As the 21-day lockdown imposed because of the spread of coronavirus continues, people around the country (and the world) are relying more and more on the Internet. Although the government has denied that the lockdown is going to be extended, many of us will likely continue to work from home for a little longer, and whether it is for work or for entertainment, the Internet is essential. There's been a lot of discussion about whether or not the Internet could run out of bandwidth in these trying times. But, of course, there's no other way in which you could lose access — if your local connection goes down. Keeping the Internet on is an essential service, and the engineers working with companies like Airtel, ACT, and others, are doing a difficult job to make sure customers are able to stay connected.
Arun Kumar has spent seven to eight hours addressing over 20 user complaints a day while staying at home during the coronavirus outbreak. Although he can't visit users in person to understand their problems — a task that he was doing regularly prior to the lockdown imposed — he said he tries to resolve each and every complaint he received through his phone either directly from the users or through his company's native support team. Aside from direct support, the other work that Kumar has done is to coordinate with other engineers to ensure there is enough support coverage in Delhi.
Kumar is one of the field engineers of a leading Internet Service Provider (ISP) in India, and it's because of people in jobs like him that the rest of us are able to work from home, or read articles like this one.
All ISPs and telecom operators these days are working hard to provide adequate Internet access to their Indian customers. Many of them have also brought various upgrades to their existing systems to keep the Internet up and running for the masses in the country.
“We have taken several measures to improve your experience – from accelerating our roll outs, upgrading quality of service where possible and advancing our investments to meet your requirements,” Airtel CEO Gopal Vittal said.
Vodafone Idea, the second-largest telecom operator in the country after Reliance Jio, also took various steps to ensure active Internet access for its over 332.65 million users. “A comprehensive pandemic response plan with requisite risk mitigation protocols has been activated while ensuring continuity of mission critical processes for keeping our networks working as telecom is an essential service,” the telco stated.
The lockdown has increased the demand for Internet connectivity among Indians as many of them have started working remotely from their homes. There are also many people who're regularly using video streaming apps and communicating with their loved ones through video chats. Most of the telcos in the country have also offered additional benefits to help individuals stay indoors during the coronavirus outbreak.
“The Internet has now morphed into a social necessity and an essential service for existence. Therefore we all have to shoulder the responsibility to ensure that people are connected, and quickly,” said Udit Mehrotra, CEO, Spectra, in a conversation with Gadgets 360.
Prasanna Gokhale, CTO, ACT Fibernet, highlighted an increase in peak traffic nowadays. “We have seen over 40 percent increase in our peak traffic on our network in a short span of time. Our network is future ready to scale up significantly to meet growing demands in all the cities we are present in,” he told Gadgets 360.
The challenge that these companies face now, is to deliver a reliable connection at a time when many of their employees also have to work from home.
Randeep Sekhon, CTO, Bharti Airtel, stated that over 80 percent of Airtel employees are currently working from home. Similar patterns are there at Vodafone Idea, Reliance Jio, ACT Fibernet, and other companies enabling Internet access for millions of Indian users. For the field staff though, working from home isn't always possible, and many still need to go out despite the lockdown.
Roadblocks in providing seamless connectivity
Engineers like Kumar, who have to be on the ground to set up new connections and fix ongoing issues, aren't able to go out due to the nationwide lockdown. Though the government has identified telecom and Internet access as a part of essential services that are being exempted from the lockdown, the order passed by the home ministry recommends telecom companies to work from home “as far as possible”. Some states have started distributing curfew passes to allow essential operations. However, getting those passes to the engineers who will fix an existing Internet connection or to set up a new connection, isn't easy.
“It's become very difficult for technicians, mostly the lower level technicians, to move around and to rectify issues reported by customers,” said Vivek Raina, CEO, Excitel, while speaking with Gadgets 360 over a phone call.
Telecom operators and ISPs are sending their technicians such as field workers, network engineers, and fibre splicers to authorities for getting curfew passes on a regular basis. Some of them have also made discussions with the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and other authoritative bodies to ease the process. But while the engineers talk about having difficulties, the companies see these as only small problems.
