Return to office-based working and the potential costs
While city centre offices are still relatively quiet, most commercial property experts believe that there will be a gradual and phased return of workers at some point later this year, assuming a second peak of Covid-19 can be contained.
Although initial office occupancy rates are forecast to be around 20%, this is likely to increase over time. According to one poll commissioned by the British Council for Offices, just 20% of UK adults plan to work from home in the future.
As office managers redesign floor space to accommodate social distancing measures, IT departments will be forced to redesign their networks to maximise WiFi and Ethernet coverage, increasing IT costs as a result.
Areas of buildings not previously well utilised are now likely to be inhabited to maximise available floor space. Ethernet connections, indoor WiFi or cellular coverage will need to be extended to these previously inhabited areas of buildings which will increase the number of fixed and wireless access points required and therefore the costs incurred.
Changes in data usage patterns and their impact on 5G networks
Mobile data usage has declined in city centres because of the pandemic. The working from home revolution has shifted mobile usage from cities to suburban areas and commuter belts, with some suburban areas peaking 20% above the normal (pre-covid-19) usage levels.
While these changes are unprecedented, this is all well within the capacity of mobile networks, according to EE.
However gradual return to work, and the threat of future pandemics, will likely require mobile network operators (MNOs) to employ software-defined technologies to optimise network resources to meet real-time demand.
Having the ability to dynamically reconfigure mobile networks in real-time based on demand will allow mobile operators to be more agile, enrich the customer experience and improve their bottom line.
Covid-19 and global politics
All four UK MNOs have made incremental upgrades to existing macro 4G networks; however, this thin layer 5G approach will not deliver the full 5G experience we have all been expecting.
The true benefits of ‘full 5G’ will be realised following a significant investment in densified small cell 5G network infrastructure in city centres.
Given the significant investment required in full 5G networks, MNOs are stress testing demand to prove the business case for investment in 5G in advance of making any large-scale commitments to rolling out full 5G networks.
However, if initial forecast office occupancy rates are anything to go by, city centres will be less populated than before, meaning the business case for 5G networks will be more challenging to prove than for 4G networks.
Local authorities and vertical industry sectors will need to develop compelling and discrete 5G use cases to unlock the investment case for full 5G.
The UK Government’s ban on using cheaper Huawei equipment will further delay deployments and make the business case for 5G more challenging given the alternatives are few and far between and more expensive.
Outdoor WiFi networks and OpenRoaming
The provision of free outdoor public WiFi in the UK was popularised by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) in 2012/2013 as part of a programme to improve broadband connectivity across UK cities.
Outdoor WiFi was largely unsuccessful as it was difficult to monetise, the customer onboarding experience can be clunky and there is growing evidence that consumers tend to use their own mobile data allowance when they are outdoors.
As a result, many UK local authorities have favoured the rollout of small cells in readiness for future 5G networks as opposed to free outdoor WiFi.
While outdoor WiFi networks are being phased out, free indoor WiFi in public buildings is successful. This is largely because WiFi tends to be consumed at fixed indoor locations such as libraries, leisure centres, places of interest, schools, offices, transport hubs, homes etc.
The multi-vendor led OpenRoaming initiative designed to provide a better bridge between cellular and WiFi networks will likely reinforce the use of free indoor WiFi in public buildings.
OpenRoaming allows devices to connect to and authenticate to approved WiFi networks automatically without needing to log in or register more than once and will significantly improve the customer onboarding experience.
For example, Aruba’s Air Pass technology uses OpenRoaming to authenticate mobile devices using SIM credentials, therefore, extending 5G network coverage using indoor WiFi networks enabling seamless indoor WiFi and outdoor 5G interworking.