With many more South Africans working remotely, homes have become offices from where we could be doing anything from attending a client meeting or live streaming a presentation or talk to completing tasks in the cloud, making progress on strategic projects, or resolving urgent issues. While the occasional lag or interruption in connectivity may have been perfectly acceptable for home leisure applications such as movie streaming and casual browsing, high-quality, reliable connectivity for residential users has come into more acute focus.
As the usage patterns change, with business users no longer clustered into business office parks and buildings, telecoms providers are looking at how they need to accommodate this new kind of user.
A Microsoft report showed that total time spent on its Teams meeting product globally increased from 560 milion minutes recorded on 12 March 2020, just before the majority of countries implemented their lockdowns, to 2,7 billion minutes on 31 March 2020. Their data also showed a sizeable spike in video in meetings. The report further highlighted that countries like China – where restrictions have been completely lifted – continued to record much higher numbers of minutes spent in online meetings than was the case before lockdown measures.
Another factor that drove the increased demand for reliable residential connectivity was education. School closures across the country saw learners – or at least those that could – turning to digital learning. Long before this, digital learning solutions were being explored for their potential to not only enhance learning but also address challenges in the education system. This means some elements of this will outlive the COVID-19 pandemic. Although we are nowhere near seeing it adopted en masse, it is another critical area that is set to change the way that connectivity is used in homes, and to add pressure to the high contention ratios often associated with home connectivity used to increase cost-efficiency and manage the capacity of home fibre lines.
While alternatives such ADSL continue to lose traction in the face of expanding fibre networks, other fixed broadband alternatives, such as LTE, may make little financial sense at high usage levels while uncapped LTE options are subject to fair usage restrictions that may not support the needs of remote workers.
The COVID-19 crisis has prompted regulatory support for the industry, mainly in the form of releasing temporary spectrum to support the need for expanded capacity. However, the underlying issue remains: while more reliable than other types of fixed broadband home services, fibre connectivity offered to home users up until now may not be adequate to address business connectivity needs – and certainly is no match for the enterprise-fibre benefits we’ve become accustomed to when working from the office.
Enterprise connectivity benefits include significantly lower contention ratios – if at all – and often symmetrical upload and download speeds. In addition, because it supports enterprise functions and mission-critical activities, business-fibre providers are bound by service level agreements which mean quick turnaround times to resolve issues. Of course, all of this comes at a cost, which means business services are not within reach of the majority of home users.
While new technologies like 5G may present solutions, we are some way from seeing it widely available, even in countries that are in much more advanced stages 5G roll-out. To address a more immediate demand, countries like India are using mobile cell sites to help cope with sudden changes in network demand.
Over the the past ten years we have seen the emergence of Wi-Fi-mesh- and microwave-connectivity providers who provide services through fibre-backed wireless-connectivity offerings. Hybrid approaches at either a provider level – augmenting one technology with another in order to extend its reach – or individual level, with one service used as a backup to another, have also provided short-term solutions. As the new digital economy continues to take shape, with not just companies but entire industries navigating their way around the changing dynamics of doing business, there can no longer be any doubt that it will centre around quality, always-available connectivity. This should spur on the telecommunications sector towards coming up with solutions and business models that will make it possible for highly-reliable home connectivity to become more widespread and affordable.