5G and Fiber: Critical Infrastructure for the New Normal

April 17, 2020

By: Madhu Kashyap, Radisys Head of Product Line Management - Broadband Access


Nothing like a pandemic to provide the impetus and fuel for getting fiber and 5G connectivity to every nook and corner of the globe. As more nations, cities and towns mandate “shelter-in-place” directives and the citizenry undertakes self-imposed isolation and quarantine measures, network connectivity has become the lifeblood of society and the economy. The question is whether the network is ready for this surge in data flow. If this is the new normal, then network connectivity with massive increase in bandwidth becomes a necessity. A recent opinion piece in the NYT highlighted some of the issues:

  • Residential broadband, video conferencing platforms and VPNs are about to face unprecedented strain.
  • Performance issues might be worse in rural areas, where internet service is less reliable than it is in big cities
  • Sufficient bandwidth to participate in video-streamed classes without constant interruptions and delays

Open Vault, a company that tracks ISPs and broadband usage reported that the monthly record of 361 GB, established in January of this year will hit a run rate of 460 GB per subscriber per month going forward, a 27% increase. OpenVault’s research is based on the actual usage of more than one million broadband subscribers through the United States. With closure of restaurants, bars and cancellations of sporting events and concerts many home-bound consumers are streaming HD content and 4K video. Open- Vault said average usage between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. in March has risen 17.2%, to 5.87 GB.

A blog from Nokia’s Deepfield CTO, had a number of interesting observations (Deepfield is a surveyor of real-time network performance) unprecedented growth in latency-sensitive applications during business hours

  • 300% growth in teleconferencing apps in the US (e.g., Zoom, Skype)
  • 400% growth in gaming (with kids being at home!)
  • 20–40% peak increase (usually in evenings) in impacted regions over the last four weeks 
  • Netflix traffic has risen 54% to 75%

As work, school and play moves online with gaming, audio / video conferencing, shared white board and other virtual collaborative tools there has been a dramatic rise in broadband usage. This requires bandwidth (both downstream and upstream) in orders of magnitude from what is currently available. Healthcare through telehealth technologies is another domain that requires high quality video and audio connections that can facilitate interaction between the healthcare provider and the patient. Video-consulting with a doctor before visiting a hospital can reduce congestion and increase quality of care for the most critical patients. The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced last week that telehealth services would be covered by Medicare during the coronavirus outbreak.

ISPs and operators report that their infrastructure can adequately support the surge in network usage at least in the US and Europe yet there have been reports of network throttling to limit use of HD streaming. In Europe, the Commissioner of the European Union Internal Market, urged Netflix and other Over-The-Top (OTT) players to lower the video content quality from 1080p (High Definition) to 480p (Standard Definition) for a limited time. Netflix has agreed to the commissioner's request and will be lowering the streaming video quality to SD for a period of 30 days. This initiative is expected to reduce internet traffic by 25-percent in Europe. With this initiative, people will be able to get high-speed internet to gain access to information on coronavirus and also others can complete their official work online.

There are moves to help operators adequately support this surge in network usage. In the US, the FCC granted Special Temporary Authority to AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile to use additional spectrum to help it meet increased customer demand for broadband during the coronavirus pandemic. Operators requested this authority to make it easier for Americans to participate in telehealth, distance learning, and telework, and simply remain connected while practicing recommended “social distancing.” T-Mobile also indicated that this authority would enable it to be prepared to meet the needs of first responders. 

While these are piecemeal programs to temporarily alleviate the problem, the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to craft a long term plan with private and public collaboration that is required to build out both wireless and wireline infrastructure. 5G, one of the most anticipated technologies in decades, promises to satisfy even the most bandwidth hungry apps while fiber which is already deployed in the internet backbone needs to be deployed all the way to homes and businesses (See this report for why fiber is a superior solution to all other broadband access technologies - ). New applications and use cases such as AR/VR, autonomous vehicles, health monitoring, smart cities, real-time video surveillance etc. will require substantial increase in bandwidth. National initiatives on providing 5G and fiber broadband is critical for so many reasons, so that the world is prepared for the next pandemic.

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