The COVID-19 coronavirus has closed Apple Stores, caused tech conferences to be cancelled or – in the case of Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference – moved online, flooded the Internet with misinformation, and sent authorities scrambling for tech solutions around testing and evaluating individuals’ risk of infection.

Yet the biggest test of tech’s role in the pandemic is yet to come: as tightening coronavirus lockdowns push students into home schooling and hundreds of thousands of employees begin working from home, telecommunications companies are bracing for an unprecedented pressure test of mobile networks and the national broadband network (NBN).

Mobile operators moved this week to respond to a surge in remote working as companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google, ANZ Bank and Telstra sent tens of thousands of Australian workers to work from home, universities paused classes and shifted to online learning, and medical providers began delivering video consultations via their mobiles after Medicare introduced a new Medicare item for telemedicine consultations.

Such services will substantially increase the volume of data traversing mobile and fixed networks, particularly since many rely on high-bandwidth video transmission and cause a higher-than-usual amount of data to be sent over limited upload channels.

Recognising that “these are unprecedented times”, as Optus CEO designate Kelly Bayer Rosmarin put it, Optus announced that it would give post-paid and some pre-paid mobile customers an extra 20GB of data and 10GB of data, respectively, during April.

Telstra soon followed with a similar announcement, and Vodafone joined the party shortly after as carriers chipped in to support the surge in bandwidth demand for customers working from home.

Increasing usage could challenge mobile networks that “are well-equipped to manage additional traffic during the day,” chief customer officer Ana Bordeianu promised, “however speeds may vary as usage patterns fluctuate from normal conditions.”

The NBN’s biggest test

The changes are intended to support workers who have, either voluntarily or under order of their employer, shifted to work primarily or exclusively from home.

Yet they may also expose the disastrous under-preparedness of a national broadband network (NBN) that has been bleeding money and deemed so unsuitable for high-speed use that Telstra recently scaled back services incapable of delivering 100Mbps services.

Retail service providers (RSPs) buy wholesale bandwidth capacity from NBN based on the assumption that demand peaks during night-time hours – when families sit down to watch streaming videos that consume large amounts of bandwidth.

Peak data volumes are typically encountered at 9pm and usage during business hours is half as much – but when a large number of people stayed home last Saturday, NBN Co recently noted, network traffic grew by more than 5 percent over the previous week.

Recognising that coronavirus-induced behavioural changes will turn this model on its head, a team of NBN Co data scientists has been analysing overseas experiences of increased remote work and plans to add capacity as needed to meet surging demand.

“The role of the [NBN] has never been more important than now and what we see unfolding over the weeks ahead,” NBN Co CEO Stephen Rue said, noting that the network and telecommunications carriers’ mobile networks “will become the primary channel for… maintaining contact with the outside world.”

Bridging the distance

Widespread requirements for people to self-isolate and practice “social distancing” have pushed people onto video communication services like Zoom, which has been giving its software to schools amidst soaring downloads and burgeoning share price.

Yet while many understand the value of remote conferencing, the execution can be somewhat less dazzling – as US presidential candidate found out during a Zoom-based online town hall meeting that was plagued by audio problems and dropouts.

Observers have warned of similar teething problems with online education, where universities routinely stream recorded lectures but have never faced the overnight explosion in demand that the COVID-19 outbreak has caused.

Moving all classes online, as many universities in Australia are already doing, will add hundreds of thousands of hours of streaming video to the NBN’s burden.

So, too, will the anticipated explosion in telemedicine as a result of the new Medicare items – allowing doctors and allied health professionals bulk-bill videoconference consultations using consumer tools like FaceTime, WhatsApp, and Skype.

Could COVID-19 boost telemedicine at last?

Telemedicine has had a chequered history in Australia, with early financial incentives discontinued in 2014 and ongoing usage spotty due to telemedicine’s requirement for specialised hardware, software, and adequate telecommunications.

Yet industry group the Australian National Consultative Committee on Electronic Health (ANCCEH), which developed a national telehealth strategy for Australia in 2012, noted in a recent discussion paper that “telehealth itself is less of a technical issue than it is a clinical workflow issue”.

Whether the pressure of coronavirus will push clinics to sort out those issues remains to be seen – but Rafic Habib, director of medical practice management firm Clinic to Cloud, believes adoption could be better this time around.

Widespread availability of commodity videoconferencing apps, and hosted solutions that link videoconferencing with patient details, can be complemented with tools like online forms to speed processing and minimise patient contact.

“Doctors and staff have to protect themselves and their patients,” Habib explained, “and medical practices have the same issue as other businesses in that they need to be able to continue functioning.”

“If you have the right technology, staff can do all the bookings remotely,” he adds, “and doctors can take advantage of telehealth and patient portals to triage patients remotely.”