Self-rationing urged to ease internet jams
Kids off school, people working from home and millions of citizens self-isolating from the coronavirus all have one thing in common – they want to access the web to stay in touch and keep themselves amused. But now the industry regulator Ofcom has called for customers to exercise self-restraint.
Following numerous reports of poor bandwidth and losses of service since social distancing measures and Boris Johnson’s Monday night lockdown announcement, telecoms regulator Offcom published an explanatory note on Wednesday. “Broadband and mobile networks are seeing shifting patterns of demand as a result of the response to coronavirus, with many families online together during the day for home working and schooling.”
Network operators were confident they could meet increased demand. But the regulator added: “We can all play our part in helping to manage how we use our broadband, home phones and mobiles.”
Experienced homeworkers will already be aware of the ebbs and flows of bandwidth during the day as kids get off school and start hammering the multiple role-playing game sites. Or you might have experienced occasional Netflix glitches at weekends when people are watching live sports and Netflix.
The issue for home internet users is contention. Every internet access point typically supports up to 50 users on the assumption that they won’t all use the available bandwidth at the same time. However, exceptional circumstances can trigger exceptional demand to create the internet equivalent of empty supermarket shelves.
Mobile phone users have much the same issue. Last week, Databarracks non-executive chairman Mike Osborne noted reports on 17 March of ee, O2 and Vodafone customers having mobile network access problems.
“Nearly all personal and home communication networks work on a contended basis and we all share the available capacity,” Osborne said. “That is what is going to happen if much of the population work from their home internet and mobile networks, combined with a high use of gaming and streaming services. Speed and quality of service will become compromised.”
Ofcom and service providers maintain that they can cope with demand - if users exercise some self-restraint. But there have been repeated reports in the past week of network overloads and site access problems, among them:
- Microsoft Office 365 struggled to cope last week after the company lifted the user limits on its free trial edition of Office 365 Business Premium with the interactive Teams app. By Tuesday, users in Europe were reporting access problems as the number of Teams users had more than doubled to 44m since November. Service has been resumed with lessened capacity for background backup processes during weekday hours.
- The Ocado website effectively closed from Wednesday 18 to Saturday 21 March while the delivery service optimised the site to cope with massively increased demand. Waits of up to 4hrs have been common for shoppers who already had accounts. Anyone else was effectively locked out of the service and app.
- Netflix cut the quality of its content to manage capacity at EU’s request
- In an effort to support the struggling “gig economy” sector, music-sharing and merchandise site Bandcamp's waived its commission fees on Friday 20 March. The response was overwhelming, causing the site to struggle with the traffic and transaction volumes. “So just be patient if you can, if it takes a wee while to load,” wrote Lost Map record label chief Pictish Trail from his Hebridean island hideaway in Eigg.
Tips to ensure regular service
Internet and mobile users can help each other to get an adequate service, Ofcom advised, by applying the following tips:
- Use your landline or WiFi to make calls - they may be what your mum and dad use, but in the current circumstances, landlines offer more reliable connections than mobiles. Ofcom suggests switching phone settings to WiFi callling or placing calls via apps such as Facetime, Skype or WhatsApp.
- Move your router away from other wireless devices - Cordless phones, baby monitors, halogen lamps, dimmer switches, stereos, speakers and even microwave ovens can all affect your WiFi signal if they’re too close to your router.
- Reduce the devices using your connection - Tablets and smartphones running in the background will compete with other systems trying to access the net. If you are doing video calls, switching off the camera will reduce the bandwidth used. “Or try starting them at less common times, rather than on the hour or half hour,” Ofcom advised. Also try staggering your internet use so different people don’t carry out data-heavy tasks like gaming or streaming at the same time. Download videos in advance instead of streaming them.
- Try wired rather than wireless - an Ethernet cable is still the most reliable way to connect your computer directly to your router. Cables are available from as little as £3 – but you may need to go online to find one.
- Plug your router directly into your main phone socket - telephone extension leads can cause interference that may lower your speed. Tangled and coiled cables can also affect speeds, so try to use the shortest, best quality cable you can.
- Run a speed on your broadband line - services like Ofcom’s official mobile and broadband checker can show what speeds you are getting at different times of day.
According to Ofcom, a download speed of 10mbps (megabits per second) is a basic service expectation. If you are not getting these speeds, the regulator suggests getting in touch with your supplier to arrange an upgrade. However, some companies may have fewer people to deal with enquiries and are prioritising vulnerable customers and essential public services, “So please take this into consideration,” Offcom added.
What comms frustrations have you encountered in the past week or two and how have you managed your way around them? Let us know by commenting below.
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