Predictions for a Post-COVID-19 World

While it might still be too early to make predictions, there are dozens of articles on the web predicting how the COVID-19 pandemic might change our long-term behavior. Here are some of the more interesting predictions I’ve seen that involve broadband and telecom:

An Outcry for Better Home Broadband. Millions of people were sent home for work or school to homes that didn’t have good broadband. These folks have been telling the world for years that they don’t have good broadband. When this crisis is over these people are going to insist on being heard, and they are going to take out their anger on politicians who don’t help to find broadband solutions. This means Mayors and City Councils that are not pro-broadband. This means County Boards and Commissions that don’t offer matching grants to attract ISPs. This means any state politician who votes against significant state broadband grants or who votes against municipal participation in broadband. And this means federal Senators and Representatives that support the big cable companies and telcos over their constituents. Folks are not likely to be fooled any longer by false legislation that supposedly is pro-broadband but which is the exact opposite – because folks are going to be paying attention to any news concerning their home broadband.

Digital Meetings Are Here to Stay. We are all seeing how effective it can be to meet online. People are going to be a lot less willing to travel for a one or two-hour meeting. I know my days of doing that kind of traveling are over. This means airline business travel is likely never coming back to former levels, but it means a lot more. I was talking to somebody in local government the other day who told me that they spend over 10 hours of every workweek driving between meetings around a large county. He said he thinks the day or required live attendance at such meetings is likely over.

Demand for Faster Upload Speeds. The permanent uptick in more video meetings means there will be an increased demand for faster upload broadband speeds. The FCC still talks about 25/3 Mbps as acceptable broadband, but a home or office getting only 3 Mbps upload is not able to hold multiple simultaneous video calls. Homes and businesses are going to favor technologies willing to meet that upload speed demand.

Telemedicine has Arrived. I have been watching the glacial acceptance of telemedicine for fifteen years. The biggest hurdles have been the reluctance of doctors to try telemedicine and the willingness of insurance companies to pay for it. We’ve broken both of those barriers and telemedicine is here to stay. There are numerous routine doctor visits that don’t require an office visit. It’s never made sense to force patients who aren’t sick to march through a waiting room that has been filled all day with those with colds, the flu, or worse.

Expect Contactless Payments. I can remember being promised twenty years ago that we’d be able to pay for things by waving a cellphone. Nobody wants to hand a credit card to a clerk or even pass a credit card through a device that other people have used all day – so stores that install touchless payment systems are quickly going to become preferred. Expect an expansion of telephone, voice, and vision interface at checkout locations and a phase-out of credit card swiping. Also, expect an increased reluctance to take cash. There were already stores in New York City last year that made headlines by refusing to accept cash – expect a lot more of that.

More Telecommuting. Businesses have seen that people can be effective when working from home. Expect to see businesses more easily allowing for working from home at least part-time. This likely means a downturn in business real estate. For example, my neighbor is an architect who works at a small local branch of a larger firm. They’ve already seen the effectiveness of working from home and have already discussed not reopening the local office when the crisis is over. More telecommuting means more daytime use of neighborhood bandwidth and an increased expectation of residential broadband signal quality.

A Reboot for Corporate Security. We just spent a decade moving corporate data behind firewalls and restricting access to data from outside the business. Many businesses scrambled to find ways to allow employees to work from home, and in doing so undid many of their security protocols. Expect a major reboot as companies implement security solutions that support telecommuting.

Big Companies and Telecommuting

One of the biggest benefits most communities see when the first get good broadband is the ability for people to telecommute or work from home. Communities that get broadband for the first time report that this is one of the most visible changes made in the community and that soon after getting broadband almost every street and road has somebody working from home.

CCG is a great example of telecommuting and our company went virtual fifteen years ago. The main thing that sent us home in those days was that residential broadband was better than what we could get at the office. All of our employees could get 1 – 2 Mbps broadband at home and that was also the only speed available at our offices over a T1. But we found that even in those early days that a T1 was not enough speed to share among multiple employees.

