Broadband networks are stretched thin today due to the large numbers of adults and students working from home. There are a lot of stories on the web that indicate that a lot of employees are not going to be going back to the office when the pandemic is over.
Here are two stories about a trend towards more teleworking from the dozens that a Google search uncovered. The government in Travis County, TX says that as many as 3,000 of their 5,000 employees might be asked to work from home at the end of the pandemic. This is a large county that includes Austin and the surrounding suburbs. There are about 2,000 employees who can’t work from home including law enforcement, medical examiners, and offices that work with the public like the County Clerk’s office – but the government will consider sending everybody else home to work. The County says that productivity has gone up since employees went home and the County is pleased with the noticeable difference in air pollution from fewer commuters.
An article in Marketwatch had interviews with the CEOs of six tech companies and all thought that a significant portion of the workforce would never be brought back to the office after the end of the pandemic. For example, Stewart Butterfield of Slack recently told investors that he would expect 20% to 40% of the company’s workforce to remain at home. The other CEOs voiced similar opinions. They also said their companies are also likely to permanently dial-back on travel and attendance at conferences. The CEOs were excited about the options created by being able to hire talented employees from across the country.
There are some obvious impacts if companies everywhere adopt this kind of thinking. It bodes poorly for expensive office space in downtown areas. There would be a big downturn in all of the businesses that serve commuters, like restaurants and parking garages if a significant portion of workers never returns to the big city centers. There would be a drop in transit revenues and road tolls.
It also has long-term implications for broadband. While the big ISPs are all telling the world that their networks are handling the increased traffic that’s pouring into and out of neighborhoods today, those working at home know better. By now everybody has experienced video calls where some callers are pixelating or disappearing in the middle of a call. Everybody probably also has friends who are telling them the stories of wresting with poor broadband outside of cities – where only one family member at a time can use the broadband.
ISPs have seen a one-time spike in usage that may never fully go away. Most of the increased usage comes from people doing office work or schoolwork over the broadband network that would formerly have been done inside of a school or office server environment. People are teleconferencing now for conversations that would have happened in a conference room or cubicle.
One of the most likely outcomes of people working from home is going to be a big outcry from folks demanding faster upload connection speeds. A lot of the problems experienced from working at home during COVID-19 comes from the miserly upload speeds that broadband technologies other than fiber provide to a home. Cable companies, in particular, are likely to increase upload speeds – something they’ve purposefully kept small in order to provide as much download speed as possible. But there is a world of difference between a 100/5 Mbps connection and a 90/15 Mbps connection.
ISPs are also going to have to get used to a different demand curve. Residential broadband networks have always been busiest in the evenings when everybody is at home using the Internet for videos and gaming. During COVID we’ve seen some interesting shifts in broadband usage by time of day. Daytime usage is up significantly, while evening usage has not grown, and many ISPs say evening usage has decreased. The busy hour in a neighborhood may no longer be 8:00 PM.
This also means that we need to get used to the idea of Zoom and Go-to-Meeting because a lot of the people we deal with will be working from home. There are likely to be many societal changes that evolve from this pandemic, but it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that working from home is going to be a lot more prevalent than before.
“Work from home” is really a subset of many activities that are apt to see significant increases in “from home.” Health care, education, shopping, socializing “from home” have all increased and while I suspect much of that will “snap back” I also suspect much of it will remain.