The COVID-19 Pandemic & the Perspective on Wireless Networking

Today marks 12 months since the simple instruction to “stay home, save lives, and protect the NHS” caused a huge shift in the way we live; the COVID-19 pandemic sent millions of employees home to work, learn and socialise within their own 4 walls, and staying connected to the outside world beyond our household became entirely reliant on the internet.

Wireless connectivity has been so vital during this time that digital inclusion charity Good Things Foundation has recommended that the internet be classified as an essential utility, alongside electricity, water and heating. We would argue that enterprise connectivity has always been crucial, but that COVID-19 has shone a light on just how vital a part of modern day living, learning and working it is.

So what changes in perspectives and priorities have taken place in the world of WiFi in the last 12 months as a direct result of the pandemic?

Increase in Global Bandwidth & Speed

At the start of the pandemic, global internet traffic was predicted to rise by 28% but in reality it was almost double at 47% according to Telegeography. In March 2020, the UK’s major internet service and mobile providers agreed to temporarily remove data allowance caps on fixed line broadband services and added free extras to customers’ plans following discussions with the government.

Global internet bandwidth rose by 35% to meet the increase in demand, a substantial increase over the previous year’s modest 26%, showing the acute awareness that keeping the world connected digitally was vital for minimising disruption.

When reviewing the last year, speeds in the UK have increased. According to the internet speed testing giant Ookla, upload and download speeds in the UK have actually increased (and stayed elevated) since March 2020.

WiFi Means Safety

For those without adequate connectivity and security, COVID put them at higher risk of misinformation, fraud and cyber scams. The ability to book health appointments online, including vaccination jabs, put those with WiFi and connected devices such as smartphones, laptops and PCs at a significant advantage, particularly the elderly. This has caused a wave of learning within this societal bracket; 95% of adults in the UK have used the internet in the last 3 months according to ONS, meaning a significant number have been forced to become connected for the first time.

Connectivity = Continuity

Incorporating agility, capacity and BYOD into network models has been a growing focus for many years, but many organisations had not progressively adopted these factors into their IT infrastructure. The need to suddenly support remote working, video meetings, a huge rise in the number of devices connected to the network, and ensure business-wide security was a huge obstacle that caused business disruption and backlogs in work. COVID forced those lagging behind the curve to adapt in a hurry, and a year on most are in a position to offer employees a level of ongoing flexibility that did not exist in 2019.

Closing the Digital Divide

Since March 2020, wireless connectivity has been the backbone for delivering education throughout multiple lockdowns and widespread social and professional isolation. The importance of learning continuity for children, teens, and young adults meant that a close eye was kept on student experience and results, which shone a light on the ‘digital divide’.

60% of private schools and 37% of state schools in the most affluent areas already had an online platform in place to receive students’ work, meaning they were largely prepared for the shift to remote learning and teaching. This was compared with just 23% amongst the most deprived schools, showing that children from more disadvantaged backgrounds saw the biggest negative impact to their learning due to a lack of access to adequate devices such as laptops, tablets, and adequate Wi-Fi, in addition to teachers being less accustomed to digital learning and the use of EdTech. Hundreds of thousands of devices have been distributed to these students over the last 12 months, with significant grants and bursaries being given to schools to fund these improvements, but the divide remains to be closed.

Stretching the Security Blanket

With the sudden adoption of digitally working, learning and living came an explosion in terms of the number of devices connected to business networks. Security and privacy concerns sky-rocketed as every source, smartphone, portal and PC became a hacking target, and protecting businesses from cyber-attacks became a more prominent part of new network projects.

Although the initial peak in protecting business data has largely been and gone over the last 12 months, keeping your security up to date against the latest risks will remain an elevated priority in line with the elevated risks of larger and more agile networks.

Pandemic Proof Network Management

Over the last year, IT teams across the country have been under extreme pressure to deliver higher performance to more devices with less visibility. For businesses less ready for agile working, getting the workforce online and able to do their jobs remotely was a huge initial struggle. As with security, the shift has largely been made a year on, but if the size and scope of networks is set to remain ‘as is’ post COVID, managing and monitoring networks will be both more time consuming and more complex.

Uniformity across devices is less easy to ensure, and its harder to fix problems and respond to troubleshooting questions if your network isn’t cloud-based and cloud-managed. Network management will need to allow total visibility from anytime, anywhere, and will progressively need to be able to adopt AI, machine learning and other emerging technologies.

All this explains why investing in wireless connectivity is booming, and rightly so. Businesses want networks that can support the future – whatever it has to throw at us. “Business Wi-Fi isn’t a luxury or a nice-to-have anymore. The devices connecting to our networks, ranging from personal phones and laptops to connected machinery and handheld scanners, are Wi-Fi-first and many times Wi-Fi-only”. says Ekahau, the leaders in WiFi survey and design software.

For further reading, our partner Ekahau just published their latest white paper, titled “The Global State of WiFi”, which takes a long, hard, holistic view of the shape of things to come in the world of wireless.