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5G network support in the Covid-19 crisis and beyond

(Image credit: Future)

Months into the global crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and only now do we have hints emerging about what the “new normal” could be. Signs point to a cautious return to some aspects of pre-2020 life, though serious restrictions remain.  

The world is still in flux, and while pockets of lockdown and emergency remain in many regions, the pressure on emergency services and key workers is easing. Social distancing and restricted access still exist in many places, however – making it impossible to carry on in-person or on-site work as before. 

"A quick review of social media lets us know the sharp feelings of those at home, who rely on their connections for income and entertainment – and how keenly it’s felt when there’s a blip in service. "

Friedrich Trawöger, Nokia.

A quick review of social media lets us know the sharp feelings of those at home, who rely on their connections for income and entertainment – and how keenly it’s felt when there’s a blip in service. And a review of our own conversations with clients tells us of the crucial necessity of stable network connections, as emergency services and other businesses heap even greater reliance on this infrastructure, to keep them operational in a newly digital world.

Unprecedented demand

This has placed an unprecedented demand, as well as increased pressure to perform perfectly, on communications networks. With both Communication Service Providers (CSP) and private networks, across almost every industry vertical, the demand and focus on reliability has meant a change in how network support is viewed. Since the start of this pandemic, Nokia’s Global Delivery Centers (GDC) have been monitoring and analysing network traffic from around the world to predict, detect and resolve operational issues remotely. This support allows service providers and enterprises to anticipate capacity requirements and to keep their networks running smoothly. 

Nokia’s own data showed that peak traffic “normalises” at 25-30% above pre-pandemic levels, and a lot of Tier-1 service providers stated that their quarterly or yearly capacity upgrades happened in a matter of a few weeks. It’s a highly pressurised situation – but through flexible planning, service evolution and analysing changing use patterns, CSPs or enterprises with private networks can meet these challenges and even exceed them.  

Peak traffic changes from the first week of February 2020 (shown in percentage points)

Peak traffic changes from the first week of February 2020 (shown in percentage points). (Image credit: Nokia)

Pressure Points and Planning

This focus on reliability and continuity means operators and enterprises need to keep pace with the changing demands on their service without disrupting ongoing operations. A task complicated by many things. For some operators, the main pain point will be the daily challenge of having engineers and support teams working remotely. For others, more seriously, their overall remote operations capabilities and processes are unprepared for such a level of crisis. This is a situation which strains business continuity. 

When we consider these issues with the networks we have today, we also need to consider how we can expand on the new ways of working and novel processes developed as we dive into the next generation of networks. While 5G still is not widely available, there are certain pockets of consumer use and some well-established enterprise uses live today. 

"The fact is, a full 5G network is a highly complex system requiring multiple key elements to work at high reliability for the expected service to be delivered."

Friedrich Trawöger, Nokia.

The fact is, a full 5G network is a highly complex system requiring multiple key elements to work at high reliability for the expected service to be delivered. From radio through the edges and network core there are a lot of key pieces that need to operate at extreme levels of assurance, with greater reliability than today’s broadband or wireless connections. 

Maintenance and operational support founded on the lessons learned now, including multi-vendor support and remote management, will be a crucial part of  stable 5G networks when emergency services, automated robotics and more socially critical elements start to rely on them.

The world is moving towards 5G. Now is the time to assess operations support and processes in real stress – preparing for when continuity is not just important, but vital. 

Helping customers during the crisis

When Europe took over from China as the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak, it became clear that many enterprises and even some Communication Service Providers (CSPs) would come under increasing pressure to keep their networks fully operational.

As travel restrictions took hold and the risk of human to human contamination grew, we decided to evolve our Managed Service offering to support our customers – it gave us a chance to support them in time of stress and learn for when we faced calmer waters. 

What worked for CSPs and enterprises was threefold and was founded on implementing a ‘hot-standby’ process where remote support and maintenance could be offered. This meant continually monitoring a network, flagging issues that arise, and quickly taking over in case a CSP or enterprise does not have the capability to fix an issue themselves.

  • Reassurance - Going outside Service Level Agreement (SLA) work to offer support remotely, overcoming the issue with in-person teams being barred from accessing certain sites
  • Continuity – Assessing SLAs and the key requirements the networks had to contend with in a fast moving situation. We were able to take pressure off our customers operations teams by assuming responsibility for alarm monitoring, fault management and performance management through dedicated IP/MPLS connectivity
  • Future Focus – Building the remote operations support capabilities into something that moves beyond an emergency response to something that can support tough SLAs, including configuration management and fulfilment.

Looking further ahead

With working from home and bandwidth heavy connection now firmly embedded in business culture, there will be opportunities to scale up digital tools for dynamic demands. Existing networks have handled a massive change in usage already – with VPN connection rising as much as 112% in some regions, a 100% increase in the use of Cisco WebEx, and 37% increase in the use of MS teams in just one week.  

"Existing networks have handled a massive change in usage already – with VPN connection rising as much as 112% in some regions."

Friedrich Trawöger, Nokia.

We want to help networks do better than cope with these new network expectations – and encourage everyone to use this time to assess how to change proactively. This could be digital design to expand capacity where it is needed most, or through digital deployments and remote configuration and support. Predictive analytics will play a large part in this for allowing for swings in network traffic and handling issues. 

As business models and use cases evolve as a result of the pandemic there will also be the chance to stimulate growth into new areas. This can include, among many other 5G use cases, remote control of any kind of machines, collaboration in virtual environments, or providing governments with the analytics to support with emergency responses and situational awareness in future crises.

Today, however, it is business critical that networks continue to operate efficiently and that we continue to support people living their lives as best they can. The “new Normal” is here to stay – it’s up to the network operations teams to help define what that actually might be. 

Friedrich Trawöger is Head of Managed Services at Nokia, and his role spans all the way from portfolio design, blueprint delivery to project execution. Friedrich is hugely passionate about shaping the future of operations and driving business innovation in a digital ecosystem. To balance working in a very fast paced digital world, he enjoys the wind and open waters as a keen offshore sailor.