How will a mass shift to tele-learning affect wireless networks?

Colleges and universities across the United States are cancelling in-person classes and shifting to online classes in droves in reaction to the spread of coronavirus. They’re using online platforms such as Zoom, Blackboard, Coursera and Panopto.

The school closures began in Washington, a state which has been hit hard by the coronavirus. After University of Washington terminated in-person classes, a bunch of high-profile East Coast universities followed suit, including Harvard, Columbia and Princeton. There’s been a ripple effect since with more than 200 colleges and universities, so far, either closing or moving to online classes.

What does this mean for telecommunications networks?

It may mean that wireless and wired internet traffic is more dispersed in many areas with less demand for peak capacity. Instead of 200 students in an auditorium with their computers, they’ll be watching a lecture on Zoom in their dorm rooms or at coffee shops (or perhaps back at home with Mom and Dad).

“A lot of the data usage is on Wi-Fi,” said Recon Analytics founder Roger Entner. “Mobile usage, depending on what stats you look at, is between 70-90% indoors. A lot of people will use their Wi-Fi, so it turns into a wireline issue.”

But Entner doesn’t think that the mass migrations from schools and workplaces to individual homes will have a detrimental effect on either wireless or wireline networks. He joked that the wireless usage of most students won’t change much because they’re already on it all the time.

“The only thing that impacts networks is video,” said Entner. “Everything else is a rounding error. And you can easily mitigate these things by going down in resolution. Standard definition is about 1 Mbps and HD is about 5 Mbps. One way you can mitigate all of the capacity problems is to downgrade everybody to SD.”

At a recent Verizon investor conference, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg said, “I get a lot of questions on the coronavirus, of course. We -- at the moment, we are following it very closely. We don't see any direct impact on our business so far. But be aware, it's probably not the last cycle of information coming from the coronavirus.”

At that same investor event, Verizon CTO Kyle Malady talked about the carrier’s wireless capacity planning. Malady said, “I got to say most of my engineers' time is spent these days on adding capacity and figuring out what tools they're going to bring to the table to meet that demand.” Malady showed a slide that indicated Verizon usually has about a 20-25% capacity margin.

Some of the platforms that students might use for online learning will use video streaming. So that may increase capacity requirements. “Networks are designed around peak usage,” said Entner. “For wired networks, peak is designed for 8-9 pm in the evening when people are watching Netflix. If they watch other shows during the day, nobody cares.”

Presumably, students who are taking their classes online will be doing so during non-peak daytime hours.

As an aside, one effect of the coronavirus and its impact on networks is that with so many people avoiding crowds and staying home, they might increase the time they watch streaming video for entertainment.

RELATED: Deeper Dive—Is Netflix stock getting a boost as coronavirus concerns grow?

Online learning from the college perspective

Iain Scholnick, founder and CEO of Braidio, said his company’s online collaboration app uses AT&T’s network to provide voice, messaging, chat and video capabilities. He said from the standpoint of colleges and universities that are scrambling to offer their classes online, they will need to check with their providers to ensure they have enough bandwidth.

“At the end of the day it does get down to the pipe,” said Scholnick. “Can it handle the scale? I might buy my services from another player who bulk purchased services from AT&T and Verizon. It depends who your middle-man is. If you are on a reseller network, your relationship will not be priority number one. You want to understand what your vendor’s relationship is with the mother network. Make sure you don’t have bandwidth metering.”

He said universities are probably adding “seats” to their online learning applications. “The points of failure will be storage and the app layer,” said Scholnick.


At a Senate Financial Services Subcommittee hearing this week, Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said, “I think it’s time for the FCC to talk about coronavirus disruption and how technology can help. Nationwide we are going to explore the expansion of telework, telehealth, and tele-education. In the process, we are going to expose hard truths about the digital divide. The FCC should be convening broadband providers right now to prepare. It should be identifying how it can use its universal service powers to support connected care for quarantined patients and Wi-Fi hotspots for loan for students whose schools have shut and classes have migrated online.”

Today FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks tweeted that his FCC staff will be working remotely.

At the Senate hearing, Starks said the FCC must take measures to ensure all Americans have Wi-Fi so they can work and learn from home and also get medical care, if necessary. “We should consider expediting waivers and experimental licenses that will expand network capabilities; creating additional Wi-Fi capacity by temporarily authorizing use of the 5.9 GHz band; awarding grants for capacity upgrades in underserved communities impacted by the coronavirus; and encouraging providers to offer low-cost program options that could extend a basic internet connection for millions of Americans and to deploy their emergency assets, such a cell sites on wheels, to unserved communities,” said Starks.