Millions of Britons told to work from home could find themselves without access to the internet, experts have warned. That’s because the additional traffic from home workers could put a massive strain on Britain’s networks. People with the ability to work remotely could be encouraged to avoid commuting to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has left 127,800 people ill worldwide – and resulted in 4,700 deaths.
However, working away from offices brings the added pressure of endless video conference calls, file uploads, and simultaneous edits to documents – all heavy traffic that could take its toll on the UK’s ageing infrastructure.
Speaking about the problems that face the UK, Professor Izzat Darwazeh, Chair of Communications Engineering at University College London, told the Daily Telegraph: “I doubt that the core network can cope if even tens of thousands of people who work in the City of London are forced to work from home and need access to video conferencing and trading systems.”
The warning comes a few months after research showed that Britain was one of the worse countries in Europe when it comes to broadband speeds – something that will not be reassuring for those who will have to rely on these speeds to perform their jobs in the coming days.
According to figures from Ofcom, full-fibre broadband is only available to around 8 percent of the UK. That equates to around 2.5 million homes. That is significantly lower than most other EU countries, with only Belgium, Cyprus, and Greece boasting lower levels of fibre coverage than the UK.
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In the most recent budget, chancellor Rishi Sunak confirmed plans to £5 billion into a plan to boost the roll-out of full-fibre broadband across the UK. Gigabit-capable broadband, which delivers speeds around 40 times faster than standard superfast broadband available over copper cables, is has now been promised to the 20 per cent of the country which is hardest to reach – with more than 5 million homes and businesses benefitting.
However, the upgrade won’t be in place anytime soon.
It is these rural areas that are the most likely to be affected as more and more people are forced to work from home or self-isolate during the outbreak of COVID-19, which was labelled as a worldwide pandemic earlier this week by the World Health Organisation.
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Many homes are still connected with old copper wires, which aren’t as robust as new fibre alternatives and don’t allow anywhere near the same bandwidth of traffic. If these cables experience a high level of demand from people at the same time it can cause digital jams.
Explaining more, US network expert Lisa Pierce, told Bloomberg Quint: “The weak link in the chain, where the system could get overloaded, is going to be the home broadband network. People will hit congestion, just like a highway, where the speed goes from 60 miles an hour to 20.”
And Jeff McElfresh, chief executive officer of AT&T Communications, added: “As an engineer, I will tell you that we will have the capacity in our system that employees and customers need access to, at times like this.
“The moment you add in videoconferencing to all the shows the kids are watching because schools are closed, it could be a problem if everyone is trying to get on at the same time.”
Despite these claims, UK broadband firms remain confident they will be able to cope with the increase in demand. Openreach, which is UK’s biggest provider of broadband to homes, says it has built its network to cope with this increased level of usage.
The firm is confident it will be able to keep pace with the whole of the UK logging in from their living rooms with them explaining that even if there is a massive increase of people working from home, broadband traffic won’t reach the levels of peak times where millions of people stream HD content like Premier League Football and the latest box sets at the same time.
In fact, Openreach says its network has more than ten times the amount of capacity needed for normal everyday use.