“The temporary hiccups that we faced were due to restrictions placed on movement of people and materials intercity and intracity,” said Gokhale of ACT Fibernet. “However, with the support of appropriate authorities, we have been able to iron out many last mile challenges and are continuing to deliver promised experience of high speed, reliable Internet connectivity.”
The experience of the workers on the ground is a little different from what their executives are saying though. While the bosses working from home are saying that things can get back to normal, for the people actually doing the work on the ground, it remains a challenging time. Several service engineers told Gadgets 360 that apart from the lockdown restrictions imposed by the authorities, various RWAs are also not allowing them to enter the premises. “We are ready to provide our ID cards and even curfew passes, but some societies have strictly told us to don't enter their boundaries and try to fix the issues remotely,” said Rajesh Kumar, who works as a maintenance engineer with a reputed ISP.
Healthcare of engineers is essential
For these reasons, the companies are also taking steps to track the health of their engineers, and to reassure the customers that it's safe to let them in. “For any Airtel employee that you may interact with – at an Airtel store or at your home – I want to reassure you that we have taken all appropriate health and safety measures,” Airtel's Vittal wrote. “We have not only stepped up sanitation and provided masks to all our field force but are also taking proactive precautionary quarantine measures, as and where required.”
ACT Fibernet, Excitel, Reliance Jio, Spectra, Vodafone Idea, and other players are also claimed to have provided masks and other safety gear to their employees and field workers.
“We have COVID health task force at local city levels who are connecting with employees on a daily basis and in turn are connected with company doctors, local authorities, and health centres to provide both real-time information and answer any concerns and clarifications,” said Gokhale of ACT Fibernet. “Mental health is also very important at this stage and we have our company counselling partners who provide counselling services to employees and families as required.”
Vodafone Idea also mentioned that it had organised temporary stay arrangements at its data centre locations and made food and groceries available at critical locations. Furthermore, vehicles have also been provided by the telco to facilitate movement of technical staff to sites.
“We have told our engineers, whoever wants to work, they can log in,” said Excitel's Raina. “There is a pressure on them as many people have old parents or sick parents or little kids in their homes.”
Aside from Excitel, Spectra has also enabled its Network Operator Centre (NOC) to be monitored and operated remotely and made remote working of its shift engineers possible from their home locations using virtual private network (VPN) connectivity. “My priority now is to ensure that my colleagues remain safe, healthy, and available to serve the thousands who are seeking our help in this hour of need,” said Mehrotra of Spectra.
Huge demand for new connections, but no one to set them up
Due to affordable data availability on cellular networks, wired broadband in India was stagnant for some time. One of the reasons behind the motionless market of wired broadband services in the country is believed to be the arrival of Reliance Jio that disrupted the telecom sector with ultra-cheap data plans for mobile users. But this trend has changed drastically due to the coronavirus outbreak that has locked the lives of many people around the world.
“We didn't see that much growth in users in the last two years,” said Raina of Excitel, which saw three times increase in demand for new connections for one week preceding the lockdown. “Suddenly since people started working from home, they now needed much more data than they were able to consume earlier.”
Not just Excitel, other ISPs and broadband companies are also seeing similar increments in demand. The daily average inquiries for broadband connections at Spectra have increased by 3.2 times in the last two weeks alone, as compared to the beginning of the month. Similarly, Airtel's Vittal in his note to customers also underlined that home broadband customers were now upgrading to faster speeds and larger quota plans to support work from home and study for home needs.
Alongside popular broadband companies, local cable operators are also seeing a significant growth in demand for new connections.
But nonetheless, many engineers and customer service executives at ACT Fibernet, Airtel, and Reliance Jio told Gadgets 360 on condition of anonymity that they're not addressing any new connection requests since they don't have staff ready to go out due to the lockdown.
How are we staying sane during this Coronavirus lockdown? We discussed this on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.