Telecommuting really picked up at about the same time that CCG went virtual. I recall that AT&T was an early promoter of telecommuting as was the federal government. At first these big companies let employees work at home a day or two a week as a trial. But that worked out so well that over time big organizations felt comfortable with people working out of their homes. I’ve seen a number of studies that show that telecommuting employees are more productive than office employees and work longer hours – due in part to not have to commute. Telecommuting has become so pervasive that there was a cover story in Forbes in 2013 announcing that one out of five American workers worked at home.

Another one of the early pioneers in telecommuting was IBM. A few years ago they announced that 40% of their 380,000 employees worked outside of traditional offices. But last week the company announced that they were ending telecommuting. They told employees in many of their major divisions like Watson development, software development and digital marketing and design that they must move back into a handful of regional offices or leave the company.

The company has seen decreasing revenues for twenty straight quarters and there is speculation that this is a way to reduce their work force without having to go through the pain of choosing who will leave. But what is extraordinary about this announcement is how rare it is. It’s only the second major company that has ended telecommuting in recent memory, the last being Yahoo in 2013.

Both IBM and Yahoo were concerned about earnings and that is probably one of the major reasons that drove their decision to end telecommuting. It seems a bit ironic that companies would make this choice when it’s clear that telecommuting saves money for the employer – something IBM crowed about earlier this year.

Here are just a few of the major findings that have been done about the benefits of telecommuting. It’s improves employee morale and job satisfaction. It reduces attrition, reduces sick and unscheduled leave. It saves companies on office space and overhead costs. It reduces discrimination by equalizing people by personality and talent rather than race, age or appearance. It increases productivity by eliminating unneeded meetings and because telecommuters work more hours than office workers.

But there are downsides. It’s hard to train new employees in a telecommuting environment. One of the most common ways to train new people is to have them spend time with somebody more experienced – something that is difficult with telecommuting. Telecommuting makes it harder to brainstorm ideas, something that benefits from live interaction. And possibly the biggest drawback is that telecommuting isn’t for everybody. Some people cannot function well outside of a structured environment.

As good as telecommuting is for companies it’s even better for smaller and rural communities. A lot of people want to live in the communities they grew up in, around friends and family. We’ve seen a brain drain from rural areas for decades as kids graduate from high school or college and are unable to find meaningful work. But telecommuting lets people live where there is broadband. Many communities that have had broadband come to town report that they see an almost instant uptick in housing prices and demand for housing. And part of that increased demand is from those who want to choose a community rather than follow a job.

One of the more interesting projects I’ve worked on with the telecommuting issue was when I helped the city of Lafayette, Louisiana get a fiber network. Lafayette is not a rural area but a thriving mid-size city, and yet one of the major reasons the residents wanted fiber was the chance to keep their kids at home. The area is largely Cajun with a unique culture and the community was unhappy to see their children have to relocate to larger cities to get jobs after graduating from the university there. Broadband alone can’t fix that kind of problem, but Lafayette is reportedly happy with the changes brought from the fiber network. That’s the kind of benefit that’s hard to quantify in dollar terms.

Telecommuting and Broadband

BeetleI was looking into telecommuting and ran across a large survey done last year by FlexJobs that asked how people feel about telecommuting. As somebody who telecommutes (CCG is a virtual company and we all work at home) the results are not surprising.

The survey showed that over half of workers said that they could be most productive at home and this is where they would go to work on important projects. They cited the major reasons as fewer distractions, minimal office politics, reduced stress and a more comfortable environment.

