(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Work-from-home neophytes are providing some much needed moments of levity right now. The Italian priest livestreaming mass with cat’s ears and whiskers accidentally superimposed on his head. The woman who failed to switch her camera off when she took a bathroom break during a conference call. Children and pets generally making a nuisance of themselves. Even if staged, they warrant a chuckle.
The laughter, however, doesn’t resolve the difficulties that many are experiencing as millions more people head into self-isolation and log on from home. For all of the telecommunications operators’ assertions that their networks can cope with the peak loads, there are still things you can do to reduce the likelihood of dropped calls or spotty connections. More than that, the small changes you make can lessen the load on telecoms networks more broadly.
Britain’s regulator Ofcom on Tuesday proffered advice on how best to stay connected during Covid-19 self-isolation. It’s well worth reading in its entirety, but top of the list was using your landline or Wi-Fi when possible, rather than a mobile connection. Because most of the top video-calling apps are made by U.S. firms, they’re built for users with ready access to high-speed mobile connections, since unlimited data plans are more common there than in Europe or Asia, according to Nick McQuire, head of enterprise research at market intelligence firm CCS Insight.
He says the app conferencing companies have neglected the issue of bandwidth optimization in general. As rising numbers of people use video calls — not just for work, but family visits with the grandparents, third-grade art class and virtual happy hours — those problems risk being highlighted. That’s one reason why Ofcom is encouraging the use of landlines. Spikes in network usage mean operators are having to lean on more and more servers to manage the load than usual, Italian data from network analysis firm Tutela Technologies Ltd. show.
In the age of Covid-19, video conferencing is an important channel for maintaining social contact, but some products are easier on the network than others. Stuck at home like many others in London, I carried out a series of tests to see how much data each of the most popular apps required for the same calls, as scientifically as I could given the circumstances. On average, Zoom Video Communications Inc.’s eponymous service and Google Inc.’s Hangouts used more than twice as much data as Apple Inc.’s FaceTime or Cisco Systems Inc.’s Webex.
To use FaceTime, though, the participants all need an Apple device — not a given when a top-of-the-range iPhone starts at $1,000. And Webex isn’t exactly easy to use, as my girlfriend grumbled while she helped me test: “The setup for this is definitely the worst.” With Zoom, the data requirements dropped significantly when we tried it around 5 p.m., when usage seems to peak — it appeared to throttle its needs as network capacity became limited.
At times it might actually be better to use the mobile network instead of Wi-Fi, according to data from Tutela. Since Italy went into full lockdown on March 12th, the mobile network has on average provided a better quality of service(1) until about 2 p.m., after which Wi-Fi connections have given a more reliable connection. That differs by country, of course, but the trend elsewhere is similar. On March 24th, the first day after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined stricter self-isolation measures, the U.K.’s mobile networks provided better service until about 9 a.m., after which the Wi-Fi was again more reliable.
It’s not all about work, of course. There’s been a massive leap in the demands imposed on the network by online gaming. In the week from March 9th, gaming data usage jumped 75% in the U.S., Verizon Communications Inc. said last week. It’s far better to avoid network gaming if you can. And if you plan to park the kids in front of one or more films during the day, think about downloading them overnight rather than streaming them real time.
Netflix Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube, Amazon.com Inc. and Walt Disney Co. are already reducing their streaming services’ bandwidth consumption in Europe to alleviate the load on the region’s networks. Using video conferencing smartly could not only make your calls more reliable, but also preempt any limitations being imposed on that technology.
And for goodness sake, if you’re on a conference call and not talking, make sure you mute yourself. You know who you are.
(1) Tutela considers the test to pass the Excellent Consistent Quality thresholds if it meets all the following criteria: 5 Mbps or greater download speed 1.5 Mbps or greater upload speed 50ms or less one-way latency 30ms or less jitter 1% or less packet loss
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Alex Webb is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe's technology, media and communications industries. He previously covered Apple and other technology companies for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.
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