The connections behind every click

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After spending much of 2020 in front of a screen for work or interacting with family and friends, online activity is probably the last topic you want to read about. But it’s been top and foremost on our minds all year, especially now that we’re deep into the busiest online period of the year: the holidays.

In recent years, more professionals and consumers have begun to realize what they were taking for granted as every aspect of life has shifted into the cloud. A perfect example is a recent video call I joined, with connections from India, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, California, Seattle and New York – all with perfectly in-sync video and sound.

Making that happen seamlessly is a massive undertaking requiring tremendous amounts of connections and bandwidth. It’s also a perfect example of what Telstra’s field service engineers do every day.

For decades, these global teams of professionals have been ensuring and delivering reliable and secure round-the-clock online network connectivity for retailers, entertainment companies, content providers, cloud services and corporate enterprises of every size.

If there are any problems, our systems are smart enough to trigger alarms and notify us. Telstra network engineers build in the necessary redundancy, so that when an alarm occurs the network switches over to a protection mode to prevent any customer impact.

Then, Telstra field teams are called in, sometimes in the middle of the night. We take down the problem circuit; inspect it, identify the issue and do what's necessary to bring everything back online.

These services are essential as cybershopping is now a global norm. The busy holiday season not only keeps getting busier, but also longer each year. It begins with an online marketplace in early November not widely known in the U.S., but still no less important: Singles Day, which began largely in China then broadened to include Singapore and other Asian countries.

Until recently, we always had a little breathing room after Singles Day to shift capacity for the next big milestone: Black Friday. Now, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are no longer one-day occurrences. You see deals announced soon after Halloween!

There's Black Friday in London, and in Hong Kong where they don't even celebrate Thanksgiving. 

A (Sub)Sea Change

For the 2020 holiday season, we were expecting unprecedented surges in online activity. Any network, no matter how stable or reliable, comes under strain when online traffic spikes. Telstra, and our networks, were prepared.

This is all a huge shift from just a few years ago. Customers were focused on 10GB backbone circuits, especially those with e-commerce services. Now, we're regularly dealing with 100GB, 500GB and up to terabytes, connecting larger network pipes in November and December to support the higher volume of online transactions and video calling for the holidays.

For example, this November we delivered more than 600 Gbps of additional subsea capacity for an online shopping network, to support their international sales for Singles Day, Black Friday and the holiday season. To put that in everyday terms, that’s the same amount of bandwidth needed for 600,000 simultaneous video calls or 300 HD movies every second.

For Singles Day this year, online shopping broke all records with American brands as top international sellers – contributing an estimated $5.4 billion to the sales volume, according to the online magazine "Practical Ecommerce."

While capacity is growing exponentially, the size of the equipment we're working with has shrunk considerably. For example, IP backbone routers used to be the size of a refrigerator; now they are the size of a microwave oven for the same level of throughput. This means connections are more densely packed into smaller spaces. Current fiber optic connectors are now so small and tightly packed, we need to use specialized tweezers to connect our customers to the network optics.

A benefit of this leaner footprint is Telstra can have multiple, smaller international points of presence (POPs) closer to our customers’ locations, and still maintain our ability to handle massive amounts of data. 

It’s Not Only Business, It’s Personal

Of course, this capacity growth trend has been accelerated by the pandemic with more people going online out of sheer necessity, not only for business or online shopping, but for personal connections, too.

With social distancing and limited gatherings likely to be a fact of life for at least several more months, we’ll all be spending more time online or on our devices to see the people we care about. Telstra is behind these connections, too, providing the bandwidth to enable all this personal interaction people are having with family and friends through their social media channels.

All year, but especially during the holidays, it's all hands on deck to avoid downtime and keep the customer experience seamless. Using a major retailer as an example – going offline three days before Christmas is unthinkable.

There’s much more I can reveal about Telstra’s field service teams and their commitment to our customers, which I’ll be sharing in future blogs in this space.

The next time you click "place order" or "join meeting", remember the people behind all those clicks. We're there, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to make sure that click goes through or that video chat with your family overseas is flawless.