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Over the course of the last few months, the pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has thrown the world into disarray. In an effort to save as many lives as possible, entire countries have all but shut down, many imposing quarantines or requiring nonessential workers to stay home. This has forced organizations and workers in pretty much every industry to reinvent presence, productivity and collaboration, and adapt to one of the most challenging and sudden waves of disruption since the second world war. Fortunately, science and technology have advanced considerably since 1945, and while both the human toll and the economic impact of this pandemic are already staggering, technology has at least allowed hundreds of millions of people in affected countries to remain connected, productive, and healthy.
For the better part of a decade, Digital Transformation has been the core driver of organizational change. The transition from legacy IT to cloud computing; the expansion of retail and banking into the mobile space; the rise of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and smart automation; and the growth of the IoT were, among other massively transformative technologies, at the heart of a generational forward evolutionary leap. And it is therefore not surprising that these very technologies have enabled businesses, governments, healthcare systems, students, and workers to adapt to the maelstrom of disruption caused by the pandemic and by sudden and oftentimes draconian efforts to mitigate it.
5G, Wi-Fi and Connectivity Have Powered Us Through The Pandemic
Every single one of the technologies upon which the world now depends on to function, even during global disruptions of this magnitude, is the result of years – and often decades – of vision, leadership, expertise, perseverance, big bets, a healthy flow of investment in R&D, dependable intellectual property protections, and affordable technology licensing. If the value of the massive investments in technology and innovation that we saw over the last ten to twenty years wasn’t already abundantly clear before this crisis, it should be now, particularly in several areas that have played a critical role in helping us adapt to the radical changes that were thrust upon us so suddenly: Network connectivity, the digital devices that we interface with, and the software that powers them.
I bring up network connectivity first, because without the infrastructure that makes our phones, computers, tablets and smart TVs connect to Gmail, Webex, Microsoft 365, Salesforce, Zoom, Netflix, Hulu, Twitter, and a million other services and platforms, it would be very difficult to work from home in our day and age. Part of that connectivity infrastructure is wired – DSL, coaxial cable, and fiber – and, increasingly, wireless connectivity, in the form of 3G, 4G, and now 5G networks. While copper and fiber continue to connect households and businesses to the internet, most of us are wireless for at least the last few meters, and the growth of wireless internet use in recent years has driven a push in 4G and 5G network investment. In the U.S. alone, Verizon Wireless, which has invested roughly $116 billion into building its nationwide network since 2000, pledged to invest $17 billion in network improvements last year. AT&T, for its part, invested roughly the same, while Sprint and T-Mobile, pre-merger, invested about $15 billion in their networks between the two of them. Combined, these investments amount to a $50 billion to build network capacity, deliver faster download speeds for users, and engineer smarter networks that can more effectively manage resources and meet data consumption demands.
Investments in 5G networks especially, which complement existing 4G LTE networks, aim to both significantly increase download speeds for 5G customers specifically and add significant additional bandwidth to networks in order to accommodate more users, more devices, and more data usage without creating the types of capacity bottlenecks that 4G LTE networks alone cannot always completely avoid. In other words, 5G networks aren’t just an end unto themselves, they also help improve the performance of 4G LTE networks by offloading them for users who haven’t yet opted-into 5G service. And as a growing number of people continues to turn to wireless broadband to perform indispensable work tasks on the go or from home – whether accessing the internet through wireless networks is their default choice, their backup, or their offload – investing in next-generation wireless networks is proving more critical than ever.
I also want to briefly mention Wi-Fi , without which connecting our non-LTE and non-5G devices to the internet would be downright tedious. A new generation of Wi-Fi – dubbed Wi-Fi 6 – is set to deliver up to 9.6 Gbps speeds to users, a considerable improvement compared to the 3.9 Gbps that Wi-Fi 5 (what most of us are used to) can deliver. But the importance of that performance improvement has far more to do with expanding a Wi-Fi network’s capacity than with achieving 9.6Gbps downloads on a single laptop or 8K TV. One of the principal advantages of Wi-Fi 6 is that it addresses both the proliferation of connected devices in the home and at the office, and the increase in data consumption associated with it. Coronavirus shorthand: As entire households are forced to stay home during the workday-schoolday, and every member of that household is video-conferencing with coworkers, teachers, clients, and friends, downloading internet content, and playing online video games, Wi-Fi 6 can not only provide more bandwidth, but is also better at balancing the load between devices for a smoother and more reliable user experience.
The devices many of us use at work also allow us (and the businesses that depend on us) to remain productive and connected no matter where we work. So long as there is a secure Wi-Fi connection nearby, our laptops, phones, and tablets can connect to whatever cloud services we need, from email and productivity tools to collaboration and videoconferencing apps. Performance improvements in our devices in recent years have made our capacity to work from home all the more frictionless. New mobile SoC’s (Systems On Chip) like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon platform for example, have turned smartphones into ideal always-on portable screens for collaboration and search. Similarly, new generations of always-on, always connected laptops (often dubbed ACPCs and even 5G PCs) give users all-day battery autonomy (ranging from 12-18 hours on a single charge) in a small enough form factor to be truly portable, and provide built-in connectivity to (depending on the model) 4G LTE and 5G networks.
