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Our remote life depends on network connectivity

Published on 8.4.2020
Tampere University
Did you just wrap up a Teams meeting? Or finish online grocery shopping, a remote piano lesson, a Netflix series or a virtual pub crawl? If we had experienced a similar pandemic a decade ago, we could only have dreamed about the many technologies that are now making our daily lives easier.

The current exceptional circumstances due to the coronavirus pandemic have revealed how indispensable telecom networks have become for our society. 

“Our society simply could not function without these networks. Now that everything is managed one way or another through the internet, information networks have become a critical infrastructure for our society just like, let’s say, the energy infrastructure. They are also essential for the public authorities,” says Mikko Valkama, professor of communications engineering at Tampere University.

“It would have been much more difficult to work remotely ten years ago than it is now. The core components of the internet were already in place a decade ago, but the large-scale deployment of the 4G network was still in its infancy. People did not have the necessary high-speed internet connections or equipment at home that they do now”, Valkama says.

Valkama lists three things that are now better than a few years ago: the 4G network that offers high-speed download speeds provides extensive coverage, optical fibre cables are now common in residential areas, and the DSL technology that provides broadband internet connections over conventional telephone lines has likewise evolved.

“4G devices are now so common that anyone can access the internet anywhere and anytime. The only exception may be the elderly who may not have the required devices at home or who may find them difficult to use,” Valkama says.

Based on data provided by operators, network traffic has risen 20-30% in the past few weeks because of the pandemic. These figures seem surprisingly low, considering everything that people are now having to do remotely from home.

“I am sure there is a great deal of variability in network traffic between regions and times of day. For example, base stations located in residential areas may now be more strained than before during the daytime. But compared to an average Friday night when people are at home and using their devices, the difference may not necessarily be that significant,” Valkama estimates.

Video streaming eats up bandwidth

Although a vast and growing number of devices ranging from electricity meters to refrigerators are already connected to the internet, they are generating only a small volume of traffic. Streaming services, such as Netflix and video conferencing, are placing a particularly heavy strain on internet bandwidth. As the coronavirus forces people home, interest in streaming services has grown rapidly.

“Still, if a small number of people are attending a virtual meeting, they can keep their video enabled throughout the meeting to increase the sense of presence and engagement,” Valkama says.  

“These days network connectivity problems are usually related to the capacity of servers and not the network itself – although they are all part of the same package. People did experience problems, for example, with the use of Teams but more servers have since been added to overcome capacity issues. The VPN servers of many companies are now under a high load and efforts are underway to increase capacity.”

Research and R&D activities continue

As we are still in the early days of 5G, it will not help us now, but eventually 5G will deliver faster connections and greater network capacity to consumers, too. When the current network becomes congested in the future, traffic can be gradually directed to the 5G network. 

“5G phones are still scarce because coverage is limited, but industry has high hopes for 5G. For example, factories could deploy their own 5G networks to control their equipment and machines,” Valkama says.

Mikko Valkama says that the social distancing required during the coronavirus pandemic has brought some added challenges for researchers, as strict restrictions are in place to limit access to the laboratories located on campus. 

“Using the research infrastructure is difficult at the moment, but measurement data can still be processed and research papers written at home,” Valkama says.   

Researchers on the Hervanta campus are actively studying and developing, among other things, data transmission technologies for the 5G network, industrial 5G applications – such as the remote control of mobile machines and wireless technologies for industrial automation – and the use of the 5G network for continuous mobile phone tracking with an accuracy of up to one metre.

Valkama hopes that when things get back to normal, companies will continue their R&D activities and collaboration with universities as usual. 

“Research and R&D play a key role in the success of high-tech industries. At least for now, major corporations in this industry, such as Nokia and Ericsson, have announced that their research collaborations will continue when we return to normal.” 

Teksti: Sanna Kähkönen
Photo: Pexels