Telecoms respond to surge in demand with extraordinary measures amid pandemic

Originally Published by The Globe and Mail
Author: Alexandra Posadzki

From transporting hardware on corporate jets to running fibre-optic cables through fields and parking lots to bring COVID-19 testing facilities online, Canada’s telecom companies have undertaken extraordinary measures in recent weeks to deal with surging demand stemming from the pandemic.

“There’s nothing spared in this effort,” said Ibrahim Gedeon, chief technology officer at Telus Corp.

After Ottawa announced emergency funding for Canadians who had lost their jobs because of the economic fallout of the global health crisis, a flood of cell-phone and landline calls congested the connections between carriers, causing some customers to experience busy signals and dropped calls.

The carriers worked to resolve the issue, laying additional fibre-optic cable between their central offices and installing more electronic equipment at each end, but quickly discovered that the end points – the legacy interfaces being used by Service Canada – couldn’t handle the load.

Therefore, the traffic simply “trickled back into the system,” causing problems throughout the network, Mr. Gedeon said.

To address this, engineers worked around the clock to restructure legacy telephone networks referred to as Time Division Multiplexing, or TDM, networks, completing work that would typically take weeks in just a matter of days.

“We were doing traffic engineering in real time, which has never happened,” Mr. Gedeon said. “TDM is 1980s technology; it wasn’t meant to be moved on the fly.”

Network upgrades that, under normal circumstances, could have been completed during the day when traffic is low, have had to be shifted to the middle of the night as the pandemic has led to a surge in day-time usage.

“Today with everybody working at home, you see a constant stress on the networks during all the daylight hours and into the evenings,” said Dean Prevost, president of Rogers for Business, a division of Rogers Communications Inc. that serves businesses and public-sector clients.

“So we’re using the nights more effectively … to ensure that we can work off peak when you’re not going to disrupt the heavy usage that’s going on.”

Some telecom executives, including Mr. Gedeon, have also found themselves up at odd hours, comparing notes with their peers in Europe and Britain, where the pandemic hit sooner, to see what lessons could be gleaned from how their networks were performing.

The situation is now under control, Mr. Gedeon said – “it’s gone from red status to yellow” – but the experience illustrates the need to modernize any remaining TDM-based connections into governments or large enterprises.

It’s also taught the telecom industry just how quickly it’s capable of acting, a lesson that Mr. Prevost hopes will carry forward.

Although, in some instances, Rogers has run fibre-optic cable through fields and parking lots to bring health centres online, the company has also been utilizing the fixed wireless technology it had launched just weeks earlier.

Fixed wireless, which is often used in remote and rural communities, allows for a fibre-optic network to be extended with wireless signals, making it cheaper and faster to install than laying cable. In once instance, Rogers was able to get a pop-up COVID-19 assessment centre connected in as few as 24 hours, Mr. Prevost said.

Originally, Rogers had been rolling out the technology for the construction industry, but for now it is reserving it primarily for its pandemic response.

“We gathered up our inventory of devices and said, ‘This is obviously going to be useful for assessment centres or for getting WiFi into a homeless shelter or a hospital quickly. … Let’s save it for these first responders and essential services first and foremost,’ ” Mr. Prevost said.

Other challenges have included working with international carriers to extend wireless service to Canadians who were stuck on cruise ships.

“We’ve always thought of ourselves as very nimble and agile, but under this level of focus … it’s taken it to a whole new level,” Mr. Prevost said.

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