As more South Africans are working from and spending all their leisure time at home, they are accessing social media websites like Facebook and YouTube, and watching Netflix more often. This has led to a surge in network data traffic for cellular phone companies. For Vodacom, there was also added traffic as it cut data prices by up to 40% on some of its data bundles. To cope with the increased demand for data, the company has announced that it is going to increase network capacity.
Vodacom also applied to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa for temporary additional spectrum. ICASA indicated earlier this month that a temporary release to the sector will last for the duration of the national state of emergency. Chief Technical Officer Andries Delport told Biznews publisher Alec Hogg that Vodacom was planning for an emergency scenario of six months.
Vodacom has announced that it’s going to be spending R500m within 2 months to expand the network capacity during this COVID-19 state of disaster. Andries Delport – the chief technology officer – joins us now. That’s a lot of money Andries, R500m over two months. Where exactly is it going?
It is no secret that during lockdown, traffic increases in the network – not so much voice traffic but data traffic – has increased significantly as people work from home. But those who aren’t working are watching more videos and TV etc and data is up 45%. One day it was at a certain level, Friday it was 45% percent up so it is a significant jump in one day to get a network to cater to that traffic increase. You have to invest and that is what we’ve decided to do. But just explain that because if your capacity is X on Friday as you say, suddenly you’ve got to fund almost 50% more capacity. How do you handle something like that?
What one must understand is people move around in the mobile network. At night they’re at home, in the day they are at their offices. So in the day we have the capacity for all the people to be at the offices and at night you have to have capacity where they’re home. You always have some spare capacity because of the mobility of a mobile network. So that helps you a bit. What I must also say is certain sites go into congestion and it is then our job to try and upgrade capacity as quickly as we can. We normally plan a network on an annual basis based on the traffic that we will carry in December, which is normally higher than what you do during the year. So if you plan for that capacity you’re doing quite well.
So people are now working from home, how practically – in terms that we can understand – do you go about making sure that everybody actually does have enough bandwidth?
We have 14,000-15,000 base stations around the country and these carry the traffic from the subscriber devices – the handsets and the modems – so when you upgrade capacity, you have to upgrade it on the base stations. Sometimes this capacity is just configuration, you buy extra licenses and you activate it, sometimes you actually have to install more equipment at the base station to add capacity. When the traffic hits the base station it has to get into the network as well. We call it transmission links. So it effectively links pipes from the base station into the network. If the traffic increases, you often also have to increase the traffic on those pipes. There are many peaks – Easter, Christmas etc. – so we always have some spare capacity in the core network, we never ever run the core network too hot so that you can’t accommodate any spikes in traffic.
And just to compound everything, you also have a big cut in your data prices from the first of April. How much of an impact has that had to the usage of the network?
It’s actually very difficult to say, because all of these things coincided more or less. We had the lockdown in the middle of the month, then you have the normal end of month peak – the traffic is always a little bit higher at the end of the month – and that coincided with the reduction in tariffs. So it is difficult. I can’t say exactly what percentage you can attribute to what, but the network has to carry it.
South Africans are using their mobile phones and their networks a lot more, is it primarily to use data or are people connecting more with each other on voice? Are you able to break that down?
Definitely. I can tell you voice – the normal voice not the WhatsApp voice – is more or less flat. There’s hardly any increase. 5 percentage points increase on one day the next day flat again, so with pure voice, we don’t see a major increase. YouTube and Netflix data growth is between 30-100%, so you can definitely see people are watching more videos and people are communicating much more via WhatsApp. We see those trends on the fixed network as well. We have a mobile network as well as a fixed network and the same trends. The interesting thing is the fixed network increased by 250%.
Is that the fibre lines?
Yes and the nice thing about fibre lines is they have capacity, so when you install a fibre line you have a lot of capacity which can allow the traffic to grow over years etc. So with traffic increases like that on fibre lines, it’s not as severe as traffic increases on mobile networks.
Andries, is there enough capacity in the Vodacom network for the whole of South African if the lockdown continues? Have you been putting in fixes to make sure that you can manage all the demand that we’re seeing at the moment so that we’re still going to be able to communicate?
For now it is sufficient, but what one must also remember, many schools are closed and many universities are closed, so if the lockdown continues, we expect that we will see an increase in data growth again. So for a week or 2 or 3 it was fine, but we see that it will increase. If we look at our investment plans and our capacity plans, these are not just only short term plans. We have not only planned for 21 days lockdown or 5 weeks lockdown we’ve planned for the scenario if this continues for the next 6 months.
Of course everything cannot be done overnight but as you and I speak, we have people busy installing capacity in the network. We have staff, we have contractors that are busy doing that and a good thing as well, is for those people who follow the spectrum debate in South Africa, the minister and the regulator are going to assign temporary spectrum to the mobile networks as well which will be hugely beneficial for us to upgrade network capacity. Some of the equipment that we have in the network can already make use of this spectrum. If you don’t have a license you cant switch it on, as soon as you get that temporary license you can enable the spectrum and that adds capacity to the base station. That is a direct result of Covid-19.
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