Jittery Zoom calls and that spinning wheel of doom might be what remote working is coming down to as multiple users in the same household compete for increasingly stretched bandwidth on wifi networks.
Indeed, a global Future of Work study from IT firm Riverbed revealed that 94 per cent of decision-makers felt technology glitches had impacted their employees while working remotely. The most common problems were poor video call quality, frequent disconnects from corporate networks, slow file downloads and long response times when loading apps. The cause? Unreliable home wifi.
Enter the 5G rollout, the deployment of the next-generation mobile spectrum that dozens of industry commentators are heralding as the catalyst for revolutionising remote working. It’s set to pave the way for Zoom fatigue to be revived with augmented and virtual reality sessions, for the spinning wheel of doom to become a distant memory, and for all members of the same household to access their choice of apps and tools with no lag.
But with the UK government’s now infamous banning of Chinese 5G network provider Huawei from supplying the necessary technology, it’s unclear when this 5G-fuelled remote working utopia will become reality. According to a Huawei-commissioned report by research company Assembly, an estimated three-year delay to the UK’s 5G rollout could cost the UK economy £18.2 billion in lost opportunities and productivity.
Yet with remote working very much here to stay, and Riverbed’s report confirming that business leaders worldwide anticipate a 50 per cent jump in employees working from home post-COVID, how crucial will it be to overcome technological inefficiencies with supporting 5G technologies?
Is a 5G revolution part of the future of work?
For Bernie McPhillips, sales director at internet of things and 5G specialist Pangea, the corporate demand for a 5G rollout across a remote workforce has been clear among clients including Pizza Hut, Addison Lee, Etihad Airways and Birmingham City Council. From companies placing 16,000-strong orders for plug-in 5G routers and portable “mifi” dongles, to those testing the technology first with senior executives before considering mass deployment, the need is becoming more evident.
“What was established early on during the lockdown was a lot of people’s home connectivity wasn’t up to supporting full-time mass remote working. Those types of demands have never been placed on our connectivity before,” says McPhillips.
“Having more households home all day than ever before has just put an incredible amount of strain on our data networks. We put up with delays as consumers, but we can’t tolerate them as business people. As the speeds 5G can handle outperform ADSL [asymmetric digital subscriber line] and in many cases fibre, you’re then going to be able to give people an office-type experience while in their own home.”
But businesses are still getting their heads around price and practicalities, with the plug-in 5G router costing £350 a unit and the 5G mifi dongle coming in at around £100. There also remains a misconception that 5G is the same as 4G but better, notes McPhillips, adding that while a lot of education is still required, businesses are on the whole conscious of the mounting pressure to future-proof.
“Organisations are now seeing this as a long-term solution and actually forming a part of their core infrastructure, rather than an intermediary solution giving people a router in the short term to just work from home for a few months,” he says.
How the status quo is supporting working from home
But a delayed 5G rollout shouldn’t be cause for alarm, Cisco’s chief technology officer for UK and Ireland Chintan Patel argues, as according to recent communications regulator Ofcom’s data, 95 per cent of UK households can access superfast broadband.
“In the UK, our networks have coped well with the mass adoption of remote working. We have a broadband infrastructure that’s solid and still advancing. So while 5G will play a big role in advancing many new and exciting tech innovations, in reality it isn’t needed to support those in desk jobs,” he claims.
For businesses with primarily desk-based workforces, Patel believes their focus should be on three key technologies to help them work productively, effectively and securely: video and collaboration tools, automation, and cybersecurity.
“The crisis has also underlined the importance of automation for reaching the spaces, places and areas that people can’t access during an outbreak. Automated systems have the potential to keep factories operational. They also enable remote changes to be made to critical IT infrastructure, datacentres and networks,” he explains.
“All of this needs to be underpinned by robust cybersecurity systems that encompass people, processes and technology. With the increasing number of malicious cyber-actors seeking to exploit the pandemic, cybersecurity is fundamental to ensure teams of employees operating remotely can do so safely and effectively.”
The real relevance of 5G technology
But 5G will in fact play a key part in delivering more robust security for remote teams, counters Fotis Karonis, chief technology and information officer of BT Enterprise, parent company of mobile provider EE.
“5G combined with mobile edge computing will create new opportunities for operators to deploy advanced cloud services and deliver more robust security for mobile data and applications. With enterprises currently processing data from multiple locations as employees log on from home, this secure and efficient data and application processing ensures business continuity, even when faced with considerable challenges,” he says.
Cisco’s Patel, however, is adamant internet service providers and their technology parents have moved quickly to build in extra capacity to meet the unprecedented rise in demand, highlighting that there is no direct dependency on 5G for remote working itself.
He points to the real potential as being “in ground-breaking practical applications and immersive experiences”, such as students learning through augmented reality, doctors practicing remote surgery and manufacturing engineers troubleshooting failing equipment.
A connection speed breakthrough for rural areas
Notwithstanding such arguments, perhaps one of the most significant benefits 5G creates is enhancing connectivity within rural areas.
“Ofcom recently announced the clearing of the 700 megahertz band, which is significant for rural mobile broadband service because it is low frequency. You can have the base stations further apart and still have a good signal, whereas the current 5G service in the UK is launched from a higher frequency band that doesn’t work so well in rural areas,” says Ian Fogg, vice president of analysis for mobile insights firm Opensignal.
Cisco’s own data reveals the UK’s rural economy could grow by an additional £17 billion over the next ten years if good-quality 5G services are accessible.
With more widespread remote working opening up opportunities for people to escape to the country, as suggested by data from property website Rightmove, the connection between 5G and remote working remains integral.