Less than a quarter of employees thought they were most productive at an office. (When CCG went virtual we had one person who said they could not be productive in the home environment, and it’s important to recognize that telecommuting isn’t for everybody)

Interestingly, a third of the respondents thought that telecommuting was better for their health. Avoiding the stress of commuting, being able to eat their preferred diet and the flexibility to more easily make medical appointments all contribute to this. has put up some substantial information on telecommuting. Some of the more important points they make about the topic include:

  • A Stanford study shows that home-based customer service reps are 13% more efficient than those that work in a call center.
  • Another study by the University of Texas showed that telecommuters worked an average of 5 – 7 hours more per week than office-based employees.
  • Telecommuting can reduce turnover. 73% of telecommuters report being happy with their jobs as compared to 63% for office workers.
  • A Penn State study showed that telecommuters feel more valued. They feel less stress and they show gratitude for the flexibility they are given.
  • The Consumers Electronics Association calculated that telecommuting in 2013 saved enough energy to power one million homes. I’m always a bit leery of such calculations, but there is no doubt that saving on commuting is a huge benefit for society. And it’s also not bad for employees as can be witnessed by my two-and-a-half year old truck that has only 10,000 miles on the odometer.
  • Several studies have shown that employers save considerable money from allowing telecommuting and it’s been calculated in a few studies that the cost of housing an employee at the typical office costs between $10,000 and $15,000 per year. And employees who telecommute save on commuting costs, lunches and attire for the office.

Finally, Global Workplace Analytics analyzed over 4,000 studies on telecommuting and reported the following:

  • 2/3 of people would like to work at home.
  • 36% of employees would choose telecommuting over a pay raise.
  • A survey of 1,500 technology professionals showed that 37% would take a 10% pay cut to be able to work at home.
  • 14% of Americans have changed jobs to shorten commute times.
  • Almost half of employees feel that their commute is getting worse.
  • 78% of employees that call in sick really aren’t. Unscheduled absences cost employers $300 billion per year.
  • Sun Microsystems says that telecommuting employees spend 60% of the saved commuting time working for the company.
  • A number of companies report that telecommuting reduces discrimination and lets people be judged by what they do instead of what they look like.
  • And my favorite – telecommuting cuts down on wasted meetings. Web meetings tend to be better organized and shorter.

This is only a partial list of the benefits and there have been numerous studies from companies that have introduced telecommuting. But one thing is true for every telecommuter – they must have adequate home broadband. Communities without good broadband are missing out on the great benefits from telecommuting.

Broadband Adoption and Income

eyeballThe Brookings Institute just released a report, Broadband Adoption Rates and Gaps in U.S. Metropolitan Areas, that looks at metropolitan broadband rates around the country. The report uses a broad definition of broadband that includes cable modem, DSL, fiber, cellular data, satellite, and fixed wireless service.

The report acknowledges that broadband is still growing and the country saw 2.6 million households add broadband from 2013 to 2014, bringing the overall national penetration rate to 75.1%. But Brookings found that there is a lot of variance in the penetration rates in different parts of the country.

There are metropolitan areas like San Jose where the broadband penetration rate is greater than 88%. The top ten metro markets for broadband has Washington DC in tenth place at 84.7%. But there are a number of other cities that lag behind these national statistics. At the bottom is Laredo, TX at 56.2%, joined at the bottom of the list with places like McAllen, TX, Visalia, CA, Dothan, AL, and Beaumont, TX.

Brookings looked at a number of different factors that affect broadband usage for households. It’s not surprising that household income is a factor. Households with an annual income greater than $50,000 have an 88.8% broadband penetration rate while those with less than $20,000 income are only at 46.8%. Education also seems to be an influence and 91.5% of households with somebody with a bachelor’s degree have broadband while households where nobody finished high school are at 54.1%.

The report did not find a big correlation between race and broadband adoption. While there were cities where blacks or Hispanics have low broadband adoption rates, there were others where they did not. The report concludes that the determining factor is household income and not race.

The report also found some correlation with age and households that have a family member under 18 had a penetration rate of 81.9% while those with everybody over 65 were at 64.5%. But the correlation with age did not hold across all markets and the places where the elderly have lower broadband acceptance seems to be where their income is the lowest. So again, income seems like a more important factor than age.

The report found a few correlations that make a lot of sense. For instance, it found that almost all homes that include a telecommuter have broadband.

