File photo dated 28/01/15 of a BT infinity router, as the telecoms giant warned on profits after saying it expects to take a £530 million hit from the fallout of accounting irregularities at its Italian division, up from a previous estimate of £145 million. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Tuesday January 24, 2017. BT said, following an independent review of the business by KPMG, the "extent and complexity of inappropriate behaviour in the Italian business were far greater than previously identified". See PA story CITY BT. Photo credit should read: Chris Radburn/PA Wire
BT, the operator of the UK’s largest telecoms network, said that it was not anticipating any blackouts or slower speeds for users, even if the country followed Spain in locking down non-essential travel © PA

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BT has said that its residential network would be able to cope with the increased strain of huge swaths of people working from home because of coronavirus, despite a warning from Spanish telecoms companies for citizens to ease off on internet use.

The rapid rise in the number of people working from home and using high-capacity services such as video conferencing has led to concerns over network bottlenecks at the residential level, which still largely relies on copper lines for broadband connections. 

That would be amplified should schools close, resulting in potentially higher levels of computer game and streaming activity in addition to an increased number of workers online. 

The Spanish telecoms sector warned on Sunday night that there had been a “traffic explosion” since the outbreak of coronavirus. Data use has grown 40 per cent with more workers and children at home during the day, while mobile phone use has boomed 50 per cent. WhatsApp use has increased fivefold. 

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Companies including Telefónica, Orange and Vodafone have taken the unprecedented step of asking people to reduce their internet use to ensure that quality of service is maintained. They advised downloading large documents during off-peak hours, compressing files, avoiding “massive” emails and even using landlines where possible.

The strain on the Spanish internet comes despite the country benefiting from broadband running over a full-fibre network covering more than 75 per cent of homes, which is the widest in Europe and much higher than the 10 per cent rate in the UK.

However BT, the operator of the UK’s largest telecoms network, said that it was not anticipating any blackouts or slower speeds for users, even if the country followed Spain in locking down non-essential travel.

Howard Watson, BT’s chief technology and information officer, said that the patterns of usage may change to reflect different working patterns and customer behaviour but that BT’s network is built to cope with peak use, which usually occurs between 8pm and 9pm, when people start streaming television at night.

In an interview with the Financial Times, he said that BT did experience a record amount of traffic on its network on Tuesday night last week, when an update to the online video game Red Dead Redemption 2 and the release of Call of Duty: Warzone — a battle royale-style online game — coincided with Champions League football matches being played, including Tottenham Hotspur’s defeat to RB Leipzig. 

That peaked at 17.5 terabits per second that evening and caused no disruption. Normal weekday traffic, including business usage, at about midday is typically in the 4 to 5 terabits per second range and has remained at about that level over the past two weeks, even as more people have started to work from home, said Mr Watson. 

“I can’t see any way we will see traffic growing to that 8-9pm level,” he said, adding that the company was ready to react but that there was no sign that its network would not be able to cope. 

He said that a closure of schools could change the pattern of traffic, which usually surges around 4pm as children come home and log on to video games. “I’d like to think they are doing their homework,” said Mr Watson.

The telecoms industry has been tipped as a potential beneficiary of the coronavirus as more people rely on broadband and smartphones to do their work, which could become a longer-term trend. HSBC issued a note last week arguing that the virus could end the “curse on telcos” by underlining its “second-quartile defensive” nature, based on steady subscription revenue and growing data demand.

Yet the virus could limit the rapid upgrade to telecoms networks if the clampdown on international travel hits the labour market. One chief executive said last week that he was concerned that a lack of access to the construction workers needed to install new fibre lines to homes could undermine the government’s ambition to upgrade the entire country to gigabit speeds by 2025.

Mr Watson said that the issue in the immediate term for telecoms companies won’t necessarily be bottlenecks on the network but the difficulty of completing engineering visits to people’s homes to solve problems if the government advises more self-isolation. 

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