With India currently in a state of lockdown due to the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, the country’s telecoms sector is feeling the impact as mobile usage habits change to cope with the shift.
Operators have seen prepaid balance top-ups plummet by as much as 35% as subscribers are rendered unable to purchase airtime from retail outlets. The Economic Times also noted that operators have seen a drop-off in new customers.
While the obvious reason for this decline is that Indian citizens are unable to leave their homes during the lockdown, industry executives have also reported a fall in online top-ups - which typically constitute around a third of all recharges – since the measures came into effect in late March.
Over 90% of India’s 1.15 billion mobile users are prepaid subscribers, and under normal circumstances would likely top up their credit at retail agents. The fall in top-ups could see the lockdown costing India’s Big Three operators as much as INR150 million ($1.97 million) in lost revenue.
Despite the impact on their business, India’s operators have complied with regulatory requests aimed at encouraging subscribers to stay at home. These included providing free voice minutes as well as making prepaid accounts valid for a longer period.
While subscribers are evidently topping up their airtime less under the lockdown, they do not appear to be using their devices any less – quite the contrary. Research from analytics firm Tutela showed a 16% surge in mobile data use since the lockdown began.
Conducted for The Economic Times, the study revealed that median download speeds had fallen as much as 36% during peak hours (11AM to 11PM). Tutela noted that “higher packet loss and latency… are also indicators that the network is congested.”
Gary Newbold, VP for Enterprise in Asia Pacific at CommScope, added: “While home Internet services offer plenty of download capacity and are good for surfing the web or streaming movies, they tend to have slower upload speeds. That means sending data — like a video stream to fellow remote colleagues — takes a backseat, creating a sudden surge in uplink traffic that simply did not exist before.”
He added that a sudden spike in the use of multi-party conferencing services such as Google classroom, Microsoft Teams or Zoom was putting a strain on residential internet connections.
Ivo Ivanov, CEO of internet exchange firm DE-CIX International concurred, saying: “We have seen an average 20% jump in data traffic in India in the last three weeks. Collaborative tools, video streaming app and gaming apps now account for around 80% of the total internet traffic in India.”
DE-CIX registered peak data consumption for 18th March at 2.45 terabits per second, which equates to 26.4m GB of data used in one day. On an average day in India, data is consumed at around 81GB per second, working out at roughly 7m GB per day.
Doug Suttles, CEO of test & analysis firm Ookla, added: “When networks are under usage strain like they are in this unprecedented time of lockdown in India due to COVID-19, it is natural that they experience some level of slowdown.”
Operators have asked streaming services such as Amazon Prime, Netflix and YouTube to lower the quality of video content from HD to SD, although this measure only provides mild relief to the overarching issue. Operators have also asked subscribers to restrict their usage to off-peak times wherever possible.
Tutela’s study noted that rural networks were more adversely affected by the changes in behaviour, saying that they were “likely less able to handle the swings in network traffic that lead to congestion than those in urban areas, and [Tutela’s] data shows a slightly larger decrease in rural performance compared to urban – although both were significantly affected.”