Overall the report concludes that metropolitan areas with the highest incomes, with the highest percentage of tech workers, and with the highest average education also have the highest broadband penetration rates.

The report observes that households widely value broadband and that the rate of broadband subscriptions continues to climb. But they conclude that we cannot make the transition to an all-digital society until broadband penetration rate is as ubiquitous as the rates for water and electricity. They conclude that it is going to take targeted assistance programs to get broadband into more homes. While they point to the federal Lifeline and the newly named ConnectHome programs as being a needed part of the solution, they don’t see these kind of programs closing the digital divide. They recommend many more local initiatives, including programs by carriers, to try to get broadband into more households.

Quantifying the Benefits of Fiber

san_francisco_skyline-wideFour times in the last two weeks I have been asked the question about how to value the public benefits of operating a fiber network. It’s a fair question, because anybody that builds a fiber network for a whole community brings added value beyond just the monetary value of the revenues of the network to the service provider.

Fiber networks automatically bring a number of community benefits. With greater download speeds people are enabled to telecommute more or to work from home full-time. Communities with fiber generally see a surge in entrepreneurship. Fiber speeds make it easier for people to partake in advanced video services like distance learning or telemedicine. Applications that require bandwidth are just starting to burgeon due to the expanding number of people with broadband.

But my clients weren’t asking about those ‘normal’ benefits of fiber. What they really wanted to know is if there is something more that they could and should be doing after they have built a fast network.

Each of these carriers had made a list of ideas they wanted to discuss with me, and interestingly, they all had two of the same things on their list. First, they wanted to know if it made sense to use their fast network to bring community-wide WiFi to their service area. They also are interested in looking harder at the digital divide—particularly at the idea of making sure that every school kid in their community has access to broadband at home.

Even more specifically, they wanted to understand if there is a model for helping to pay for these ideas. They were already convinced that these are good ideas and they wanted to know if there was some ways to monetize them.

And that is a really good question. I will have two upcoming blogs that will look at the business case that can be made for these two ideas. But today I want to take more time to look at the general idea of using a fast network to bring benefits to the community.

It’s really hard to measure the social benefits of doing something like broadband. It’s fairly easy to make a list of the ways that broadband can positively affect a community. But it’s nearly impossible to put a dollar value on most of those benefits. I remember a few years ago reading a report that Seattle commissioned that quantified the value of a fiber network for the city. I don’t remember the exact bottom line conclusion, but it estimated a really big dollar benefit for the community, something like $1 billion over a few years. I recall that the benefits were greater than the cost of building the network, and if those benefits were credible the city should have dropped everything to get this done.

But even a major fiber proponent like me had a hard time grasping some of the estimates that were made in the study. How can you really measure the value of things like telecommuting or being able to start a business from home? And how do you separate the value of fiber compared to the already existing benefits of broadband from cable modems and DSL? After all, people can work at home easily using a cable modem too (I am proof of that), and so the question becomes how can you figure out the incremental benefit of fiber?

In every study I have ever seen on the topic, somebody—usually an economist—develops some assumptions of the values created by fiber and then also estimates the number of times the benefit will be realized. That requires two major assumptions, neither of which can be verified.

But that doesn’t mean that value isn’t created, just that it’s nearly impossible to ever measure it even after it has happened. And this leads me to the conclusion that if you want to use a fiber network to do good, then find some way to pay for at least some part of what you are trying to accomplish and then go ahead and do it if you and the community are convinced it’s a good thing. You are never going to be able to find definitely proof of the community value of most ideas, even when you know those benefits are real.

I don’t see this as any different than many other things that are done for the public good. How can you measure the value of things like having a nice park in a city or of having a program to help the homeless? The answer is you can’t. But in most communities those kinds of things are done when the community reaches a consensus that it’s a thing worth doing. And I think that is the same way you look at the benefits of fiber. If the community wants the benefits that fiber can bring them, then the community and the network owner ought to be able to work together to make good things happen.