Roopa Honnachari, Industry Director, Digital Transformation Practice, Frost & Sullivan

These are unprecedented times. COVID-19 has forced most people to be homebound and to follow physical distancing guidelines (in this hyper-connected era, we all are anything but socially isolated!). If not for technology, it is hard to imagine how working parents and children stuck at home could get through this phase. Thankfully, advances in cloud, connectivity, and collaboration tools have come together to help people virtually carry out the important activities in their lives and maintain some normalcy.

Remote Working or Work-from-Home

Thanks to cloud-hosted applications, most remote employees can access every enterprise application from their home via the internet. In the pre-cloud era, employees would have to use their virtual private network (VPN) (if the company had one) to connect to their company’s private data centers (where all the applications were hosted); and the sheer number of users currently trying to remotely access the apps could have brought the infrastructure down.

Today, many organisations have moved critical business applications such as email, web hosting, contact center, customer relationship management (CRM), enterprise resource planning (ERP), collaboration and HR to the cloud, ensuring employees can access them anytime and from anywhere in the world, as long as they have Internet access.  Another option for today’s businesses is a software as a service (SaaS) based desktop as a service application, which allows remote workers to access a virtual desktop that is entirely hosted in the cloud. Because this arrangement requires no client-side software, it allows employees to use any device (e.g., personal laptop or tablet) to access business apps.

The ability to scale IT resources in the cloud and spin up applications to accommodate user traffic underlines the value of cloud. Frost & Sullivan expects that positive user experiences regarding cloud app performance in the current times will help to break down any remaining resistance to adoption among different verticals. It will be interesting to see if adoption rates change in Frost & Sullivan’s next annual cloud end-user survey.

Of course, the whole cloud model is irrelevant if there is no network connectivity to access these applications. The superfast coaxial and fiber-based broadband speeds, and 4G/LTE (and 5G in some areas) wireless speeds available today to residential customers make a huge difference to how efficient the remote employees are. The bandwidth demand the Internet can support today (100G and 400G pipes connecting the Internet service provider backbones) will be tested with this current situation. The US Federal Communications Commission chairman recently announced the Keep Americans Connected initiative to ensure Americans do not lose broadband or telephone connectivity. Over 390 companies and associations have signed the chairman’s pledge to keep Americans connected.

Finally, collaboration tools such as Cisco WebEx, Microsoft Team and Zoom have seen an unprecedented level of usage since the COVID-19 breakout, be it for hosting virtual events or for employee team meetings and collaboration.  Frost & Sullivan believes that the use of such tools may extend beyond the current crisis.  Most companies are probably realising how much of their global interaction with employees, suppliers, and partners can be accomplished by using collaboration tools as opposed to expensive business travel. Furthermore, they may realise an increase in productivity as some employees avoid the lengthy commute time.

Distance Learning and Homeschooling

The education vertical has long embraced distance learning, but the entire education community implementing and utilising it at the same time is unheard of.  Schools and colleges in the US and other hard-hit countries are implementing virtual classrooms using audio and video conferencing solutions such as Zoom and offering online curricula for students. The ability to host large volumes of content, consisting of school coursework, lectures, assignments, and e-books in the cloud, that students can access via broadband, has made distance learning possible. In some cases, school districts are shipping  Chromebooks to students to connect to virtual classrooms.  As of March 20, 2020, 118,000 schools across 45 states have closed, affecting at least 53.7 million students.

However, the COVID-19 outbreak is bringing to light the grave digital disparity that exists in the US public education system. According to Education Week, 41 per cent  of school districts do not have the necessary resources to set-up and sustain virtual classrooms, or deliver individual devices to students. Additionally, the students in those districts do not have access to the Internet to participate in e-learning programs. The Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate program that provides discounts to K-12 education for procuring broadband services is considering relaxing its rules to allow the funds to be utilised for wireless home Internet connectivity to students that lack resources.

Food, Faith, Fitness, and Entertainment

Home-bound people can accomplish an amazing list of things from the comforts of their homes, thanks to the power of the Internet. As physical distancing continues, people are increasingly utilising the benefits of online ordering through applications such as Shipt and Instacart to get groceries delivered. Similarly, most restaurants have moved to online ordering for delivery and take-out orders.

Access to the Internet and ease of use of web conferencing tools are enabling religious organisations to stream their weekly services online. Fitness is another area that has seamlessly adapted to the online delivery model. Several gyms and fitness clubs are offering group fitness classes over Zoom web video conferencing service. Of course, there is always the option of streaming millions of fitness and workout videos that are hosted in the cloud at the click of a button on our phones.

While there is no dearth of entertainment online, the COVID-19 situation has inspired leading artists whose concerts were canceled (for example, Coldplay and Keith Urban) to record videos and stream on social media platforms to keep their audience engaged and entertained. Museums have opened up doors online for people to take a virtual tour of their facilities at no cost. Such electronic options and the fact that technology is enabling us to stay virtually connected with our family and friends across the globe is in some way helping to ease the mental stress COVID-19 has caused.

Conclusion

As a research company, Frost & Sullivan is always looking ahead and predicting trends for the future. Out of the thousands of market predictions, we have cumulatively put out in the last decade for the year 2020, no one could have ever predicted the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, we have always highlighted the power of cloud, connectivity, and collaboration for disaster recovery and business continuity planning. These three technologies solutions combined are enabling continuity of business, education, virtual social interaction and more today, as we speak.