The Covid effect
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought many things into sharp focus, but for the broadband industry, one thing is clear: consumers don’t care about speeds anymore. At least, not in the way they have done for the past 25 years.
When your first Zoom call of the day descends into a pixelated mess, nobody cares if their broadband provider’s diagnostics show they’re getting the speed they paid for. They just want it to work. When Google Docs don’t open instantly or accessing work’s VPN is sluggish, homeworkers don’t want to be upsold to a faster connection – not least because it probably won’t make a blind bit of difference.
The pandemic transformed people’s thinking about broadband. They didn’t care how many zeroes there were on the end of their package’s headline speed. They wanted to hear colleagues clearly on video calls, to access the work server like they were sitting at their office desk, to avoid kids having a meltdown because their YouTube streams were buffering. Home connections were stretched in ways they never had been before, and while broadband providers pleaded “business as normal”, many people found they couldn’t get work done.
One thing is clear: there’s no going back. Some employers may be frantically ushering staff back into offices, but employee expectations have changed. Even Apple is struggling to convince staff to return to its glamorous HQ.
There’s been a “permanent mind-shift” among former office workers “who are now seeing the inefficiencies of working fixed, nine-to-five hours in a single workplace,” said Dr Jane Parry, Director for the Centre of Work and Organisations at the University of Southampton, who has been studying employee behaviour during and after the pandemic. “As one of our [study] participants summed it up: the grand experiment that nobody wanted has worked.”
Something changed. Are the ISPs ready to change too?
As one of our study participants summed it up: the grand experiment that nobody wanted has worked.
Let’s be clear – broadband networks held up remarkably well during the pandemic. No provider we know of had modelled what the impact of the entire working population suddenly working from home would have been, but the networks proved impressively resilient to the overnight switch. For that, the broadband providers deserve credit. However, that’s not to say there weren’t problems, many of which weren’t immediately obvious – even to the broadband providers themselves.
Even before the pandemic, specific applications have proved problematic for the broadband industry. We’ve written before about how companies such as Netflix go to expensive lengths to work around problems that would otherwise exist with viewers’ streaming experience. Heavy investment in content distribution networks (CDNs) that bring popular content closer to viewers, coupled with enormously sophisticated methods of compressing video mean that consumers rarely suffer from the buffering that would otherwise blight their prime-time viewing.
The curve ball thrown by the pandemic was that the applications that people were now using to work from home weren’t those the broadband providers were typically used to supporting on domestic networks. Zoom suddenly became a household name, VPN usage rocketed, applications such as Google Docs and Microsoft Teams saw their domestic use surge.
The apps that people were now using to work from home weren’t those the broadband providers were used to supporting
This created problems, even for those on fast fibre broadband connections. SamKnows’ Head of Product Marketing, Sophie Gordon, recounts her own experience of working from home. “There was me and my husband working from home, then we had two children who were home-schooling, so using core apps such as Teams or Zoom at the same time, for four different calls – we found that we just couldn’t do that,” she said. “Me and my husband had to rearrange our calls so that our kids could actually attend their classes at the right time.”
Even from the early days of the first lockdowns, broadband providers were issuing reassuring public statements, claiming their networks were still delivering consistently high speeds; but that was missing the point. The broadband companies “were focusing on speed and thinking about how the speed was affecting apps – but, actually, the speed wasn’t really an issue,” said Sophie Gordon.
“It was more about other metrics such as latency or packet loss – that was really impacting the performance of those professional apps. So, as a company, we decided to really focus on those areas and run lots of testing around those different videoconferencing apps to really help people understand the reasons they weren’t getting the experience they wanted.”
The ISPs were focusing on speed and thinking about how the speed was affecting apps – but, actually, the speed wasn’t an issue.
SamKnows issued a series of Critical Services Reports during the pandemic, covering apps such as videoconferencing, streaming and CDNs. SamKnows was tracking critical services during the pandemic as a free service to our government clients and it soon exposed problems.
Take, for example, Zoom, which the vast majority of consumers would never have even heard of before the onset of the pandemic. Zoom quickly became the videoconferencing app of choice for anything from work meetings to
family quizzes, because it was free, multi-platform and easily accessible. However, SamKnows data gathered from the Whiteboxes in consumers’ homes revealed that Zoom suffered from much higher latency than rivals such as Google Meet, Microsoft Teams and Webex. Why?
Because the free version of Zoom was (at the time) routing all video traffic via the USA, resulting in a noticeable delay in videoconferencing feeds. It was nothing to do with the speed of the consumer’s broadband connection, but it’s a strong bet that any consumer ringing their provider to complain about sluggish video calls might have been talked into taking a faster package.
