24 December 2020
Working from home was the norm in 2020 as we adapted to the global pandemic. Now, as we approach a ‘new normal’, we asked the industry how things will look as we split home and office working in 2021.
Will the overall quality of broadband capacity in UK homes have to improve considerably to make hybrid working a reality?
Henry West, commercial director, Truespeed: If I had a pound for every time someone moaned about the state of their home broadband, I’d give Jeff Bezos a run for his money. How many of us have been on a virtual team meeting in 2020 and someone hasn’t turned on their camera because their broadband isn’t up to the job – though it could be a very convenient excuse of course. Joking aside, people at home are literally tearing their hair out because substandard broadband means spending too much of the working day looking at spinning wheels and buffering percentages on screen.
Things are definitely moving in the right direction but it’s still the fortunate minority - around 22% of the UK according to the latest figures - who have access to the gigabit capable broadband speeds that the UK government is keen to unleash across the UK to underpin growth, improve opportunities, increase productivity and bridge the digital connectivity divide.
But, at the other end of the scale, over 600,000 UK properties are still unable to get a decent fixed broadband service of 10Mbps – with rural areas in particular bearing the brunt. Levelling up in terms of broadband capacity is not a case of north versus south, but rather harder-to-connect communities versus major conurbations where the build economics look far more impressive.
And homeworkers themselves – through bitter experience in many cases – are now much savvier about what good broadband actually is and what infrastructure they need to work productively and effectively at home. The trend is looking at what bandwidth you have rather than simply what speeds you get. Just as the mobile phone industry has moved the focus to the amount of data rather than speeds, I think we’ll see a shift to discussing bandwidth capacity.
Joe Bombagi, director, solutions engineering at Riverbed Technology:In short, yes. Workers may believe they have sufficient network capacity to successfully operate from home, but they are underestimating the effect other users will have on bandwidth. For example, those with young families may find themselves contending with kids playing bandwidth hungry video-games or other family members using high-capacity video conferencing. This will cause congestion and ultimately negatively impact performance if broadband capacity is not increased.
However, improving capacity is only half the solution. Users that are accessing applications and websites from further afield, for example internationally, may find that increasing broadband capacity has little impact on improving application performance. This is because the performance challenges with geographically distant applications and websites are related to the high latency caused by the size of the roundtrip, not the bandwidth. To overcome distance-related performance delays, businesses should consider implementing technologies such as application acceleration and optimisation. In doing so, organisations will be able to successfully make hybrid working a reality for their employees.
Andrew Halliwell, product and transformation director at Virgin Media Business: Last year, when I spoke to business leaders about remote working, the majority would have said that it would be impossible for organisations to keep their staff and customers connected if everyone worked from home all the time. For all its challenges, 2020 has flipped that idea on its head.
At the peak of the first national lockdown when home working was causing a huge leap in use of video calls, cloud applications, UC tools and file sharing, Virgin Media saw some daytime broadband traffic almost double. And, despite this dramatic increase in demand which occurred practically overnight, the network remained resilient. What this demonstrates is that the quality is there, and this has made homeworking not only possible in the short-term but desirable in the long term.
Ultimately, remote and hybrid working is here to stay. If 2020 was a trial run, we passed with flying colours. However, as we move into 2021, organisations need to continue to invest in scalable and adaptable network solutions to ensure they reap the full benefits that hybrid working can offer.
Alan Hayward, sales & marketing manager at SEH Technology: Hybrid working is nothing new to modern business culture, as a number of organisations offered flexible working to its employees prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. The vast majority of work that most businesses tend to do from home is fairly high-level in terms of data impact on broadband capacity. This includes sending or receiving emails, writing reports, meetings and replying to online messages, all of which would be possible on most home broadband networks. However, in some instances, video conferencing calls or more complex tasks can often place a strain on broadband links and will slow down service speeds on some connections.
Some businesses will consider establishing its own dedicated Virtual Private Network (VPN), which will not only improve connectivity when implementing hybrid working, but it will also allow employees to access their work remotely. VPNs create an encrypted network connection that authenticates the user or devices and secures data in transit between the employee and the organisation’s services. If the organisation is already using a VPN, it needs to ensure that it is fully patched. It may also require additional licenses or bandwidth due to the increased number of employees working from home.
Which products do you expect to grow in popularity?
