The UK government’s announcement that people should work at home “wherever possible” shifts more focus towards the robustness of the country’s broadband network and its ability to cope with increased usage. In Spain, which entered a 15-day-plus lockdown of the population, calls were made for residents to reduce their use of the internet.
And as more people also self-isolate and turn online some have begun to question whether the UK’s “ageing” broadband infrastructure can cope with millions of people logging in from home. While UK broadband operators argue there is sufficient network capacity to cope with spikes in usage, it is unclear whether home users should expect a slowdown in their ability to connect. The coronavirus pandemic is likely to present ongoing challenges for the nation’s broadband infrastructure and the use of it.
Although not all workers will be able to shift to their home, for example gig economy workers, it is likely that many more people will be doing so in the near future. Broadband connectivity is vital for many workers, enabling them to access information and colleagues remotely. It can also help to make contacts with friends and relatives and access to shopping and other services – all of which may be vital in any extended period of working from home or self-isolation. In this respect, broadband’s role in supporting mental health is clear.
Families may face extra challenges associated with multiple users of wifi, especially if schools close. This may require parents to limit the screen time of children and encourage homework, and upgrade connection speeds. Indeed, one of the main challenges facing greater home working in the UK is the availability of high speed, fibre broadband.
Fibre provides fast, reliable speeds, relative to older copper wire connections such as ADSL. Ofcom, the UK regulator, recently estimated that around 3 million homes (only 10% of all homes) can access fibre connections – a figure that is significantly behind other countries.
Mobile broadband is increasingly being used by some workers as they access cloud-based applications such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Microsoft Teams (which face their own test). This is a further deployment challenge in the UK, with access to 4G dependent on where you live. Ofcom’s report suggested 80% of homes and businesses in UK have indoor 4G coverage, with 5G now available in over 40 UK towns and cities. Of course, if services don’t hold up it will be very challenging – as a major outage across five networks showed on March 17.
This means that many households could face potential challenges in making use of video conferencing, cloud access and other digital technologies necessary for work. In our own research at Cardiff Business School we found both access to broadband and its use varies significantly across business sectors, with the highest levels of use reported in the information and communication and the business and professional services sectors, and the lowest in construction and accommodation and food.
Despite these challenges and that an increased usage may prove to be behind the recent mobile and digital outages, broadband providers say their networks are sufficiently robust to prevent a slowdown of the internet in the UK. They argue that the network has been designed to cope with high volume usage peaks in the evening as people log on to social media and video in the evening. Openreach have also claimed that business use of broadband and enabled technologies requires lower levels of bandwidth (data transfer) than typical social applications, and that “suggestions that the network ‘won’t cope’ are ill-informed and pretty irresponsible”.
But fears of a slow down mean broadband operators will need to prioritise resilience. The reality in the UK is that the estimated 3 million households and businesses on older copper-based connections are likely to face the greatest threat of slower broadband speeds and access. These connections are generally less robust and subject to greater dropout. This also has a spatial dimension – our research points to faster broadband speeds and digital technology usage in urban, rather than rural areas, further implying the challenges of encouraging widespread remote working from home in different areas.
Additional concerns have been raised that working from home may carry greater cybersecurity risks. It is well established that home connections are more open than corporate networks to hacking. So remote workers will need to ensure their security patches are up to date, and where possible connection to business networks is made via secure technologies such as virtual private networks – particularly where working with sensitive data.
While there may be significant benefits in having access to broadband at the current time, question marks still exist, then, about the robustness of the UK broadband network, its geographical reach, and the ability of workers to make full use of the digital technologies needed to work online. And while this is a fast moving, fluid situation, all of this points to the longer term importance of the UK government delivering on its “optimistic” election promises on broadband of ensuring “every home and business” has access to a “full fibre and gigabit-capable broadband” service by the end of 2025.