The networks are coping well with the increase in traffic caused by the huge number of applications activated from home during the quarantine.
How networks are holding up during this period of emergency due to the virus. What changes with the widespread rise in “smart working” and home schooling in our lives and in terms of network traffic. How the virus emergency impacts the construction of the new 5G networks. How the digital habits of Italians are changing. An analysis of the BUL project in light of the national paralysis caused by the current health emergency. The role of tower companies in the development of 5G. These are the most pressing issues concerning the world of telecommunications, and we discussed them with Stefano Pileri, the CEO of Italtel.
Key4biz. Let’s start with networks under pressure. Is there a risk of a blackout due to traffic growth because of the virus?
Stefano Pileri. The networks are coping well with the increase in traffic due to the surge in number of applications activated during this period of quarantine. If we think of the network as being characterized by three main segments – access, aggregation (backhauling) and backbone – the one currently under the most pressure and stress is backhauling, which handles the data collected from the 10,000 local power station of the network where the backbone originates.
Key4biz. How much is traffic growing?
Stefano Pileri. Instantaneous traffic is growing by an average of 50%. Instantaneous network traffic is comparable to the amount of liters that pass through a tube in one second. It is the intensity of usage that is growing, which has increased by 50%, equal to 20 terabytes per second, or 20 thousand gigabytes per second, in the backbone, subdivided among different providers. Obviously, the total traffic volume is also increasing. But networks are holding up because every connection is comprised of at least one main connection and a backup one, which are usually working at under 50% of their maximum capacity. If one of the links breaks, the traffic passes entirely through one of the two connections. Today, in order to cope with the surge in traffic, the percentages have been increased up to 70-75%, albeit for a short period of time, which has allowed for an increase in network capacity to handle the new situation. So, today, the traffic flow has been redistributed, allowing providers to reorganize primary and backup capacity according to current needs.
Key4biz. Are providers increasing the capacity of networks, as required by Agcom, in order to deal with the virus emergency?
Stefano Pileri. Certainly. As providers of networking technologies and systems for telecommunications, they are increasing their network capacity from 25-35% to 50-60%. So networks now have higher capacities, they will not crash and they can handle a lot more than they could before Covid-19. This new service and backup capability has transformed networks by enhancing them.
Key4biz. When do we register a peak in traffic?
Stefano Pileri. Traffic peaks in the evening, between 8.30pm and 10.30pm.
Key4biz. What causes it?
Stefano Pileri. It consists of a type of traffic originating from video streaming. It is entertainment from platforms such as Netflix, Amazon, RaiPlay, Timvision, Sky and other content providers. The evening peak reaches 100% of the maximum network intensity.
Key4biz. How is the traffic flow during the rest of the day?
Stefano Pileri. Between 4am and 6am, we register the lowest traffic, but 25% of the capacity is still being used. Between 8am and 12pm, the average usage is 50% of the total network capacity. In the afternoon, the percentage of usage is 75% of the maximum intensity.
Key4biz. Is smart working the activity that weighs most on the network?
Stefano Pileri. While it is true that many more people have started working from home, that is not what the network is mainly used for. The main uses of the network can be divided into 5 categories:
- Streaming (mainly video entertainment)
- Web browsing
- Messages and calls, often video calls nowadays
- Downloads (used a lot for work too, especially in terms of emails and apps)
In terms of traffic volumes, streaming is 50% of the total, browsing 25%, calls and messages 5%, downloads 10% and gaming 10%.
Key4biz. But how much have these Internet-related activities increased today compared to before the virus emergency?
Stefano Pileri. Streaming has increased by around 45%, browsing by 45%, messages and calls have skyrocketed by 500%, downloads have increased by 55% and gaming by 115%. What stands out is people’s strong need to interact and communicate in light of the social-distancing measures in place, with a 500% increase in calls, messages and video calls.
Our homes have become hyper-connected, with 4 or 5 family members constantly online simultaneously, all doing many different things. You can see managers video conferencing from the kitchen, kids learning in the living room with their brother playing Fortnite in the next room, and more and more people are watching videos.
Key4biz. What about “smart working?”
Stefano Pileri. The surge in network usage caused by “smart working” is not as much as entertainment, especially considering that, of the 5 types of use indicated above, this one mainly consists of Web browsing, calls and messages (without forgetting video conferences) and download of content from the Cloud; we can estimate its contribution to the growth of total traffic at 30%. Let me also say that it’s true that people work a lot more with smart working, in the sense that productivity and work intensity are increasing. But not every activity can be done remotely, of course. I am sure that, after the end of this emergency, companies will adopt smart working in an increasingly flexible way. Here at Italtel, we have already been using smart working solutions once a week for some time, and we might consider extending it in the future.
Key4biz. Another sector that has dramatically expanded during the emergency is digital learning. What are your thoughts on this?