Alan Hayward, sales & marketing manager at SEH Technology:USB dongle servers have been growing in popularity, with the Covid-19 pandemic only emphasising the importance of ensuring remote access for employees. These devices allow remote or hybrid workers to access and share USB dongle devices securely via the business network. With an encrypted point-to-point connection between the user and the dongle server, businesses can dynamically assign which user is authorised to access each dongle, ensuring everyone can retrieve everything they need. Users can also request access as soon as a license becomes available, and once the software has been used by that individual, it will be securely relocated to the next in line.
Joe Bombagi, director, solutions engineering at Riverbed Technology: Nearly 50% of businesses expect an increase in employees working remotely post Covid-19. As a result, it will be the solutions that provide robust yet flexible remote access, security and connectivity that will continue to grow rapidly over the course of the next year. In particular those that remove the need for separate solutions for on-premise and off-premise access. For example, we will see a rise in network performance management tools that enable businesses to easily monitor, troubleshoot, and analyse what’s happening across their hybrid network environment. With these solutions in place, enterprises will be much better positioned to gather information on all their environments. In turn, allowing them to quickly rectify any performance issues their employees may be experiencing.
Henry West, commercial director, Truespeed: We’ll see continued and increasing appetite for cloud-based business tools, voice over IP and access to video conferencing and online business tools, all of which need underpinning with a robust, reliable and ultrafast fibre broadband infrastructure to banish buffering and the dreaded spinning wheel icon – especially during peak periods.
Andrew Halliwell, product and transformation director at Virgin Media Business: We’re going to see a lot of demand for services in three main areas that ensure staff are connected, protected and empowered.
We’ve already seen a spike in demand for cloud-based services this year, brought on by the pandemic. Ultimately, 2020 has shown organisations that they need flexible, agile and scalable solutions, so we’ll see continued growth in demand for cloud-based applications which support staff wherever they are working.
In addition, we’ll see sustained demand for unified comms and collaboration tools. While staff may no longer be collocated, their need to connect with one another isn’t going away. This means a continued need for fully-integrated collaboration and communications tools as well as remote contact centre solutions. As remote and hybrid working becomes the norm, these services offer businesses the flexibility and agility that they now need to keep staff connected, wherever they may be.
Lastly, with remote working increasing the number of access points to corporate networks, businesses will need to increase the security of those networks to support this, and ensure they’re effectively managing their corporate traffic. Technology such as SD-WAN is ideal for this as it provides security at every gateway through encryption and gives network managers the ability to prioritise critical traffic.
Are most enterprise broadband packages good enough?
Joe Bombagi, director, solutions engineering at Riverbed Technology: Not necessarily. Having a good broadband package cannot guarantee good network and application performance for the user. This is why enterprises need to invest in technologies such as application acceleration and optimisation. In conjunction with a high-quality broadband package, these tools will enable employees to access applications with minimal disruption, quickly and efficiently. This will ultimately improve their performance, drive productivity and ensure the business can continue to operate smoothly.
Alan Hayward , sales & marketing manager at SEH Technology: Most enterprise broadband packages are sufficient for home working, especially for day-to-day activities, including emailing, web browsing, video conferencing, and uploading or downloading files to online document sharing platforms. Experts believe that the minimum speed for web browsing is between 1Mbps and 5Mbps. However, with a number of people accessing the internet at the same time or working from home in a household, some broadband connections could struggle. Today, most download speeds for enterprise broadband packages are at 16Mbps or more, which should be able to handle multiple devices using the internet at once.
Will broadband ISP networks be able to cope if millions more people start working from home?
Joe Bombagi, director, solutions Engineering at Riverbed Technology: Yes, but the ability for broadband Internet Service Providers’ (ISP) networks to cope with an increase in remote workers will largely depend on the usage patterns of users. The largest and fastest interlinked networks of the internet, referred to as the ISP backbone, are likely to manage and will continue to expand regardless. This is because as businesses and infrastructure connected to the Internet naturally grow, so too must the networks that support them. However, the Internet connection leading into individuals’ homes, also known as the last mile, will become more contended as employees – and their family members – continue to flood the network. For the infrastructure as a whole to deliver capacity and performance to its users, all elements of the network must be able to cope with the increased demand. IT teams within the business must therefore take a holistic approach to solutions deployment and not just focus on the broadband ISP network. This will involve having the right technology in place that can monitor the entire network from end-to-end – from the data centre right through to the last mile and employee’s applications.
