European telecommunications operators perpetuate myths about the growth of Internet traffic. On September 26, 2022, CEO of 16 telecommunications companies said “the largest traffic generators should contribute fairly to the considerable costs they currently impose on European networks”. They say they fear a scarcity of digital infrastructure to support this traffic. Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefónica and Vodafone did the same in February when they said Internet traffic growth was 50%! Neither defined a period of time, nor in what unit they measured.
But while that 50% growth figure is supposed to sound high, it tells us nothing about Europe’s internet infrastructure and whether it’s equipped to handle it. That’s about as useful as saying we need more freeways without knowing how many cars are driving on the roads we already have.
A variety of sources allow us to connect some dots. It is important to note that “traffic” can be understood as peak traffic or total traffic. The distinction clearly matters. Total traffic in any network is a big number, but congestion only occurs when peak traffic exceeds available capacity. A highway can accommodate many more cars in a day than during rush hour.
Deutsche Telekom’s senior vice president for group public and regulatory affairs said in a January 2022 blog post: “YouTube generates the most data traffic on Telekom’s mobile network: in 2021, it averaged 357 terabytes per day, a remarkable increase of 96% compared to the previous year.” He concluded: “One thing is certain: the runaway increases in traffic volumes caused and monetized by a few large internet platforms are not sustainable.
As ominous as that sounds, it’s not at all meaningful when those large numbers are translated into numbers that you and I understand. 357 terabytes per day for YouTube on the T-Mobile network is just 7 megabytes (MB) per customer per day, or less than 30 seconds of video at 2 megabits per second (Mbps). T-Mobile has 53.2 million customers on its German network.
7MB is the equivalent of five of those old 3.5 inch floppy disks you might remember from the 90s! The only way this type of traffic isn’t sustainable is if T-Mobile Germany actually turns out to be using floppy disks and Deutsche Post to mail this traffic to its customers.
Do Orange, Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom and Telefónica really have reason to worry about traffic growth? And what are they telling their investors and others about it? Let’s take a look at some of the major network providers one by one.
Orange: existing capacity can absorb the increase in use
Telecom companies tell different stories depending on their audience. For example, Orange doesn’t mention traffic anywhere in its financial reports, which seems odd if it’s so important to its CEO.
A blog post published by Orange during the COVID-19 pandemic specifies that confinement must not lead to congestion: “Indeed, the networks are made to cope with traffic peaks, which generally take place in the evening, in particular during the broadcast of events with large audiences (such as major events sports or some popular television series). Existing capacities can therefore absorb the increase in connections that we are seeing at the moment. Orange management welcomes the new Nokia routers that can handle up to 230 Terabits per second (Tbps) by router. The router can “gracefully scale our networks as we seek to manage planned and unplanned demands in a sustainable way.” So, is 230 TB/s per router enough for the traffic that Orange’s network has to handle?
Fortunately, there is publicly available data on traffic growth on Orange’s network. The French regulator Arcep publishes an annual report on the volume of Internet traffic exchanged to and from the four largest French Internet Service Providers (ISPs), including Orange France. In 2021, total peak internet interconnect traffic was 35.6 terabits per second (Tbps), plus an additional 7.5 Tbps of network traffic by content delivery networks (CDNs), for a total of 43 Tbps at the end of 2021.
This means that the total volume of Internet traffic exchanged by French ISPs in 2021 saw a 25% increase in peak interconnect traffic year-on-year. In the same report, Arcep indicates that the interconnection capacity of ISPs in 2021 was greater than 95 Tbps, up 40% compared to 67 Tbps in 2020. These 95 Tbps correspond to the capacity of the lines connecting these four French ISP to all of the 75,000 other networks that make up the Internet. This means that there was 2.7 times more capacity available in France than the interconnection traffic actually generated.
Terabits per second may not be easy to understand, so we can translate this amount of traffic into what it means per subscriber. With 30 million broadband subscribers in France, this represents only 1.5 Mbps of traffic on average per subscriber. French consumers, whose connection speed often exceeds 1 Gbps, should not worry about the network’s ability to handle 1.5 Mbps of traffic, or just 0.15% of the real capacity of their connection. .
It seems that with routers with a capacity of several hundred Tbps and real peak traffic from French telecom companies at around 43 Tbps, Orange is right that its existing capacity can absorb the increase. It also means that there is neither the 50% growth in traffic announced by its CEO earlier this year, nor that there is a shortage of digital infrastructure available to carry this traffic – on the contrary!