Being able to take your laptop wherever you go without having to worry about a power outlet used to be a feature most prized by road warriors, but as finding a quiet corner to work from in a busy home can be challenging when everyone is confined to quarters, that kind of autonomous portability also makes its value clear during a work-from-home quarantine. The ability to connect to a wireless network rather than your home Wi-Fi network can also be extremely useful while being quarantined, particularly if either your home Wi-Fi network is struggling to handle every user’s data usage, or during peak hours, when a cable provider’s network might be at capacity and data speeds dip into the single digits.
Apps: Collaboration, Productivity, e-biz, Process Automation
Software has also been critical to allowing workers and businesses to achieve workflow continuity during this period of extreme and sudden disruption. For starters, the fact that so many enterprise and SMB-focused software can be easily downloaded to a device in moments means that workers and businesses can be highly adaptable in times of change. The ability to search for and adopt software in moments is not something that businesses fifteen years ago would have been able to do. Second, the fact that so much enterprise and SMB software functionality lives in the Cloud means that organizations can scale their need for computing power, storage, and security on the fly, and at minimal cost to their own IT infrastructure. Third, the portability of software – not only the light layer that lives on devices but also the internet-based access to data and scalable functionality means that workers don’t need to work from a physical office in order to access company information, files, and other business-critical data. All they need is an internet or Wi-Fi-capable device, a wireless connection, probably a VPN just to be safe, and they can work from anywhere, including home.
Collaboration software – from Cisco Webex, Microsoft Teams, and Slack, to Zoom, and even Facebook’s new Messenger Rooms – collaboration technology has proved to be especially helpful in the last few months, as organizations and their scattered workers scrambled to continue to collaborate on projects and workflows while physically apart. Here, organizations and workers further along in their Digital Transformation journeys discovered a sudden advantage over their less digitally mature competitors, as many of these collaboration tools were already an integral part of their daily toolkit, as was the practice of adopting new tools when the situation called for it. Organizations and workers that had been traditionally slow to adopt new technologies, however, found themselves having to not only adapt to the challenges of this operational diaspora, but do it at an accelerated pace, without much of a plan or even guardrails, with less experience in the matter, and under extreme stress. Even with intuitive software being so easy to download, deploy, and learn how to use, rushing to catch up under those conditions is not an ideal model for any business. Nevertheless, even organizations and workers that had been slow to adopt digital technologies in the past were able to do so in the first few days of stay-at-home protocols, in great part thanks to the availability of a rich ecosystem of collaboration software and video conferencing tools.
In addition to the above, we are already seeing how other technologies are allowing businesses and governments to function even as workers are not able to get back to work. Drones and robots, for example, are already being used to deliver supplies in areas where it isn’t safe for humans to go, and to build scale when not enough human workers are available to make those deliveries. Automation in production and logistics, which increasingly depend on machine learning and wireless network capacity to function autonomously, can also pick up some of the load when human workers have to stay home. The IoT, with its massive network of CCTV cameras and smart connected sensors helps utilities manage and maintain their systems with minimal human involvement, and can even help individuals maintain effective social distancing protocols. Software virtualization, cloud compute, computer vision, machine learning and AI are also contributing to better understanding patterns of transmission for a pathogen, predicting where new hotspots are most likely to emerge, managing contact tracing at scale for public health authorities, and accelerating the development of treatments and vaccines.
Without these technologies, we would be hard-pressed to have adapted so quickly – if at all – to such a sudden and drastic disruption to the way we live and work. Investments in reliable networks; the cloud; the advanced chipsets that have transformed our phones into indispensable pocket computers and our laptops into all-day, work-from anywhere workhorses; software that allows us to seamlessly collaborate, think, build, buy, sell, manage, create, solve, and ship even while everyone is stuck at home; and so on: Had it not been for the synergy of investment and IP protections that encouraged investment in R&D and innovation, and for the development, licensing, and monetization of said IP, startups, SMBs and the enterprise would not have been able to spend the last decade building the vast ecosystem of technology solutions that have made adapting to this crisis possible.
A crucial – if perhaps under appreciated – aspect of our ability to weather this and future global crises is the development, at speed and at scale, of the very technologies that enable us to quickly adapt and carry on when disruption strikes. That development generally depends on consistent swells of adequate investment however, which are themselves the product of institutional and economic conditions that favor long-term investments in big technology bets. So, if nothing else, this difficult chapter in our common history only underscores, yet again, just how critical it is for us to preserve and reward continued investment in our seemingly inexhaustible engine of innovation, and these days, particularly in fundamental R&D and connectivity infrastructure.
Futurum Research provides industry research and analysis. These columns are for educational purposes only and should not be considered in any way investment advice.
The original version of this article was first published on Forbes.