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Ramping traffic from COVID-19 caused 'small amount of anxiety,' CenturyLink CTO says

Spikes in Internet peak usage during the early stages of COVID-19 certainly raised some eyebrows, but CenturyLink's networks held up to that initial surge as traffic continues to show signs of plateauing.

"I wouldn't say we were too surprised" about the increase in peak usage driven by the pandemic, CenturyLink CTO Andrew Dugan said last week in a streamed discussion with Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of USTelecom. "It did create a small amount of anxiety as traffic began to ramp."

CenturyLink saw a traffic rise of about 35% over the early course of the pandemic and, like other service providers, saw peak usage tick up during day hours as millions of consumers worked and schooled from home.

"There's some headroom in the network during the day," Dugan said, noting that normal peak rates occur during evening prime time hours.

CenturyLink also took advantage of legacy policies and procedures that allow it to move traffic around the network by overriding normal routing policies to steer around unexpected congestion events.

"We did have parts of our network infrastructure that ran hot," Dugan said, noting later that the sheer volume and shifting usage patterns brought on by the pandemic has been a "learning opportunity" for CenturyLink.

From a broader standpoint, he pointed out that networks are inherently built to withstand failure, noting that they are already braced to handle events like fiber cuts and equipment outages.

"They happen more often than any one of us would like, so you have to build that into your network plan and into your architecture," Dugan said. "The byproduct of building for failure is another thing that created headroom in the network … You tend to be months ahead of when you actually need that additional headroom."

It appears that most US broadband service providers, including telcos and cable ops, have gotten past the first phase of the pandemic without any major or extended network failures. The latest round of data indicates that peak usage has flattened out.

While much of the impacts of the pandemic focused on access networks serving millions of consumer connections, Dugan said CenturyLink's peering and interconnections to other networks also allowed the company to stay ahead of the data curve.

He said CenturyLink, which operates 450,000 route miles of fiber worldwide, was able to work with its peering partners to quickly augment capacity to backstop potential failures and brace for additional bursts that come onto the network.

"Ten years ago, networks would've been made up of 10-gig or smaller size backbone links," he explained, adding that they are now comprised of multiple 100-gig links.

"Just [with] the scale of those platforms, it's not difficult to add another 100-gig between cities," Dugan said, adding that CenturyLink has been forced to do so multiple times already during the pandemic. "Having fiber gives you the ability to scale and deal with this as these events occur."

Automation and software-defined networking has also helped CenturyLink beef up its infrastructures when needed as business customers sought more capacity to get on top of increases in traffic caused by a rise in the use of video conferencing and collaboration tools.

"Having the ability to add capacity through automation is something that reinforces that this is a critical part of telecom infrastructure going forward," he said. "You can't afford to go through normal activation when you have to react at that level of speed."

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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