Henry West, commercial director, Truespeed: The main issue is not all broadband networks are created equal. Any form of copper-based broadband infrastructure is outdated, unreliable and slow, giving variable bandwidth and an asymmetric service as well as contention with other network users at busy times. Fibre optics are the answer but even then, there are fibre copycats – FTTC services labelled superfast fibre or fibre broadband that still rely on old fashioned copper phone lines for the final connection to homes.
We’re making great inroads in getting the full fibre show on the road - recent figures suggest that nearly 15% of premises can now order a gigabit capable fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) service but obviously there’s much more to do to accelerate roll-out.
The UK government’s plan to get gigabit-speed broadband to every home by 2025 has been rolled back to a “minimum of 85 per cent coverage” as part of the Chancellor’s recent spending review but the ambition remains. And the overall budget for the planned rollout was not touched, remaining at £5 billion, although only £1.2 billion of the budget will be made available up until 2024.
As an industry, we need to pull together - the Government needs to accelerate the pace at which it green lights full fibre rollouts – particularly in harder to reach areas. And infrastructure providers need to continue apace with competitive offerings to accelerate rollout not just for towns and cities, but in rural areas and traditionally hard to connect historic cities so those working and living in these areas don’t get left behind.
Will the introduction of 5G help take the pressure off broadband?
Andrew Halliwell, product and transformation director at Virgin Media Business: The vast majority of people working from home will turn to fixed connectivity rather than 5G. Whilst 5G will offer users great speeds and experiences while on the go, we have a long way to go until we have widespread 5G coverage.
5G will help provide more flexibility in future, though. Today, our SD-WAN services combine fixed and 4G mobile services which increases resilience at low cost, and of course we’re looking to wrap in 5G services, too. As such, for home working, we think most customers will carry on looking to high performance fixed broadband, but for Wide Area Networks we think fibre and 5G will be combined within SD-WAN solutions to provide the high performance and resilience businesses need.
Alan Hayward, sales & marketing manager at SEH Technology: 5G mobile data is set to disrupt how businesses and users use fixed line home broadband. Looking ahead, many homes will no longer need a separate home broadband connection and will instead combine the two contracts to make some cost-savings. 5G will offer speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second, making it an acceptable alternative to fixed line copper or fibre services. It will help make wireless broadband possible anywhere, from smart cars to IoT, which can connect all kinds of devices and allow communication with ease.
What will management teams need to put in place to ensure staff can ‘work as normal’ from home?
Joe Bombagi, director, solutions engineering at Riverbed Technology: Employees are going to be working across a mixture of on-premise and off-premise environments, also known as a hybrid network, for the foreseeable future. Network management teams must therefore invest in tools that offer insight into performance across the hybrid network. For example, adopting network management tools that gather information on how the whole network and the applications that operate on it, are performing. With this holistic view of the entire IT estate, they will be able to quickly resolve any issues employees are experiencing and deliver a ‘work as normal’ environment regardless of where the workforce is located.
Andrew Halliwell, product and transformation director at Virgin Media Business: All organisations rely on the connections between employees but remote working has made this aspect of work more challenging. That’s why unified communications and collaboration tools, be it Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex or 8x8, where colleagues can work together in real time, are key to securing a strong ‘work from home’ culture and in turn, business success.
As I mentioned already, security can’t be an afterthought and must be baked into corporate networks to enable successful hybrid and remote working. With employees increasingly accessing corporate networks from remote sites, security becomes more complicated and organisations should be adopting ‘zero-trust’ networking. More flexible and agile networks such as SD-WAN can help address this while also giving network managers greater control of how traffic flows across corporate networks – something which will ultimately ensure a high-quality end user experience.
Alan Hayward, sales & marketing manager at SEH Technology: Most employees will be working from home for the foreseeable future, where they can secure their broadband network, but others may use unsecured public networks. This will open up opportunities for cybercriminals to breach the network, track internet traffic and potentially collect confidential data. It’s also important for businesses to consider the personal devices that employees may be using at home. These will often lack the same level of security tools built into corporate devices, such as antivirus software, customised firewalls or automatic online backup tools. As a result, this can increase the risk of malware finding its way onto devices, leading to information or data leaks.
The network management teams need to assess the cyber risks associated with their employees working from home and remotely accessing the network. The resulting cybersecurity policy should determine the processes that need to be put in place to minimise the risk of attacks or data breaches. Employees should also be trained on the use of their devices in the remote locations that they will be working in. This will include secure storage and management of user credentials or passwords and how to report a cybersecurity incident as well as building an awareness of the risks and the ways that they can be prevented.