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Net users urged to exercise self restraint to lessen demand during coronavirus outreak
Ocado 25 March 2020

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.

25th Mar 2020
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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.

Contention issues

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.”

Site overloads

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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. 
  6. 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.

Replies (6)

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By MatthewSteeples
26th Mar 2020 10:20

Points 3 and 6 of OFCOMs guidance contradict each other. A speedtest is literally the most wasteful thing you can run on an internet connection, because it tries to use all of your available bandwidth just to tell you how fast your connection is.

Thanks (2)
By simonsyddall
26th Mar 2020 10:40

Keep in touch or keep amused? Surely, the prioity is keeping in touch. And by that, I mean work, on-line food ordering, checking on family. I don't mean live chat (or worse, live video) social media (the biggest curse of our time) or on-line gaming The second biggest). The ISPs need to limit or cut off these huge users of band width. Gaming and social media are not home schooling or a means of preventing isolation. Keep amused? Read a book. Do a jigsaw. Spring clean. Do the garden. Wash the car. Do I need to go on? Going to get hammered for this but that will just prove my point - The typical day of the mindless; go on FakeBook, go on on-line war game or footer, go to the supermarket (where you stand literally touching the next person in the inevitable queue) and buy excessive toilet rolls, bread, baby formula (why, when you don't have a baby?), go the offy and buy Stellas and Chardonnay, go round to mate's house and have a barbeque with the rest of the mouse-brained = spread C-19, affecting all our lives negatively at best, killing people, at worst.

Thanks (3)
By kevin503
26th Mar 2020 10:52

Heavy bandwith usage is going to be from Netflix and similar on demand services and TV catchup services. There is a case for Oftcom regulating the times of day these are available. No one ever actually died from boredom.

Thanks (0)
By AmandaElliott
26th Mar 2020 11:05

I quite agree that nobody ever died of boredom but to make the internet the source of yet another thing we are restricted on - really. Doesn’t the great British public have enough to deal with at the moment. The internet is providing a massive resource to prevent social isolation, overthinking and yes ok boredom. This situation is unique but as human beings we need a bit of normal and rightly or wrongly the internet is that bit of normal for many. I agree switching off the online gaming sites would be a massive blessing for many as would a reduction in the availability of FB ( although there is also some good positive stuff on there as well). I am pleased the contributors are well able to use non IT ways to keep lockdown manageable but I don’t think it is the time to criticise the way others use their time. We all need to find our own way through this.

Thanks (1)
By pauljohnston
26th Mar 2020 11:39

It beggars belief that having told us there would be no issues there are. Ofcom can take all the blame. If they came out with these ideas at the beggining the problems would not be there

There is the other underlying issue in that BT OPenworld have not put in sufficient bandwidth and connection despite be requested to do so. I hope that once the crisis is over BTOpenworld (a monopoly) will be de-merged from BT and then we can all over the country have 100gb broadband. Suggestions such as "internet access point typically supports up to 50 users on the assumption that they do not all want to be used at the same time" sounds like a 1990s statement. Time for this to be changed for the 2020s

Thanks (2)
By MatthewSteeples
26th Mar 2020 12:04

This is the problem with letting politicians and bureaucrats make technical decisions and statements. Loading _this single article_ on AccountingWeb takes up as much bandwidth as any of the following:

* Playing World of Warcraft for 2 minutes
* Streaming 1 minute of music
* Streaming 1 second of Netflix
* 1 minute VoIP audio call
* 8 seconds of a video call
* Sharing a handful of photos on social media
* Sending 1000 instant messages

Should AWeb switch off their comments section to protect the internet too, if we're talking about shutting down other "social" activities?

Thanks (4)