The other big performance factor in the home is Wi-Fi. The speed coming into the home might have been barely affected by the rush to home working, but with three, four or more people all trying to use bandwidth-intensive services simultaneously – as Sophie Gordon described earlier – home Wi-Fi equipment often struggled to keep pace.
“ISPs were trying to reassure people during the pandemic, because there were lots of other causes for concern and panic during that time,” said Sophie Gordon. “But the problem is that speed isn’t the only factor in giving people the good broadband experience that they want. It was leaving people feeling confused and frustrated with their broadband, because they weren’t getting the experience they wanted. They would call their broadband provider and the provider would tell them that they were getting the speeds that they had been promised.”
That may even have resulted in consumers switching providers to get better speeds, only to find nothing improved because they were being provided with “the wrong data”.
Poor data may even have resulted in consumers switching providers to get better speeds, only to find nothing improved.
The new normal
The massive changes to working practices that we’ve witnessed in the lockdowns over the past couple of years aren’t about to be reversed. As Dr Jane Parry’s research found, 97% of employees are now in favour of hybrid working. Those employers that are determined to drive all of their staff back into the offices, now that pandemic restrictions have lifted in most parts of the world, are going to face an uphill battle.
Dr Parry argues that diktats to return to permanent office working “will retract the autonomy that staff so valued during the pandemic.”
“It’s going to be virtually impossible to transform a shift in employee thinking,” said Dr Parry. “If organisations are going to retain diverse workforces then, yes, hybrid has to be here to stay.”
Businesses must think differently about the technology needs of their employees, ensuring they’re as well equipped to work from home as they are in the office. That means not only looking at the hardware – laptop, desk, chair – but the broadband provision for employees too.
“We’ve learnt from the pandemic that having a robust digital infrastructure is really key to effective remote work, and also hybrid working,” said Dr Parry. “Of course, how much organisations will be able to invest in this will be variable.
Some of our case study firms were local authorities that had a much smaller budget. In the professional service companies we were speaking to, we typically saw more older and affluent people who effectively subsidised organisations by investing in their own homeworking spaces more effective – but, of course, with that there comes the risk of a social gradient developing around people’s work capacities.”
It’s going to be virtually impossible to transform a shift in employee thinking.
There’s also a real danger of new inequalities being formed. Lockdown Zoom meetings were regarded by many employees as a great leveller, with meetings no longer always dominated by the loudest voices or the biggest personalities in the room.
Organisations now need to find a way to retain that level of equality in hybrid workplaces, and to ensure that remote working remains equitable, and that the gains made during Covid aren’t lost.
“Rural areas are less likely to have high-quality broadband,” Dr Parry points out. “About six months into the pandemic, when we questioned people, about a quarter were still experiencing challenges with their internet connection and Wi-Fi at home. This points to a gap where employers could do more to support their staff.”
Also, employers must be wary not to punish those who can’t afford the best homeworking facilities. “Employers will have more difficulty recruiting talent unless we tackle the UK’s digital inequalities,” said Dr Parry. “Groups such as the unemployed, older and low- income populations will be left behind in the labour market.”
Time for fresh thinking
Work has changed dramatically in the past couple of years and it isn’t going back to how it was. The demands being placed on broadband connections in the home are dramatically different to what they were pre-pandemic. Customers’ needs have changed. And although there are some signs of broadband providers acknowledging that raw download speed isn’t the be-all and end-all for consumers, if you visit the homepage of any major broadband provider, you’ll still find marketing is dominated by those headline speeds.
SamKnows’ Sophie Gordon thinks it’s time for broadband providers to refocus. “I think we’ve reached that tipping point. Consumers don’t need crazy-fast speeds that the ISPs keep telling people that they now have available,” she said.
“With the vast majority of people still working from home for at least part of the week, customers are more concerned with the reliability and consistency of their connection, not a headline speed that they’re never going to need in the real world,” she said.
There are early signs that broadband providers are beginning to shift their thinking. Now that downtime has become a work-halting disruptor, rather than a mere inconvenience, it’s become increasingly common to see fixed-line packages sold with automatic 4G/5G fallover.
With people routinely working out of back bedrooms or garden offices, ensuring that the Wi-Fi reaches every room of the house at a decent speed has become a responsibility that some broadband providers have attempted to tackle.
Sophie Gordon thinks that’s a good start. “The fact that we’re now talking about 5G backup reflects the fact that people want a reliable, consistent connection,” she said. “Wi-Fi guarantees really speak to the fact that people are now using broadband all around the home and they want that experience to travel with them as they move around the household. So, yes, I absolutely think we need to start focusing on these different aspects of broadband.”
Customers are more concerned with the reliability and consistency of their connection, not a headline speed.