Slower data speeds: Worst might be over, but only temporarily

Average data usage has gone up by over 20 per cent in April and May, hitting 12.4 GB as compared to 10.3 GB before the lockdown.
For mobile customers facing slower data speeds and congestion because of rocketing demand in April and May, the worst might be over, even if it’s only a temporary respite. 

Demand, which shot up by 15 per cent, has stabilised. But data networks that are working at near peak capacity of 80-85 per cent (compared to 65-75 per cent pre-Covid) could get into a jam once again if economic activity suddenly picks up to pre-Covid levels and data demand shoots up again, say telecom operators.

According to Ookla, the speed test app endorsed by the Cellular Operators’ Association of India (COAI), average data speeds fell by over 10 per cent on May 4 over March 2 (which was before the lockdown) — much steeper than the global average fall of 3 per cent. 

But data speeds on June 8, in comparison with March 2, are up by 3 per cent. Though the speeds are still much lower than the global average of 6 per cent, at least they are moving in the right direction. 

The only cloud, warn telcos, is that this improvement could be temporary. “The worst might be over on data speeds but telcos have to invest substantial amounts of money to expand their network capacity. Otherwise we will be back to square one when economy recovers. The problem is that telcos are under stress,” said Rajan S Mathews, COAI director-general. 

Average data usage has gone up by over 20 per cent in April and May, hitting 12.4 GB as compared to 10.3 GB before the lockdown. 

Mathews said the signs were clear: Telcos that annually invested $6-7 billion in their networks, according to their projects, are expected to invest no more than $2-3 billion this year. That is why the COAI has asked for urgent relief from the government in the form of low-cost funding and a reduction in licence and spectrum fees, among others. The COAI says that the temporary improvement in data speeds is primarily because operators made some investments in increasing tower capacity. For instance, to meet the demand, 2,600 new towers and over 6,000 base transceiver stations (BTSs) were added by telcos since March 24 to absorb the demand surge. 

However, in April, only 500 BTSs could be added because of the strict lockdown rules and this could not absorb the surge in data usage. But in May, telcos added 10 times more BTSs — over 5,500 — as the lockdown eased. The impact of this capacity increase is reflected in the better data speeds for June.

To ensure connectivity and enable data-driven activities such as work-from-home, the networks were also realigned so that more capacity was shifted from commercial areas to residential and rural areas. The effort was also supported by the government with the DoT and state-level authorities curtailing fibre cuts and dispensing quick permission for the laying of optical fibre cable to ensure the backhaul of large quantities of data.

But many telecom equipment companies have already pushed the red buttons. “With the amount of data surge, there is an urgent need for fibre backhaul on towers. But only 35 per cent of towers have them, the rest are on microwave. There is a serious need for investment here otherwise speed will suffer in the immediate future,” said a top executive of a leading telecom equipment company.

What’s more, OTT players which had voluntarily moved their High Definition customers to Standard Definition are reinstating the service once again. Earlier, this move had helped in easing the network load of video by 20 per cent.

In many countries data speeds were enhanced after the government provided them with temporary free spectrum. 

But in India, the telcos decided not to pursue this line at all. With a deadline for the spectrum auction still not in sight and unlikely to be completed before the end of this year, customers might be in for more data speed challenges.

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