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UK mobile networks hit problems as COVID-19 spreads

On Monday, BT's top technology executive was seeking to reassure customers in a video message that his company's network would be able to cope with a surge in demand caused by the outbreak of COVID-19. A day later and the UK incumbent's mobile network was one of several to encounter problems, according to widespread news reports, after the government advised people to avoid the office and work from home.

Networks operated by BT's EE, Telefónica-owned O2 and Three UK were all said to have suffered issues, with customers reportedly unable to connect voice calls. "Some customers may be experiencing issue when making and receiving voice calls on our 2G, 3G and 4G networks," said O2 on its website. Three said the issue was affecting about 3% of customers, while EE said there was only a problem with calls to other networks, according to the Guardian newspaper.

It also reportedly denied the problem was related to COVID-19, although no other explanation was provided. What's clear is that several other online services also ran into difficulties this week that were linked to or blamed on the deadly virus. Xbox Live crashed in numerous places, according to Twitter updates, as housebound individuals turned to online gaming to fill the hours.

Microsoft Teams, a collaboration app used by online workers, also went down for users in Europe, according to a company tweet. The Seattle-based software giant blamed the malfunction on a "caching" issue and said it had been resolved by early afternoon.

The problems came days after several European operators urged customers to exercise restraint in their online activities, with Spanish service providers recommending that any gaming and video streaming be restricted to off-peak hours. Telecom Italia, Italy's biggest fixed-line operator, said traffic on its landline network had soared 70% as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, largely because of increased usage of the Fortnite online game.

Notwithstanding any mobile shortcomings, the UK's fixed-line broadband infrastructure seems to have held up well so far. A day since the government's official recommendation about working from home, there have been no reports of broadband outages or quality of service issues, despite the country's much heavier reliance on ageing copper-line infrastructure than more advanced markets in southern Europe.

For some operators globally, that could be the problem area in future, said Craig Matsumoto, an analyst with 451 Research, a part of S&P Global Market Intelligence. "As daytime Internet usage increases, core networks should be able to handle the load," he said in emailed comments. "The more likely trouble spots would be at the edges. Many neighborhoods are wired with cable modem systems that share bandwidth among households."

Matsumoto remains optimistic. "The recent launch of Disney+ stumbled not because of bandwidth, but because demand overwhelmed the authentication system," he explained. "Consider, though, that these access networks and authentication systems have already been stress-tested somewhat, either when families were together for the holidays, or during evenings when entire neighborhoods begin streaming video and playing online games. The rise in working and studying from home will increase the total bandwidth traversing the Internet, but it might not cause as many problems as we think."

For many people locked indoors, while authorities try to contain the spread of the virus, that may come as a relief. Anyone struggling to buy toilet roll and groceries can at least take consolation in Netflix.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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