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Looking for 'Buried Treasure' and Other Ways to Expand Data Capacity

The world is experiencing a moment of irony. Despite a global shift to physical “social distancing” in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we find ourselves more connected than ever to the institutions that play a major role in our lives, everything from commerce to government to education.

CenturyLink, for example, is currently offering K-12 schools, colleges, universities, libraries, and state and local government agencies increased broadband speeds for free for 60 days at existing service locations with qualifying facilities.

In one case, CenturyLink doubled the capacity it was delivering to a client for their web-based video conferencing services. But how do you suddenly turn on so much new capacity, especially considering the demands facing network providers worldwide?  

The Art of Treasure Hunting

Expanding network capacity often means “knowing where the treasure is buried,” says CenturyLink Vice President Greg Freeman, who leads Customer and Network Transformation within the carrier’s Operations team.

Especially, he adds, if you buried most of the treasure in the first place.

When a customer needs more capacity, CenturyLink locates the closest circuit possible, and then looks for the best way to connect to a customer’s physical site, often described by telecom veterans as “the last mile.”

“One of our advantages is our team’s vast knowledge of our network,” says Freeman. “Our engineers can find the best available ‘last mile’ connection points to meet customer demand because chances are, many of them have personal experience putting them in place. They know where the ‘treasure’ is.”

Traffic Jam Ahead

Getting the circuits online quickly is part of the challenge. Playing traffic cop is another. Data demand isn’t globally consistent, so congestion can occur in certain routes, similar to rush hour on a highway.

“We’ve seen a lot of traffic growth between certain domestic routes, such as Atlanta to Miami. We have also seen significant regional congestion in Europe and Asia,” Freeman says. “So, we augment the network by lighting up more fiber links, which allows us to re-route the traffic.”

This approach works fine when you deal with major corridors of data traffic. But sometimes, individual customers face connectivity challenges that require precise attention.

Sipping through the Right “Straws”

Fortunately, the CenturyLink network includes a software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN), which acts as an overlay to its core backbone. A combination of automation and human intervention allows network engineers to conduct surgical, point-to-point traffic management.

“Think of data capacity as 32 ounces of soda in a plastic cup. Then imagine trying to sip it through a coffee stirrer. We can add as much 'soda' as we want, but it won’t help the customer unless we manage to make the straw wider,” Freeman says.

As the need to “stay connected” offers new challenges every day, Freeman believes the combination of smart technologies and experienced technicians will put CenturyLink in a position to keep up as demand escalates around the world.  

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