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Viewpoint | 14 May 2020

Why Downdetector is not the perfect detective

Scott Petty, Vodafone UK's Chief Technology Officer, explains why Downdetector - the online service that tracks reports of network issues - shouldn't always be relied upon to tell the whole story.

When our customers can’t connect to the internet, or make a call or text, they want to know why, and – of course – how quickly the problem will be fixed.

But the assumption that the fault lies with their own mobile or broadband provider can be wide of the mark.

People often turn to Downdetector to find the source of outages and service issues. It’s the online service that shows if your network is down or your favourite social media site is offline.

The problem is, it’s a great detector but it’s not a flawless detective.

In its own words, the spikes and curves on Downdetector’s charts “are status reports from a series of sources, including Twitter and reports submitted on our websites and mobile apps”. They show who’s having trouble connecting, but they don’t show why. We don’t get the whole picture.

Downdetector’s charts… show who’s having trouble connecting, but they don’t show why. We don’t get the whole picture.

So since the lockdown, some media outlets have reported that our network has gone down on three separate occasions when, in fact, it’s been working perfectly fine each time.

We suspect this might be down to a misinterpretation of the data presented on the charts. If you don’t do a bit more detective work, you can easily jump to the wrong conclusions.

Integrated networks

The key point is that all networks, and most internet services in the UK, are interconnected. Calls, data and videos flow from one network to another. So a major issue in one competitor’s mobile network could prevent our customers from calling users of that network.

This domino effect also applies to providers of the physical cables that connect our masts with our core network and our home broadband service to your home. Mobile operators typically rent the use of these cables from the two dominant network infrastructure companies, Openreach and Virgin Media. If they’re having technical difficulties, then so will many mobile and broadband customers.

Now as a Vodafone customer, you might not care who we use in the background to help deliver our services, you just want them to work. And that’s fair enough, your contract is with us.

But it’s important not to rely on Downdetector alone to tell you where an issue really lies.

Last month, Downdetector indicated that nearly every mobile provider, popular gaming app, video streaming service, and social media site had an outage. Our network operations team did their own detective work and traced the issue to a particular cable installer’s network.

So customers of all mobile operators using that network could have experienced a problem. Once we knew this, we were able to advise our customers to try switching from Wi-Fi to the mobile network instead until the issue was fixed. In other words, we uncovered what was really going on and were able to give our customers better advice as a result.

Detective work

Our job is to keep our customers connected and we’ve invested heavily in our network over the last five years to do that. And during the coronavirus pandemic we’ve been working extra hard to beef up our network to cope with the change in our customers’ voice and internet usage patterns during the lockdown.

Even when it’s not our network at fault, we do what we can to help. And we’re working on communicating the facts more clearly as we get them, tracing issues, and piecing together the problems so similar outages can be avoided. We want to be as transparent and helpful as possible.

Columbo, the Seventies TV detective, had a favourite catchphrase: “One more thing”, casually dropped into conversation just before he revealed the culprit. All we’re asking is that people ask “one more question” before jumping to the wrong conclusions after a cursory glance at Downdetector.

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