The outbreak of novel coronavirus is impacting industries and businesses across the world as quarantine/social distancing is being encouraged to restrict the spread of COVID-19. Several countries have imposed travel bans. Meanwhile, factories are shutting down, disrupting supply chains.

As more and more organsiations ask their employees to work from home, information and communication technologies (ICT) are playing a key role in ensuring business continuity. Organisations are increasingly turning to digital workspace solutions to ensure that their business operates as usual and the well being of employees is also not compromised.

Companies are deploying solutions such as telepresence and video conferencing to get their work done, without putting employees in physical contact with one another. Unified collaboration technologies, virtual office solutions and cloud services are helping employees access relevant data and stay connected even as they operate from remote locations. Several tech companies have already upgraded their existing remote working apps while some are launching entirely new services. Over the next two months, several more companies, especially small and medium enterprises (SMEs), are expected to switch to unified collaboration software and apps for video conferencing.

Connected from home

As the work-from-home concept becomes the new norm, all major remote conferencing service providers are witnessing increasing uptake of their solutions. For instance, Cisco has reported a significant growth in the use of its web conferencing and video-conferencing service, Webex, across major markets including India.

Meanwhile, digital media consumption through social media, online gaming and OTT video streaming platforms is peaking as more people get homebound. YouTube traffic is up by more than 10 per cent worldwide. Telecom Italia has seen its landline broadband traffic increase to 70 per cent in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, largely on the back of online gaming.

The overall internet traffic has started shifting from corporate networks to residential broadband. In the coming months, the broadband pipe will be a vital link between remote workers and the outside world, and also between quarantined people and at-home entertainment.

Interestingly, this presents both an opportunity as well as a challenge for telecom operators across the world. Be it virtual platforms and collaboration tools for business continuity, or gaming and video streaming for in-home entertainment, everything will require a robust telecom infrastructure. While growing data consumption definitely indicates higher revenues, it is yet to be seen if telcos’ home broadband networks are ready to carry such heavy data loads. With millions of people working from home in the coming weeks, the data load on home broadband networks will be unprecedented.

In India, this could be a bigger challenge, where broadband is provided mostly over wireless medium or copper-based wireline network. Optical fibre cable (OFC) networks are best suited for delivering high bandwidth data. While in developed countries home broadband is supported by OFC, the fibre-to-the-home market is still evolving in India.

Top priorities for telcos

It is important for telcos to manage their existing network broadband capacities in order to support adequate uptime and seamless connectivity. Broadband service providers will have to take steps to ensure that they deliver sufficient capacity. This might require prioritising content and giving preference to work-type usage over entertainment-type usage. Several European operators have been urging customers to exercise restraint in their online activities. In Spain, service providers are recommending users to restrict any gaming and video streaming to off-peak hours.

Even though the majority of the demand burden falls on fixed broadband and Wi-Fi networks, some major planning is required on the mobile side too. Operators will have to reallocate some of their 4G capacity from dense public spaces or corporate hubs to residential complexes. They might have to resort to cell on wheels (CoW) or small/femto cells as a plug gap arrangement.

In India too, all three private telcos – Airtel, Jio and Vodafone Idea – are witnessing growing data consumption on their home broadband and virtual private network networks. In fact, analysts expect a 15 per cent sequential jump in data consumption levels, particularly in urban areas, in each of the next two quarters. Further, India being a prepaid-dominant market, telcos would also see users buying recharge packs more frequently as they end up consuming their data much faster. It would thus be imperative that telcos in India upgrade the speeds and quality of their home broadband services for a seamless experience.

Taking a digital leap

Interestingly, the coronavirus outbreak is compelling traditionally less digitally inclined organisations to ramp up their digital infrastructure. For a country like India, this can be a veritable game changer as the digital footprint of most enterprises remains low. SMEs have been slow adopters of internet-based services and applications, but faced with the coronavirus threat they are resorting to workforce productivity apps and solutions for business continuity. Of course, this is an opportunity for ICT providers as more SMEs adopt virtual platforms and collaboration software. Many companies have introduced training modules to help small companies with less digitally trained workforce to move from desktops to cloud software.

Rise of a digital workforce

As unfortunate as this global health emergency is, COVID-19 is likely to trigger a rise of the digital workforce globally. The virus is cultivating online working habits, as well as making employers more open to the work-from-home culture.

Peter Quinlan, vice-president of Unified Communications and Collaboration Product Management, Tata Communications, says, “The effect of this outbreak will be both an immediate acceleration of organisations’ plans for collaboration technologies and flexible work policies, as well as a longer term shift in people’s willingness to embrace these technologies.”

Many argue that just like the SARS outbreak in China in 2003 led to the rise of the country’s ecommerce sector as millions of people turned to online shopping, coronavirus may bring in similar opportunities for remote workspace technologies, as more and more people stay at home to work.

“While it may be unplanned, now is a great time for companies to look at how they enable and empower their distributed workforce to collaborate, and doing so will pay dividends in the future, long after the current threat has subsided,” adds Quinlan.

The growing need for remote interactions will also give a much needed push to 5G technology, accelerating its adoption in the long term. Characteristics like ultra high speed, low latency and increased connection density make 5G ideal for remote interactions. The growing dependence of enterprises on teleconferencing amid the pandemic will help strengthen the case for 5G at large.

By Akanksha Mahajan Marwah