New year, new normal? Reflections and predictions for Telecoms in 2021

“Time moves fast in technology and telecoms,” I said in our predictions blog for 2020 as I forecast an innovative era ahead to kick start the new decade…but not as fast, it seems, as during a global pandemic. Few could have predicted that innovation in 2020 would take a very different form in response to coronavirus, a pandemic that has not just dominated the year but has radically transformed the way we live and work, perhaps permanently for many people and businesses.

What the pandemic has brought into sharp focus, particularly for those of us working in Telecoms, is just how critical digital infrastructure is to our everyday lives as well as to businesses across the globe, and the immeasurable role it plays in crisis management and business continuity during these challenging times.

Reflections on 2020

This year, we’ve experienced a dramatic upsurge in working from home with research showing an eight-fold increase in employees working exclusively from home in April 2020 compared with at the start of the year. Many organisations, including our own, have had to make major changes for continuity of service by implementing collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams.

Elsewhere, retailers’ primary outlets have been through online channels through two lockdowns, while education has become a more virtual experience with whole courses being digitised and Esports has moved from niche to mainstream as we’ve spent so much more leisure time at home.

All of these changes have brought about an increase in the interest of gigabit-capable connectivity services and high capacity network solutions to keep people seamlessly connected and businesses running smoothly.

Unprecedented demand

Digital demand has increased exponentially in 2020 with Ofcom’s Online Nation 2020 report stating that time spent online has reached record levels because of COVID-19. Take video calling as one example, usage statistics have jumped from 35% of online adults using video calling at least weekly in the 12 months to February 2020, to double that by May 2020 with 71% using these services at least weekly, and 38% using them at least daily.

Despite the challenges of 2020, the UK’s digital ambitions have remain unchanged (if anything they have been further prioritised) and in keeping with that we’ve continued investing heavily in our network to keep pace with demand – increasing our network reach from 12,000+km to 20,000+km and our number of data centres to over 90 nationwide.

Accelerated digital transformation

Digital transformation has accelerated across all sectors to deliver much needed operational efficiencies but nowhere more so than in the Public Sector in the provision of public services and in particular in the NHS – not a sector we would have predicted last year would be leading change and modernisation but one that has led the way with innovations such as a dramatic increase in virtual GP appointments , using the power of cloud computing to track and model the virus and not least the rollout of the NHS COVID-19 contact tracing app to the general public to reduce the risk for us all.

We’re proud to have done what we can to help the NHS in this most challenging of years: earlier in the year we worked with channel partner NYnet to deploy critical infrastructure to an NHS Extended Access Hub in North Shields. The hub was being hurriedly established to help medical staff support COVID-19 patients that required treatment in a secure facility but were not deemed as needing urgent hospital care. Given the urgency, we pulled out all the stops to complete a process that would normally take months in just eight working days.

Looking ahead to 2021

Better connected places

Fibre-ing up cities and places to make them better connected and to enable smarter applications will continue into 2021 and beyond. Full fibre for the UK by 2025 remains the ultimate goal but there is still a lot of work to be done to meet this Government-led pledge.

With more data being consumed than ever before, 5G rollout will also continue at pace next year. We’ve partnered with Three UK to help them facilitate their 5G rollout with an extensive programme of unbundling BT exchanges. With 198 exchanges already deployed, and another 259 to be available soon, Three UK is set to make full use of the expanded exchange footprint to accelerate its 5G network rollout for its customers.

Rise of the Alternative Network Providers

The rise of the Alternative Network Providers (AltNets) will also help to better connect UK places, including the often more overlooked rural areas. This will deliver the benefits of lower bandwidth fibre connectivity (sub 1Gbps) for those companies not yet needing higher capacity services like Ethernet, but still wanting the benefits and reliability that come with this type of solution.  

A survey carried out in the Spring found that the AltNet sector ended 2019 with 50% growth year-on-year, up from 23% growth at the end of 2018, passing 1.2 million premises with fixed superfast or ultrafast broadband. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, AltNets look set to have another promising year of growth as they help to deliver the Government’s 2025 full fibre pledge.

The new normal

With Spring 2021’s arrival, a gradual return to normality is predicted as restrictions ease and the economy can hopefully begin to recover. However, this normality is going to be significantly different to the one we remember from the last decade in many ways. Working from home is likely to evolve into an enduringly hybrid solution of home and office working. This will lead the Telecoms sector to rethink their connectivity strategy to best support staff splitting their time between home and office. Increased screen time and reduced in-person interactions brings with it new challenges in mental health and wellbeing which will also need to be a priority on the employer agenda going forward.

Innovative tech responses will be required from the industry as business models adapt to the new normal more permanently – we can expect more digital first approaches when we travel, shop, eat out and go about our daily lives. At SSE Enterprise Telecoms, we can help transform business with Cloud, SD-WAN and Managed WAN services and more. We expect all of these to increase in adoption next year, along with newer solutions such as Unified Comms as a Service and even conceptual ones like composable infrastructure, all of which have alike intentions of better managing and scaling IT infrastructure and services.

2021 in your industry

With digital transformation and modernisation on the agenda for us all in the year ahead, what are the predictions for your industry in 2021? Share your thoughts with us.

In the meantime, take a look at how we’re improving and transforming network connectivity, and helping to build the UK’s 5G future.

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