UK broadband ‘won’t cope with millions working from home in coronavirus outbreak’

The UK’s ageing broadband infrastructure is unable to cope with millions of people working from home during the coronavirus outbreak, experts have warned.

Academics said on Monday that plans for large-scale home working would put an unprecedented strain on the country’s core broadband network.

Increasing numbers of companies are offering staff the option of staying at home rather than travelling to offices, with those numbers expect to rise in the coming weeks.

The Government has predicted that up to a fifth of the UK’s workforce could be off sick at the same time during the peak of coronavirus. There is also an expectation that similar numbers will choose to stay home, even if not infected by Covid-19, in order to avoid catching it.

Home broadband is not set up to cope with heavy use for tasks such as en masse internet trading and video conferencing calls. Traders are particularly vulnerable to lagging internet speeds because they need high-speed connections to display the latest stock prices.

Only three million homes and businesses in the UK – around 10 per cent of the country – have access to the latest full-fibre broadband, according to an Ofcom study released last year. 

Industry experts said under-investment in the ageing broadband networks for rural areas could result in internet blackouts.

Professor Izzat Darwazeh, the chair of communications engineering at University College London, said: “I doubt that the core network can cope if even tens of thousands of people who work in the City of London are forced to work from home and need access to video conferencing and trading systems.

“One of the main worries if there’s sudden very heavy demand on a network is that parts of it will get completely congested and blocked.”

Professor Alan Woodward, a cybersecurity expert at the University of Surrey, warned that the systems used by banks and other businesses to manage people working from home may become “bottlenecks” for employees unused to handling high levels of internet traffic.

He said: “Using personal computers to access work networks could also raise cybersecurity issues for businesses if the devices aren’t kept up to date.”

An executive at a broadband network said: “A lot of the country is on fibre, and those users won’t be affected too much. The biggest problem will be for people who are on older copper networks. There’s a huge amount of packet loss when it comes to copper wires. Video chats will eventually run into lag issues. The resolution will be absolutely shoddy.”

On Monday, the US investment bank JP Morgan became the first of the major financial institutions to implement a full-scale coronavirus workplace contingency plan. More than 1,000 staff at its UK headquarters in Canary Wharf, in east London, were relocated to satellite offices in central London and Basingstoke, in Hampshire.

Other banks are expected to implement their own contingency plans in the coming days, with staff encouraged to work from home where suitable.

A spokesman for Santander, one of Britain’s largest banking groups, said: “As the situation develops, we are continuously working to ensure our plans remain relevant and robust.

“Where appropriate, colleagues will be able to work from home and we have asked everybody to refrain from non-essential travel between our offices.”

There is increasing anecdotal evidence of staff staying away from offices, with commuters posting photographs of near-empty train carriages on certain routes. There is also evidence of commuters staggering their journey times to avoid rush hour.

Transport for London (TfL) suggested that last week – before coronavirus had begun to take a proper grip – about 100,000 fewer journeys were taken. Initial figures suggested a two per cent fall in journeys on trains and buses across the London network, but that will be expected to decline much faster in coming days.

On Monday, TfL confirmed that one of its employees had tested positive for coronavirus but stressed that the member of staff was office based, and was not involved in operational duties that could have a knock-on effect on services if colleagues were forced to self-isolate.

“We are working closely with Public Health England and are following their advice after a member of staff tested positive for Covid-19,” a TfL spokesman said. “The safety of our staff and customers is our top priority, so we are taking all necessary precautions and a deep clean has taken place within the building used by the staff member.”

Some commuters, at least, appear to be switching from crowded commuter trains to the bicycle. Halfords said on Monday that it had seen a 30 per cent increase in the sale of commuter-friendly folding bicycles in the past three weeks. 

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