Stefano Pileri. It’s true. Perhaps we were not as ready as we were for other activities, but e-learning has taken off at all school levels, from primary to secondary, to university. In many cases – I’m thinking about middle schools, high schools and technical institutes in particular – it was the students that led the teachers who, to give credit where it’s due, were very good at adapting and assisting them with online lessons delivered via new apps and online tools. Clearly, it’s one thing to deliver a lesson online, but it’s another thing to reorganize the entire school system, especially where an inter-class approach is adopted, which is mainly true for primary schools. Things are easier if we consider secondary schools and universities. But the teachers’ response has been extremely positive, responsible and creative.
Key4biz. So what will change after the emergency?
Stefano Pileri. We need to further enhance these two activities – smart working and digital school. As I said before, we need to add flexibility to smart working, allowing companies to organize it as they see fit. As for online school and university, the goal is, after the coronavirus pandemic, to systematize e-learning and teaching with the introduction of digital tools for all students and the installation of a camera in the classroom to record the lessons, allowing everyone to follow along and access them, even remotely. Students should also be able to send emails, messages, questions, comments and communicate remotely with teachers.
We must also speed things up in terms of telemedicine solutions. We have been saying this for years, and for years the necessary technologies have been available and are now also becoming increasingly affordable. We must make sure that everyone starts using these technologies now, we must not wait for the pandemic to end. They are needed now. The basic sensors are those that measure temperature, blood oxygen saturation and heart rate. Then there are sensors for weight, blood pressure and fall detection, especially for our elderly. The data collected are continuously processed to find trends and values that require medical attention. Telemedicine platforms allow, especially with 5G, high-definition video communications between doctor and patient, thus ensuring human interaction. This is fundamental in the current situations. Just consider the implications of being able to monitor coronavirus patients, either with mild symptoms or after they leave the hospital, with these protocols.
In this context, I have to praise the “First Call” project of “Innova per l’Italia” (Innovation for Italy) on telemedicine and data analysis promoted by MID, MISE and MUR. That’s a step in the right direction. But it is crucial that telemedicine becomes an essential service, once and for all. Our health system has to realize how important this is. Let’s act now.
Key4biz. What do you think of the implementation of the project “BUL” (broadband connection) that has celebrated its fifth anniversary? You talked about it in an interview with Key4biz 4 years ago. Have we done enough in these years?
Stefano Pileri. The virus emergency teaches us that the FTTH connections (fiber connection to one’s home) become essential when there are families of 4 or 5 heavy users living under the same roof. This becomes even more important in suburban areas.
In our country, the concept of smart city is especially important when considering small towns, which must have optic fiber connections in order to give young people equal opportunities compared to those who live in large cities. We must do everything possible to complete the “BUL” project, without alternative plans. Personally, I don’t like the technological debate on whether FTTCab (fiber to the cabinet and then copper wiring) is better than FTTH because, in any case, FTTCab is already available today almost everywhere and can therefore offer a solution for now; still, we will have to quickly complete the upgrade to FTTH, which is just better in terms of performance. These are technologies that can go hand in hand. The important thing, especially right now, as I said, is to use what we currently have, the technology available today and, in the meantime, work to complete the wiring of all industrial and administration districts, including schools, and then residential areas.
5G and also FWA (Fixed Wireless Access) technologies give us the possibility to avoid having to install fiber in areas that are really difficult to reach and not economically suitable for cable connection. Will it take two more years? Let’s avoid arguing over this. Enough, let’s move on. Let’s speed up the bureaucratic process for the permits. We have to finish this. So, well done on the BUL project.
Key4biz. As for 5G, is there a risk of a slowdown in the roll out of new networks with this virus emergency?
Stefano Pileri. The BUL project is congenial to the implementation of the new 5G networks. 5G will increase by 10 times the number of new antennas, in particular micro-antennas (small cells). Today, in Italy, there are more than 80 thousand macro-antennas for mobile networks and large companies such as TIM, Vodafone and Cellnex. WindTre have also created, and are creating, European-level tower companies to build new sites, the small cells necessary for the roll out of the 5G networks, thus bringing the total number of antennas on the territory, in the long term, to about 800 thousand. There will be no problems in terms of electromagnetic pollution because Italy has the lowest limits in Europe. The intensity of the electromagnetic field remains within the limits, equal to 6 V/m, almost a tenth less than the EU average.
The development of 5G goes hand in hand with the spread of fiber, and small cells will all be connected using optic fiber connection. I don’t see any risk of slowing down.
Key4biz. What will change from a technical point of view with 5G?
Stefano Pileri. We will have very high speed networks (up to 10 gigabytes per second on radio cells), characterized by instant response times (less than 1 millisecond, which is tens of times more responsive than what we have today) and capable of collecting data from over one million smart devices per square kilometer.
With 5G networks, routing and computing functions will reach even suburban areas. So we will see yet another change of perspective in Information Technology from large centralized public Cloud centers located in a few sites in the world, which is today’s scenario, to millions of small proximity Data Center Data Center (edge computing) that quickly analyze data collected by smart devices.
With 5G, network security will become even more important because we will entrust the monitoring and control of many of our production processes to the network.
Finally, 5G has the benefit of harmonizing WiFi with the licensed frequencies. The 5G core network harmonizes these two technologies. The user will be able to maintain the same Wifi profile even when on the move because 5G will allow the same characteristics when browsing with WiFi and with public coverage.