Vodafone: Costs are falling faster than traffic is growing
Vodafone is also telling its investors not to worry: Although it mentions a 50% traffic growth for fixed and mobile data, it indicates that this is aggregated data usage over the day in exabytes – not peak traffic. However, networks are also designed to withstand spikes in data usage. The traffic peak has increased in two years with 30% on fixed and 75% on mobile according to Vodafone. This represents growth of 14% per year on landline and 32% on mobile. Vodafone, however, went so far as to reassure investors that costs are falling faster than traffic growth.
Deutsche Telekom has only seen 20% growth and Telefónica is not worried either
Deutsche Telekom does not mention its traffic in its annual reports, but in an interview with German consultancy WIK, it confirmed that the maximum traffic growth in Germany was 20% per year until the pandemic. That’s quite the difference from the 50% or even 97%, Deutsche Telekom said elsewhere. COVID has not resulted in increased traffic on Deutsche Telekom’s network, in part because streaming services have voluntarily reduced video bandwidth or increased compression.
W.I.K. said: “The increase in traffic that has occurred in France due to COVID-19 cannot be observed in the same way in Germany according to the observations of Deutsche Telekom. Although traffic still increased strongly in Q4/2019, it fell again in March 2020 due to [initiatives] to reduce the resolution of video services (from HD to SD). Classic seasonal traffic patterns again seem to dominate the influence of COVID-19. »
At the start of the pandemic in 2020, Telefónica saw a 40% increase in peak traffic, but he was well equipped to handle it. He praised its robust infrastructure, suggesting that far from struggling, telecom operators are fully equipped to deal with current traffic levels. Telefónica’s Director of Corporate Regulations recently stated that traffic growth in Europe has been 32% over the last decade, a 16-fold increase. That’s not even close to the 50% increase quoted by the CEO of Telefónica, which would have been a 57-fold increase. In its detailed financial reports, traffic levels or associated costs are not mentioned by Telefónica.
So none of the four telecom companies whose CEO wrote that letter in February, calling on European lawmakers to introduce network usage fees, seem to have any reason to worry about traffic growth or capacity. of the network.
How are other telecom operators doing?
It’s not just these four big players who have demonstrated that they can easily handle traffic growth. BT is one of the few network operators to detail the traffic on its network. In 2022, BT tells its investors that its total traffic peak – for broadband, business (ethernet) and mobile – had been 28 Tbps, with a peak of 1 Tbps for mobile and the remaining 27 Tbps for broadband and business. This translates to around 2.5-3 Mbps per BT broadband customer.
The COVID-19 lockdowns haven’t been difficult for BT either. On March 20, 2020, BT explained that traffic growth is well within manageable limits and there is plenty of room for growth. At that time, its peak was 17.5 Tbps and the daytime peak was 7.5 Tbps. Although traffic has increased, peak traffic growth has been fairly steady. Peak traffic growth was 28% from 2021 to 2022, but only 10% from 2021 to 2022 on fixed broadband. BT also demonstrated in a graph how traffic during lockdowns was distributed differently across the day between before and after. This may mean more gigabytes per user of traffic per day, but not a higher traffic spike to handle.
Bandwidth usage per subscriber reported by BT is comparable to that of other telecom operators and ISPs. KPN in the Netherlands published a wholesale offer for FTTH which includes 5Mbps traffic with a growth of 21% per year. Other ISPs have to pay €1.34/month for this, or just 27 cents per Mbps per month.
SKV Veendam provides fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) internet access to 11,000 customers in a city in the north of the Netherlands. Unlike most ISPs, it publishes its traffic statistics in real time. This provides valuable insight into internet usage across an entire city. On a “normal” evening, peak traffic is around 26 Gbps, or 2.5 Mbps per subscriber. On the evening of the hugely popular Formula 1 Mexican Grand Prix, all of the additional live streams accounted for a total traffic spike of – wait for it – 3Mbps per subscriber and 33Gbps total! Since SKV has twice 40 Gbps of redundant capacity, it could suffer half of its network outage and still be able to serve all of its customers. Similar to what Arcep reports for the four French telecom operators, SKV has 2.5 to 3 times more available capacity than needed to handle extreme peak traffic.
So, despite the claims of telecom CEOs, total Internet traffic and traffic growth in Europe is just not that remarkable. The presentations of their own companies to shareholders and the data shared by researchers are proof of this. Indeed, if the fiber internet has a capacity of a gigabit or more per customer, but we only use a few Mbps on average, the telcos have more than enough leeway and no reason to complain. .
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