By Paolo Campoli, Service Provider Segment Leader, Cisco EMEAR 

For many of us, the COVID-19 crisis changed our world beyond all recognition. As lockdowns took hold earlier this year, many companies were suddenly required to upend existing ways of doing business and take their organisations almost entirely online.

During this period, connectivity became the number one priority for organisations of all sizes, and the security, stability, speed and performance of communication networks became a subject of global focus.

Now that we’re further down the road, with a bit of additional perspective, how has the connectivity industry adapted? How did Service Providers – the companies that provide your internet and phone services – adjust to support changes in working patterns? And what are some of the ongoing changes we’re likely to see carried forward in the medium-term?

The need to accommodate new traffic patterns has led to better, more efficient networks

When lockdowns kicked in, almost overnight, video-calling became the key means of conducting everything from education, to healthcare and even social interactions. During this same period, networks also saw significant growth in media streaming and gaming traffic as people stayed at home.

Within the first week of the lockdown, some service providers saw data traffic increase by as much as 40%. At one point the Deutsche Commercial Internet Exchange saw a record data throughput of 9 Terabits per second. ‘Peak’ internet usage times, which usually occupied the early evening, began to stretch across most of the day, and traffic levels that were predicted to be two years away arrived almost immediately.

Service Providers and companies such as Cisco moved quickly to build in extra capacity and ensure networks continued to perform. As well as building in additional ‘peering points’ and capacity, networks moved to implement artificial intelligence systems that would help them automate and oversee complex network operations and increase efficiency. Some also moved to implement more agile network architectures and more flexible consumption models, to be able to provide resource exactly where and when it is needed. While these moves were, in most cases, underway before COVID-19, they have been accelerated by COVID-19.

As a result, in the immediate term, service providers ensured  steady connectivity to businesses, and maintained acceptable quality of service, without, for the most part, passing the costs on to businesses. In the medium term, businesses should feel ongoing benefits from the network optimisations that have been implemented.

5G rollout was delayed, but is likely to come back out of the gates even stronger

5G was ‘writ large’ in many companies’ strategies prior to the lockdowns that took place around the world. However, COVID quickly placed 5G on the backburner. Given the shift of traffic to people’s homes, the top priority for Service Providers quickly switched to ensuring stable hard-wired connections. This shift in focus was compounded by issues in the 5G supply chain, and the reduced ability to deploy 5G engineers in the field.

Luckily, in the medium term, we don’t expect a significant delay to 5G adoption. Too many businesses have built 5G into their game plans. Even under lockdown conditions, there are readily apparent, strong use cases for 5G in certain industries.

In fact, use cases in areas such as telehealth and logistics may be fast-tracked and stronger than they were precisely because of COVID-19. And in a world where people rely more than ever on internet connections to study, work, and stay connected with their peers, we also expect to see governments step up efforts to address connectivity ‘digital divides’, connecting areas that currently have poor, or no, connectivity. We expect 5G to play a major role in this.

Businesses can expect to see new managed services to support teleworking

During the lockdown, many businesses have recognised operational benefits of deploying remote working. In many cases, remote working lowers costs and improves operational agility, allowing companies to be more flexible when executing projects, recruiting and expanding.

As use of collaboration technology has increased, so too has businesses’ recognition of the need for better collaboration experiences. In the longer term, the growth of homeworking will likely lead to the development of new types of cloud services and integrated collaboration tools to support the ‘new normal’ provided by Service Providers.

Telecommuter Managed Services could, for a monthly fee, enable Service Providers to offer technical support and intelligent traffic routing that reduces latency in calls and delivers a better in-call experience (while still respecting the need for net neutrality). These managed services will support teleworking and ensure the best quality when businesses need it the most.

Remote security will grow in popularity, safeguarding our increasingly distributed workforces

As more and more people began to work from home across March and April, the potential ‘attack surface’ of many companies increased enormously. Suddenly, securing these home networks at the source became much more of a priority.

As a result, new models enabling remote security, have rapidly gained traction. Service Providers have a clear role to play here, acting as the first layer of security, filtering potential malicious connections before the traffic reaches end users.

Service Providers can protect businesses by applying sophisticated behavioural and contextual security analysis to pre-filter encrypted and unencrypted traffic. Different security solutions could also be applied to data stored on business premises or in the cloud.

Smart companies will take a ‘defence in depth’ approach, combining this pre-filtering with other tools such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), ‘Zero Trust’ Security models and Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA).

Over the coming months, businesses can likely expect to see more sophisticated remote security offerings emerge via a number of Service Providers. And we expect the industry to more closely address the finer details of this need – such as whether such services can or should be paid for by employers, whether they are opt-in or opt-out, and whether such services can be legally standardised in corporate networks.

Lessons learnt

Broadly-speaking the direction in which communications technologies were set to evolve hasn’t changed, just the speed with which they advanced. Companies such as Cisco and the Service Providers it supplies have long been driving innovative improvements that keep us connected. But, as is often the case, crisis has caused technology to adapt or be adopted a little quicker. The improvements we’ve seen as a result of these adaptations – increased network efficiency and capacity, increased adoption and understanding of remote working, and greater adoption of remote security – will continue to deliver benefits to businesses for a long time to come.