Analysis: it's all due to a perfect storm of coronavirus, working from home, increased data demand and, yes, The Last Dance

Cooped up at home with little indication of when normality will return, you, like many others, may have found yourself flicking on Netflix in the evening for some light relief in these strange times. But while you're looking at the deranged exploits of Joe Exotic in Tiger King, or the spellbinding performances of Rhea Seehorn and Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul or the exploits of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls' all-stars in The Last Dance, you might have noticed that your video stream is not as smooth as usual.

Netflix, YouTube, Amazon and others have recently enacted measures to reduce the quality of their streaming services in Europe at the request of the EU. In doing so, they have taken some of the pressure off the telecommunication networks which, in the midst of Covid-19, are experiencing unprecedented demand. This is welcome relief for home broadband providers, especially around peak evening viewing times.

But it’s not just the fixed broadband that needs a helping hand. ComReg, the State’s regulatory body for telecommunications, has signed off on regulations which will lift some restrictions on the airwaves on a temporary basis, helping mobile network operators to cope with the surge in 4G data usage. These unusual measures somewhat demonstrate the industry’s ability to adapt "on-the-fly" to allow us to continue to work from home and take part in those all-important virtual quiz nights.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Tommy Meskill on a rise in internet traffic due to Covid-19 restrictions and what impact that has for users

But they also highlight deficiencies in our existing networks and their inability to deal with such an explosion of traffic. To get a clearer picture of why this is, it is useful to think of the physical path a message takes after you send it. Let’s say you are connected to your home wifi network and you send a WhatsApp message to check on your next-door neighbour. In a typical urban scenario, your message hops from the tiny antenna in your mobile phone to the antenna on your broadband router box. From the router, the message travels through a copper cable to a "cabinet" which, if you’re lucky, is located on the street close to your home. Keep an eye out for it the next time you’re out – it’s usually a green metal box a metre or so high.

In the cabinet, the message is transformed into a light-wave signal which is then guided at high speed, through a network of fibre optic cables, to a data centre which could be hundreds of kilometres away. A data centre is essentially a warehouse full of interconnected computers known as servers. This is the "cloud" that you’ve undoubtedly heard about. The message is processed on one of these servers in the data centre and then travels a similar pathway back to your neighbour’s phone. All of this travelling happens in under a second.

If you had been using the 4G connection on your mobile rather than your home WiFi, the transmission path is similar. However, the signal from your mobile phone antenna would have travelled over the air to a large antenna (also called a base station) in your locality, managed by your mobile operator. It’s usually on a mast or on top of a high building, and has its own connection to the fibre network.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, a 2018 survey found that two-thirds of Irish consumers were still getting broadband speeds of under 30 megabits per second, despite claims of significant improvements to telecom infrastructure across the country.

It may seem strange that your message takes such a convoluted path to reach your neighbour next door. However, this type of data transmission allows tech companies to do most of their data processing and clever functionality on powerful servers in the data centre (the cloud) which they manage rather than on your considerably less powerful phone, PC or tablet. Today, the most popular internet services such as video streaming (YouTube, Netflix, Amazon), tele-conferencing (Zoom, Skype, Hangouts) and music streaming (Spotify, Soundcloud) are provided in this way. They rely heavily on the ability of the fibre optic and wireless links that make up the network to provide long distance, high speed pathways to and from you, the user.

The popularity of these cloud-based internet services, coupled with the data demands of a newly home-bound workforce, is creating a perfect storm for our networks. With many of us now working from home and video conferencing from the morning onward, the local broadband (those copper cables mentioned above) and 4G mobile data links quickly become congested, like a packed street in rush-hour traffic. The measures taken by Netflix and others go some way to easing this congestion, at the cost of a reduced quality of service to each user – this is helpful, but not ideal.

In an ideal scenario, congestion would be avoided altogether by having a physical network capable of handling very high demand. If the local broadband and mobile links are narrow streets, then the fibre optic cable is a 16-lane motorway – the quicker we can get on it, the faster we travel. After all, we are talking about the speed of light!

With many of us now working and video conferencing from home, broadband and 4G mobile data links quickly become congested, like a packed street in rush-hour traffic

However, the problem to date is that our network is made up of too many narrow streets and not enough motorway. This means that our information gets stuck at an electronic bottleneck before it meets the fibre (imagine trying to get onto the M50 at 8am if it had just one narrow on-ramp). We know that the roll-out of fibre has been slow, particularly in rural areas, and this is why an effective implementation of Ireland’s National Broadband Plan, which should make use of a variety of new communications technologies, is so important.

At the Radio and Optical Communications Laboratory in Dublin City University, we are striving to develop innovative communications systems which exploit the many advantages offered by optical communications. In particular, our research looks at how optical technologies can be used to help boost the speed, and lower the cost, of future mobile/wireless communications.

In the past few weeks, some of us have discovered that we can work effectively from home (at least those of us without children) and even participate in international meetings and conferences remotely. Perhaps, in a post-coronavirus world, these experiences will force us to re-examine the way in which we work, and in particular its impact on the environment.

Such a shift in societal attitudes will shine a spotlight on the capabilities and limitations of our existing communication networks. Ultimately, the ability to sustain our increasingly connected society will depend on continued investment in our largely unseen telecommunication networks and systems, and our willingness to drive research and innovation in emerging communication technologies.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