Operating a national telco during lockdown

How Orange has re-structured its network operations during the Covid-19 crisis.

Emmanuel Lugagne-Delpon is SVP, Orange Labs Networks, and is part of a crisis team that has been assembled at Orange Group level to review the impact of the coronavirus on a daily basis. He spoke to TMN about how the operator has adapted network operations during the crisis. 

The NOCs lie empty, as the network is managed remotely

Network connectivity for home workers, students and those in lockdown has become essential. And it is being asssured by an army of technicians who are themselves reliant on the same connectivity.

That’s because all of Oranges network operational staff in France and other European countries where there are lockdowns in place are working from home.

Lugagne-Delpon said, “All our 24/7 monitoring teams, layer two and three [support] teams, are now working from home, which has been a massive change day to day. All the operations such as monitoring, fault and incident management they can do remotely.”

Network Operations Centres (NOCs) are usually shared spaces with teams clustering to address incidents showing on large screen displays, but staff are now accessing tools remotely from their homes. This has been a major change and has made things “more complex” in terms of working as a team, according to Lugagne-Delpon. Several thousand network ops staff in France, and another “few thousand” in its other European countries have made this shift to home working, Lugagne-Delpon said.

Networks have coped well with shift in demand – data usage nearly back to normal

As you might expect, the main priority has been to make sure that networks are working and can cope with any shifts in demand. In fact, although the demand profile has changed, the operator has not been hit with any major capacity constraints, and its networks have coped well.

One of the chief changes has been an increase in voice calling, both in more calls and in the length of calls. The operator was taken a bit by surprise by that initial surge, and there was an additional requirement to re-configure some international interconnects to meet increased call demand.

Another change has been a major substitution of mobile data for fixed. In other words, most of the cellular data usage has switched to in-home WiFi backhauled over fixed internet connections. And the increased business use of home WiFi has meant that the “busy hour” on these networks has shifted a bit, with more demand during the day. 

But networks are designed to cope for a “normal” evening Netflix/Prime busy period, so Orange has been able to cope with an increased demand spread across the day. There was a need for an increase in transatlantic cable capacity to meet the increased usage of web services. 

Another area that has been prioritised for works is increasing capacity on links to emergency and public safety services, such as increased bandwidth to call centres, for example. 

In any case, Lugagne-Delpon said usage in France is now, after six weeks of lockdown, more or less “back to the traffic we had at the beginning”. “Even if people are calling more, data traffic has come back to normal,” he said.

“Production” programmes downscaled to prioritise maintenance

The focus on assuring network performance has meant that network “production” – what you might call normal business as usual works to improve and expand networks – has been downscaled. One reason for this is that adding elements or making changes to a network – such as a new antenna site – always introduces a risk that you might introduce interference or a fault of some kind, and the operator is keen not to take a risk of breaking service when service is so critical. 

Lugagne-Delpon didn’t want to go into details but one might conclude that would include network expansion and upgrade rollouts in both fibre and mobile networks. Whether that will translate into delays in programmes such as preparedness for 5G is hard to judge, but reading between the lines you would think that sort of work will have been de-prioritised for now.

Work in data centres has also slowed – changing and adding servers etc, to avoid any potential disruption caused by changes and introducing new loads. 

But field teams have been able to visit sites to carry out essential work, following guidelines on protecting themselves and others. 

Development work continues

Orange’s ongoing development work is probably at about 80% of normal workflow, according to Lugagnge-Delpon. Telcos like Orange are always in the middle of a lot of development work in their labs and research departments. At the moment this would include a assessment of network cloud platforms, NFV and software-defined operations – all the stuff you would expect to see a major telco working on. Lugange-Delpon said that it has mostly been able to continue as normal with teams accessing work remotely. Where it has been necessary to get into a data centre or facility, that has been possible by following social distancing and protective protocols. 

Overall, Lugange-Delpon feels that the operator has responded well to the crisis, and has been able to meet demands placed upon it.

“We can be very proud of what we have achieved, especially considering we have been working remotely in a new way,” he said.