While all the hype around 5G and the speeds that it promises to bring to mobile networks are promising, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought a new focus to the masses' internet needs and exposed some of the weaknesses of broadband networks. With the initial exodus to remote working that happened around the world when the pandemic first began, came a surge of network activity that was too much for some telcos to handle. There were outages, there were slowdowns, and on some networks, there was a forced reduction in video streaming quality.
5G’s biggest proponents may tout its speed as the major benefit that puts it head and shoulders above earlier mobile options, which may be true, but in a post-pandemic world, the question becomes – does this even matter?
With more people working from home than ever before (some indefinitely), mobile networking capabilities have become a lot less relevant for the average person. If you're stuck in your home, after all, you'll be mainly using Wi-Fi to connect your mobile device. So, while 5G may have provided a good alternative in a pre-COVID world, it doesn’t offer too much help to ease the load on broadband networks in the current one.
The increasing reliance on broadband
Remote working is only the tip of the iceberg for many households. With many schools moving online and options for socializing outside of the home limited, many home networks will need to support more simultaneous users than ever before.
It’s not extreme for the average family to have several people video conferencing, streaming HD content, and working or learning remotely all at once. With this happening in homes across the world, the stress on the broadband networks will only increase. For remote workers, their home Internet connection's reliability will be a top priority, as disruptions to service can literally cost them and the companies they work for money.
The expectation of those working from home will be that they have the same level of performance at home that they have at the office – whether that’s a fair comparison or not. People will expect that the broadband connections they’re paying for can stand up to their needs and will be unforgiving of outages caused by surges in use. They’ll also be comparing their home network performance to how it functioned before the pandemic. So, if they never had issues using their home network before, they’ll be frustrated by any issues that spring up while they’re trying to do their job.
Shift the focus to broadband
While building out 5G is an important next step for mobile that will reap benefits far into the future, and address new opportunities such as IoT applications, the more immediate focus should be on shoring up broadband networks that supply connectivity to people stuck at home. Charging higher prices to fund this will not be an option either, as customers will expect that their broadband network can handle their remote working and learning needs and are not going to want to pay more for reliable service.
This doesn’t negate that networks are going to be stretched more than ever before. It means that telcos need to look for ways to expand their networks quickly, without having to spend a lot on new infrastructure. Just as there's no time to wait for 5G in the hope it will cure the current networking struggles, there’s also no time to take on an arduous and long upgrade process.
To achieve this, telcos need to channel their focus into their broadband networks and look for innovative solutions to this unprecedented problem. 5G might be the flashy topic of the moment, but at the end of the day, what customers care about most is being able to reliably work, learn, and be entertained at home during this already stressful time. A new mobile network that requires an expensive new device to access isn't going to appease customers who are getting kicked off conference calls because their home network can’t handle their needs.
Due to the expansive nature of many broadband networks, and the traditional set-up of their hardware that makes it hard to upgrade or expand without major system overhauls, telcos need to look towards newer mindsets for building networks. One way to do this would be looking at what has made cloud-native companies able to build scalable networks with such ease and using that as inspiration to move away from the typical network-building approach towards a disaggregated model. The same innovation that is being channeled into 5G development should be put into traditional network development. After-all the need to provide in-home Internet is not going to go away anytime soon.
Hannes Gredler is the founder and CTO of RtBrick.
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