacity to enable people and businesses to work seamlessly from home.

“Communication is an essential service and since ours is a sector of sectors, the availability of our network is key to the effective functioning of all the other sectors of the economy,” says the company.

“To date, we have not experienced significant device or hardware supply disruptions. We are putting further measures in place to avoid disruptions and are working closely with our suppliers and partners.”

Shameel Joosub, chief executive officer of Vodacom Group, says: “Vodacom can play a critical role in supporting society during this unprecedented time and is committed to doing its utmost during this rapidly-evolving situation.

“We will endeavour to put measures in place to keep South Africans connected to their family and friends, and to ensure businesses can continue to run using remote working in this time of national challenge. At the same time, we are ramping up efforts to support learners with their studies now that schools are having an unscheduled, longer holiday.”

Teleconferencing in demand

Telkom also says it is ready to meet the demand as South Africans take to remote working.

“Our mix of fixed and wireless access allows the Telkom network to provide options to customers, depending on the applications and services they use.”

According to Telkom, the shift caused by remote working has an impact on both data and voice services. “For voice services, we see an increased emphasis on teleconferencing, and, as such, are monitoring and managing our conference services to support increased load.”

The telco points out systems have protection mechanisms to safeguard against overloads, and have enjoyed increased focus after the network issues experienced two weeks ago.

“The fixed voice network is able to handle the increased domestic load, while the mobile voice network is expected to experience more load than normal. Constant monitoring and measurement is in place.”

For data services, both Telkom fixed and mobile are well-positioned for this scenario, says the company, adding that both networks are designed for, and carry, significant data services, and as such, already carry massive data volumes.

“We expect the demand during the day to business services, which should not be more impactful than aggressive streaming that we cater for after hours. For mobile specifically, we believe that the different data traffic profile should not be as intense as normal peak traffic, which is predominantly driven by video streaming.

“Our network dimensioning and capacity is expected to accommodate the increased demand due to working from home. Another result of working from home is distributed traffic over multiple sites, helping to mitigate the congestion.”

In addition, says Telkom, there is sufficient capacity to deliver content to service providers’ breakout points.

It notes that services providers will need to confirm capacity capabilities and each are unique to the service providers’ business models.

“Telkom's diverse core network has been specifically designed to handle large volumes of traffic with seamless fail-over and load-balancing capabilities.”

Meanwhile, SA’s third biggest mobile operator Cell C says it “has not experienced any significant spikes in data consumption this year”.

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