The festive season is time to relax and spend time with your loved ones. But how does a mobile network prepare for its busiest time of year?

christmas noc 1

With schools closed and people taking a much deserved break from work, it’s only natural that mobile usage rises. But as that happens, how can you adapt a mobile network to cope with the demand? And just how many messages fly through the system on New Year’s Eve? We’ve been speaking to Dan Mayer inside Vodafone’s Network Operations Centre (NOC) to find out.

Dan’s the experience manager at the NOC. Previously, he spoke to Vodafone Social to explain exactly what we mean when we talk about mobile network frequencies, but today we’re feeling in more of a festive mood: time to reveal how you keep a network running during the Christmas break.

 

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Step one? Monitoring absolutely everything: “We look at the micro and macro level of details to see what’s happening with the network,” Dan explains, “and we see daily fluctuations all the time. We also experience major variations in usage from time to time, but that won’t worry us as long as we know why it’s happening.”

15,000 texts per second 

Inside the NOC, the team that keeps the network in shape are constantly monitoring a collection of huge displays. Each one tracks a different thing, whether that’s texts, calls or mobile data usage, and each one dives into multiple levels of detail.

“If you look at the SMS chart between midnight and 6am on a normal day, the volume gets fairly close to zero. If you saw it at New Year’s Eve, calling patterns don’t tend to change but the peak of SMS activity is in that usually quiet period as people send their messages to friends an loved ones.

“Our network is not designed to handle 15,000 text messages per second all year round.”

“But we don’t see that and panic,” Dan tells us. “We know that’s going to happen because we’ve monitored that traffic for 20 years. We’ve anticipated year-on-year growth. Using that insight, we can reduce the impact of that extra traffic on our customers on New Year’s Eve. Our network is not designed to handle 15,000 text messages per second all year round.

“It is designed to handle that during the two weeks of Christmas and New Year, though, because that’s what happens during the first three and a half hours of the year.

“We have that capacity in place for two weeks, rather than just doing it on 31 December, to create a stable environment. We can do that because we know what’s going to happen.”

The weather outside is frightful… 

New Year’s Eve is one thing, but there are other, less predictable external influences that can come into play, all of which need to be managed by the team inside the NOC:

“In the UK the big two influences are social and meteorological,” says Dan. “That’s why we’ve got a constant news feed and a weather map in the NOC. From those two inputs we get two outputs. For example, the network can be influenced by weather extremes. Or by social events like New Year’s Eve.”

Or, as it turns out, by both at once – with one factor causing the other…

new year text

“Those two influences are not mutually exclusive,” Dan says. “Snow’s the most interesting one because it can affect physical infrastructure – cell sites can literally freeze or have power outages as a result of heavy snow – but snowfall also changes the way that people use the network. A proportion of people will end up working from home, or rather than commit to treacherous road journeys and we’ll see voice calls and texts go up by around 25-30% as a result.

“We’ll see data going up a bit, but what we do see huge changes in – with increases of around 110% – is picture messaging, because everyone’s taking pictures of their snowmen and their sledding. Likewise, when you shut the schools for holidays like over Christmas, we see text and data shooting up.”

All of these factors are due to come into play in the next days, weeks and months. Christmas, New Year and winter can all pose a challenge to network availability – both predictable and unexpected – but it’s clear that Dan and everyone inside the NOC is prepared to tackle everything that comes their way.

On the same frequency… Confused about 4G and the whole frequency spectrum thing? Dan’s here to help: here’s his guide to mobile frequencies in plain English.