Work-from-home shift taxes internet infrastructure

Digicel and Flow apply to expand networks

As work patterns shift from office to home, Cayman’s telecommunications infrastructure is feeling the strain.

Wireless internet and cellphone networks are suddenly dealing with traffic they were not built to handle, says Alee Fa’amoe, executive director for information and communications technology at OfReg.

“We are seeing the same thing in Cayman as in a lot of cities around the world,” he said.

“People are physically in different places during the day, which has caused a massive shift in traffic patterns almost overnight, and the mobile networks are seeing a lot of stress.”

While the technical infrastructure that supports cellphone and internet traffic is less visible, it is comparable with the roads infrastructure that supports vehicular traffic, said Fa’amoe.

He said the sudden shift in online activity from business centres to residential areas was like moving rush hour traffic from George Town to East End.

The regulator has received numerous complaints about slow internet or dropped calls on the mobile networks. Much of it, says Fa’amoe, can be attributed to this shift in traffic.

Meanwhile, another kind of congestion is affecting internet access from home. “When people work from home and complain about internet speeds, a lot of the time their WiFi is congested. It is just like a pathway, when there is traffic, there is congestion, and things move slower.”

WiFi networks are a shared set of radio frequencies. If you click on the WiFi icon on your laptop at any given time, you will see how many other users are sharing the same frequency.

“When there are a lot more people doing a lot more things on the same radio frequency, things can slow down,” Fa’amoe said.

One workaround is to plug your laptop directly into your WiFi router.

The same congestion problems occurring on cellphone networks are harder to fix.

“Mobile networks in town were designed to handle that kind of traffic, but now that people are sitting home, they are struggling with this sudden shift in activity,” he added.

The extent to which the shift to a work-from-home lifestyle is a temporary measure for COVID-19 or an acceleration of a longer-term trend remains to be seen.

But telecommunications companies are already moving to accommodate the shift in traffic.

Both Digicel and Flow have requested a temporary expansion of radio services on cell towers in the districts, which OfReg is processing now.

“What they are seeing is a step up in need in residential areas. We understand that need and we realise it may not be temporary,” said Fa’amoe.

If there is capacity on the cell towers, increasing radio frequencies is relatively simple. That is not the case in all districts, however, and a longer-term shift in work habits may necessitate major infrastructure investment.

“If the traffic shift becomes permanent, the whole topography of the network might need to be changed and reconfigured,” Fa’amoe said.

The impacts reported so far, including slow internet, lost images on Zoom video-conferencing, and dropped calls, can have a serious effect on businesses and public services.

Another concern brought into sharp focus by the COVID-19 crisis is the lack of local peering to connect administratively separate internet networks.

So, whenever a Flow customer calls a Digicel customer via WhatsApp, for example, the call is bounced through Miami.

“This is problematic when we are using conference facilities like Zoom, because instead of a call being made locally between our providers, it is going through the US,” Fa’amoe said.

OfReg is exploring ways to facilitate local peering, he added.

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