Investments made to prepare for last year’s Rugby World Cup mean the fibre broadband network is able to cope with the demands of people working from home, self-isolating and distancing themselves socially, reports Bill Bennett

Workers logging on remotely, along with students sent home from school, mean an unprecedented surge in network traffic. Yet Chorus network strategy manager Kurt Rodgers is relaxed about the prospect of New Zealanders consuming more data than ever before. He says the Chorus fibre network is more than up to coping with increased demand.

It turns out that the work put in a year ago to prepare for Rugby World Cup traffic surges means our fixed telecommunications networks are more than ready.

Rodgers says: “The typical peak traffic load on our network at the moment is around 2.3Tbps. Our network peaks at around about 9pm in the evening. The capacity we put in place for last year’s Rugby World Cup easily handles peaks of 3.5Tbps. That means our network can handle a 50 percent increase in traffic from today’s peak level without any concern.”

The run-up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup saw Chorus and other telecommunications companies bring forward network upgrade investments by 18 to 24 months. They knew there would be increased demand and prepared for it.

In normal times, day-time network traffic is far lower than during the evening. Rodgers says that at noon on a typical work day there is around a gigabit of traffic. If large numbers of New Zealanders work from home, any extra demand is not going to cause a problem.

He says: “Even if lots of people work from home and the school kids are all there, we have plenty of capacity. The traffic could triple or climb even more than that and there would be plenty of headroom for the network to support it.”

Relaxing eats up data

The main source of data use on the fibre network comes when people relax. In the evening that means Netflix and other streaming video services. There are also peaks when a brand-new game first arrives and gamers all download the software at the same time.

Rodgers says: “We see large traffic surges on our network at exactly four o’clock every day of the week. That’s because kids are coming home from school and streaming video or playing games.”

This means day-time traffic is likely to be higher than in the past if people working at home take a break and start streaming Netflix during the day.

Rodgers anticipates this, along with other behavioural changes will alter the current data use patterns.

He says: “It will happen as more and more social events are cancelled due to Covid-19: rugby matches; pubs and restaurants closing, things like that. We might expect to find many more people at home during the evenings and that means there will be more streaming. That will probably be where we will see the biggest increase.”

In the past, a huge surge in data demand might have put pressure on the submarine networks connecting New Zealand to the rest of the world. This is less of an issue now. Rodgers says that at least three-quarters of data consumed in the country is now served from caches and content delivery networks.

He says: “This covers most of the things that you do, whether it’s Google, Facebook, Netflix, all the normal big-use cases. I don’t think there will be a big change in demand for international capacity.”

Fibre broadband is the best technology for working from home. It is more than fast enough for every business application, including video-conferencing.

More important, fibre connections are predictable and reliable. Performance doesn’t vary depending on what people are doing elsewhere. This means a connection won’t suddenly drop out when someone is in the middle of a task.

Another advantage of fibre when it comes to working from home is that service providers offer affordable uncapped plans. This means workers won’t find themselves cut off before the end of the month.

Four out of five homes are on the fibre broadband network. At the time of writing, a little over half of New Zealanders who could take up a fibre connection had done so.

Rodgers says company managers and small business owners should check people intending to work from home have a suitable connection technology and broadband plan. Likewise, he suggests people planning to work remotely should check their connection is up to the job. After all, everyone wants to remain productive.

He asks: “If you are in business, are you leaving it to chance that your employees have fit for purpose broadband at home? What happens if your staff have chosen to go with a fixed wireless account with a low data cap? Is that going to impinge on their ability to work from home? What level of involvement do you as an employer have on the type of broadband your staff have at home?”

Is your Wi-Fi ready for remote working?

For many home users, the Wi-Fi router is often the weakest link in the chain between them and their workplace system, whether that be a company server or somewhere in a cloud.

You need something reliable that gives out a strong signal. If you have a small home, a single Wi-Fi router should do the job, possibly the one your service provider gave you when you signed up. Place it as centrally as possible, not too near solid walls or other electrical equipment.

If you have a bigger home, or you have an office set up in a sleep-out or garage, upgrade to a wireless mesh system. A wireless mesh has a main router and smaller nodes that it uses to fill in blank spots. They cost a little more than a standard router and are a little more complicated to set up. On the plus side, a wireless mesh will cover all your dead spots, so you can work anywhere.

When we first worked from home

In 1998, power was cut off in central Auckland for five weeks. As many as 60,000 people worked from home or from make-shift offices in the suburbs. It was the nation’s first large-scale experience of telecommuting.

The technology was primitive by today’s standards. Fax machines were commonplace. For many, they were the main means of communication. Phones were not yet smart phones.

It was towards the end of the dial-up internet era, so data speeds topped out at 56kbps. Telecom New Zealand introduced its Jetstream ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) service a year later.  

Sending emails and text was fine. Transmitting larger files, including photographs and big PDFs was easier done with a memory stick and a drive across town. Video-conferencing wasn’t practical for most companies without ISDN (Integrated Subscriber Digital Network) lines and even then it could be an ordeal.