Voice Telecommunications Challenges and Lessons Learned during the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Robert Novo, Service Delivery Director, Voice Communications, Americas, BT

Robert Novo, Service Delivery Director, Voice Communications, Americas, BT

“We are living in unprecedented times.”  We’ve heard this so many times since the start of 2020 that it almost sounds cliché.

However, the reality is that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everyone in many ways, and its effects will be felt for years to come. Telecommunications are an essential part of the global economy and vital in helping fight the disease. As part of the team that operates the largest voice telephony network in The UK and one of the largest globally, we provide a lifeline to millions of customers and service to hundreds of multi-national companies, supporting governments and industries including finance, travel, and healthcare. As COVID-19 spreads worldwide, we face unpredictable challenges to keep the voice network running while taking care of two of our most important assets, our people, and our customers. Let’s examine some of the challenges and valuable lessons we have learned since the onset of the pandemic.

Keeping the network running – under normal circumstances, service continuity is challenging enough, requiring the diligent support of hundreds of experts. During a pandemic, the complexity increases exponentially, given precautions warranted to protect our staff and customers. For example, call center attendants will need to space themselves two meters apart, resulting in reductions of on-duty staff and/or reconfiguration of floor layouts to comply. Field technicians will also need to pace service calls to allow time to disinfect equipment and tools between customer visits or shift changes.

Supporting new growth demands– As people adjust to the “new normal”, we see increased reliance on telephony in order to stay connected with their friends, families, and contacts. Peak voice traffic has increased by over 75 percent. Just in the UK, we have carried 13 billion minutes and introduced over 160,000 interconnect ports to avoid congestion.

“As COVID-19 spreads worldwide, we face unpredictable challenges to keep the voice network running while taking care of two of our most important assets, our people, and our customers”

Growth doesn’t only apply to the existing customers and services but also requires accommodation for new needs related to the pandemic. For instance, Nightingale field hospitals were deployed in London, Birmingham, and Manchester, requiring 2,500 new phone lines. Additionally, we developed, designed, tested, and deployed a toll-free hotline for coronavirus support (119). This new hotline was rolled out across 1,000 exchanges nationwide as well as supported on text and operator service platforms so that people with hearing impairments or connection difficulties can call in as well. We also worked with any of our customers having extension codes with 119 so that their businesses wouldn’t be impacted.

Staying abreast of changes in calling patterns – The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed typical telephony calling patterns causing us to rethink our approach to capacity planning. These shifts in traffic were first discernible as the pandemic spread in China and the Far East, then in Italy and Spain and subsequently throughout other European countries and The Americas.

During the early stages, we saw large upticks in airlines and travel-related calling as people adapted plans to return home or modify vacations. Once this initial wave passed and the pandemic took hold, travel calling drastically dropped while other segments spiked for home consumers, such as retail and banking verticals. Additionally, as a greater percentage of the population works at home, we also see added calls to conferencing access numbers. The traffic profiles themselves also exhibit changes in characteristics, such as increased holding times and a greater proportion of media to signaling content as more calls are destined for call centers and conference bridges.

Such unpredictable calling patterns make clear the need for a nimble and accurate capacity planning process. Telecommunications networks need to be finely tuned to effectively meet the unpredictability. Capacity planning is not only essential for the core network elements, ports, and circuits, but also for the queuing capacity and IVR ports that must be managed to provide recorded announcements and accommodate callers on hold. The underlying network layers carrying voice traffic such as Ethernet and MPLS must similarly be capacity managed. Given the quickly shifting demands, technologies such as cloud, SDN, and VoIP/SIP that facilitate rapid, elastic, and dynamic changes are essential. Lastly, we must also consider the growing demand for VPNs as more users need to access voice through their work networks remotely.

Additional impacts of the shifting workforce– We have already touched upon some aspects of how the network must grow and shift as large parts of the global workforce no longer go into their normal workplace and adapt to a home office environment. For instance, in BT, we experienced massive growth in our conferencing demand, reaching over 50 million minutes a day. However, this shift also begets other issues that must be addressed. For example, consider that we have a growing number of calls originating and terminating on softphones or UC/conferencing clients such as Zoom, Skype, and Jabber rather than traditional handsets. These connections need to go over a variety of VPN clients. The increasing number of interworking scenarios must be understood, tested, and supported. Likewise, users who do not have access to softphone clients from home will have an increased dependence on their mobile phones.

Lastly, let us not forget about our people.BT, as any other network operator, is, first and foremost a company, facing the same challenges as our corporate customers. Many associates accustomed to coming to the office for their entire career now have to adjust to home working. As all companies in this pandemic, we have quickly established a supporting infrastructure to take care of our people, including COVID-19 support personnel, as well as the flexibility to accommodate workers’ needs in these challenging times.

One master learning we have gained is that speed is of the essence. As traffic patterns and working conditions are changing daily or even more rapidly, flexible, and nimble decision making is necessary to stay ahead of the curve. While COVID-19 raised some new challenges as to how we managed the network, in the end, it has enabled us to leverage new innovations that we’ll be using for years to come.

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