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Bell says voice traffic on its networks has risen by 200 per cent as Canadians working from home are dialling into conference calls in place of in-person meetings.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

BCE Inc.'s Bell Canada has been adding capacity to its wireless and landline networks amid surging traffic caused by a huge shift to home working due to the global coronavirus pandemic.

The telecom company says voice traffic on its networks has risen by 200 per cent as Canadians working from home are dialling into conference calls in place of in-person meetings, while those who have lost their jobs are phoning government agencies and banks in search of financial aid.

Bell’s network engineers have been working around the clock, adding additional fibre-optic connections and servers to the central offices through which customer data gets routed, said Stephen Howe, the company’s chief technology officer. Bell’s networks are now able to handle an additional 300,000 wireless and landline calls an hour, with more capacity coming, said Mr. Howe. Typically their networks handle 150 millions calls a day.

“The Canadian economy has moved into the home and that has dramatic effects on all the infrastructure surrounding the home,” said Mr. Howe. “Most homes used to be kind of empty from 8 until 4 in the afternoon, and now homes are busy ... it’s a pretty dramatic change from a telecom perspective.”

The surge in call volume has caused some customers to experience busy signals when trying to dial into conference calls, or even when just placing direct calls.

Some of that congestion is occurring in the connections between the carriers - an issue that the companies are working together to resolve. That means laying additional fibre-optic cable between their central offices, as well as installing more electronic equipment at each end, Mr. Howe said.

“We compete very hard and fast out in the market, but from an engineering, network-to-network perspective we work very closely together to ensure that the [traffic between carriers] is flowing,” Mr. Howe said.

With considerable work already completed, Mr. Howe said high levels of congestion are typically only occurring for about an hour each weekday afternoon – usually sometime between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., depending on the day. The so-called “busy hour” occurs when the highest number of people are making calls.

“That’s what we’re looking at fixing but everything else is running really well,” Mr. Howe said, adding that he expects the issue to be resolved in about a week.

Bell’s priority has been ensuring that the 911 network as well as the wireless radio networks used by first responders are online 100 per cent of the time, said Mr. Howe. The company has also been adding more fibre capacity at Canadian hospitals and health-care facilities, including at community centres that have been turned into COVID-19 testing sites.

Traffic on Bell’s internet networks has also surged, increasing by about 60 per cent in the daytime and 20 per cent at night, while usage among rural Canadians is up by as much as 40 per cent. And customers are also consuming more media – traffic to Bell’s IP-based television service Fibe TV has risen by 40 per cent, while its streaming service Crave is up 75 per cent.

That has created additional work for Bell’s network engineers, who have been racking up overtime. Mr. Howe said the company has been touching base with its employees to ensure they don’t burn out, offering them time to recover after long shifts.

Although the scale of the pandemic is unprecedented, the company has dealt with similar network issues in the past, for example during ice storms, Mr. Howe said.

“We’re managing our overtime much like we would do through any of our other situations ... this just happens to be an extended version.”

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