Ferocious in its spread, the Covid-19 pandemic has spurred a dramatic rise in three trends: Homework, home study and home entertainment triggering an unprecedented data squeeze. Inevitably, internet connectivity, the oxygen of online consumption, has slowed down as disruptions become the norm.
Despite big banner promotions, broadband speeds in tech city Bengaluru have never really touched the promised dizzy speeds. So when data demand from online classes, Work from Home (WFH), and net-streamed videos goes on an overdrive, speed takes a toll.
‘Buffering is suffering,’ an old line that characterized the dial-up internet is now back to haunt IT professionals, students, teachers, and those hooked to Over-The-Top (OTT) video-streaming platforms. To make it all worse, road-works across the city have repeatedly snapped cables, disrupting broadband connectivity.
Frustrated, many have switched to the next best thing: Mobile Internet, even if the speeds are vastly inferior. For students from many lower middle-class households, this is the only option to access the online class feeds uploaded on WhatsApp by their school and college teachers.
But often, the daily mobile internet limit of 1Gb to 2Gb proves inadequate when the class load is high. This is even more so for students in live classrooms. As a parent, Salam Ahmed noted, “Teachers could take breaks between classes, but students are required to be online for three, four classes at a stretch. This is one reason why attendance remains less than 75-80%.”
Based in the Jakkur Plantation area, design student Renesh Rajendran has had a tough time with his online classes. “The bandwidth in this area has been extremely slow. Since there is no Fibernet connection here, all service providers use Copper wires for broadband. We tried shifting to a faster connection, but after inspection, the other players said they don’t have coverage in our area,” he recalls.
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) say their capacity to upgrade internet connectivity in the city is severely hampered by the high cost of laying underground cables. The Bruhath Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) has also clamped down on overhead Optic Fibre Cables (OFC).
The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) Director General Rajan Mathews reiterates that all ISPs are struggling with permissions. “After we met the Deputy Chief Minister C N Aswath Narayan, a Special Committee has now been set up to give permissions for new cell towers and to lay Fibernet cables,” he informs.
In general, there may be degradation in speeds of all operators due to high demand, agrees Mathews. “Even in South Korea, there is a 6-7% decrease is speed. Nationwide, the data consumption per user per month has increased from 9gb before Covid to over 11gb now. Voice too has risen from 650 to 730 minutes / customer / month.”
Due to approval issues, Fibernet penetration promising speeds in excess of 150mph has remained low in Bengaluru. To tide over these issues, Reliance Jio pushed its JioFi portable WiFi routers and hotspot devices. As Jio’s Karnataka representative informs, these devices that can connect to five to 10 gadgets at a time, have been nearly sold out during the lockdown and thereafter.
The speeds hover around 20mps, nowhere near what Fibernet promises. But since the devices are far cheaper, many are opting for them. “The devices have now impacted all walks of life. Senior citizens who are staying alone, are also purchasing them to get hooked to OTT platforms,” the representative informs.
Airtel too has seen an increase in demand for broadband. “We have seen a rapid surge in the need for home broadband driven by WFH, schools / colleges going online and digital entertainment etc. During the quarter ended March 2020, our home broadband business grew at 3.2% sequentially and we saw strong net additions of 63,000 connections,” a spokesperson of the ISP informs.
40% rise in peak traffic
Headquartered in Bengaluru, ACT Fibernet had sensed the data usage surge early. Prasanna Gokhale, the ISP’s CTO explains, “During the first two months of the lockdown we offered 300 Mbps upgraded speeds and unlimited data work from home benefit available to 1.5 million customers. We witnessed a 40% increase in our peak traffic on our network during this period across cities we are present in.”
Data consumption during the lockdown period has increased by 30%, informs Gokhale. “This includes downloads and uploads. Our network is future ready and we have sufficient capacity to scale up and meet any demand,” he adds.
Big switch to OTT
Appointment viewing of movies and teleserials had begun to wane much before Covid-19. But the pandemic hastened the switch to OTT platforms. The banning of film and serial shoots meant no fresh content was being telecast. TV channels filled up the slots with re-runs of old serials.
But there has been a problem. Online platforms had already perfected that art, offering viewers the luxury of choosing from old episodes and movies at the time of their convenience. With many television studios jumping onto the OTT bandwagon, the stage was set for a switch, even in the vernacular.
As an insider from the Kannada television industry informs, “TV channels might appear to be live 24/7, but less than six hours of content are really live.” To tide over the local content crunch, channels are now dubbing Hindi shows. “Sitting at home, people are demanding more and more content, the pressure on us has definitely increased.”
The perceptible switch from scheduled TV programmes to OTT platforms is confirmed by data furnished by the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC). “Primetime TV viewership is 13% lower than pre-Covid levels (an effect of no original programming). The decline is more in the South (-18%),” says the Council’s latest consumption statement.
Forced to stay indoors even after the end of their daily online classes, teenagers have taken to online gaming in a big way. This has also been a drain on the data, already under stress by WFH and web-based learning demands.
Hooked to a gaming laptop for hours daily, teenager Raghav explains why the online playground gobbles up massive data: “Thousands are now hooked to games such as Call of Duty, playing them online. Games like Grand Theft Auto (GTA), offered free for a week during the lockdown, were downloaded widely. GTA is around 95Gb, while Call of Duty is 108Gb. Heavy duty games can drain the data pretty quickly.”