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COVID-19 Crisis : How The Wireless Broadband Industry Is Responding

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2020 is going to be a pivotal year for the wireless industry, as it grapples with the containment of the ravaging coronavirus pandemic, writes TIAGO RODRIGUES.

On March 11th 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic as the number of global infections continued to rise. Since then, governments throughout the world have enforced strict social distancing policies to prevent the spread of the virus, bringing many industries to a standstill. At the time of writing, nearly half of the global population is on some form of lockdown, with millions of people being encouraged to stay indoors and work from home where possible.

As a result, we’re seeing demand moving away from cellular networks and onto home Wi-Fi networks in an unprecedented way. It represents a huge shift in consumer behaviour that could never have been predicted and presents a great challenge to home broadband providers. However, new challenges also present new opportunities, and the WBA and its members are working hard to ensure that Wi-Fi technology steps up and delivers.

That means the pressure is now on the wireless industry to deliver fast and dependable worldwide connectivity at a time when self-isolation and quarantine are becoming the norm.

This month, the WBA announced it has taken over OpenRoaming as a global wireless industry standard from Cisco. Our plan is to encourage new and existing service providers and partners to adopt OpenRoaming, which will in turn allow users to connect into  Wi-Fi networks across the globe automatically with no user  interaction, making it simpler and easy for all  without the need to sign in or re-register.

As well as making the Wi-Fi experience more seamless for users worldwide, the WBA is also continuing its efforts to drive Wi-Fi 6 (IEEE’s new 802.11ax standard) to the wider wireless industry. Wi-Fi 6 technology will provide more capacity than all the other Wi-Fi bands put together, and as such, we welcome the recent announcement from the Federal Communications Commission that the 6 GHz band is proposed to be licensed for Wi-Fi operation (Wi-Fi 6E).

The proposed release of the 6 GHz band would mean that we can deliver advanced wireless services to consumers, business and industry. It opens up so many opportunities for the industry at a time when users are becoming more dependent on their fixed network connections. Wi-Fi 6 offers greater speed, lower latency, tighter security, and has almost double the device capacity. If there was ever a time that homes around the world could benefit from the game-changing Wi-Fi technology that Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E bring, it is now.

However, there is work to be done. Wireless providers are now under immense pressure to keep their services running smoothly during this unprecedented peak in demand. From conference calls and video chats, to 4K streaming and online gaming, fixed network traffic is booming. Not only this, but the wireless industry is also grappling with the same lockdown measures and social distancing policies that are affecting everybody else in this time of crisis.

It’s a tall order, but WBA members continue to rise to the challenge and below are some good examples.

In order to keep pace with the intense increase in demand, AT&T has stepped up its investment in software-defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualisation (NFV). It has also joined Comcast and Sprint in offering free or low-cost internet for American students during the COVID-19 crisis, allowing studies to carry on unhindered.

As much of the world moves almost exclusively to home working, Cisco has launched a new ‘work from home’ support center to aid individuals and businesses through any technical difficulties they may encounter. It’s also launched several new offers around its WebEx video service to help businesses stay connected, attracting 240,000 sign-ups within 24 hours. Comcast is doing its part to help keep families across the US connected, making its Xfinity Wi-Fi service completely free nationwide.

As well as ensuring customers have everything they need to deal with the fast moving crisis, WBA members are also looking out for their own. BT has increased pay for ‘key workers’ and promised a 1.5% salary increase across the board for all employees. Philip Jansen, chief executive, has also confirmed there will be no staff layoffs during the pandemic, while also pledging to donate his salary to health workers for the next 6 months.

Many WBA members, including Intel, BT, AT&T and Comcast are also pledging funds and resources where possible to help turn the tide on COVID-19.

As much of the world turns to Wi-Fi networks as a primary source of work, communication and entertainment, it falls to our industry to help bridge the transition as smoothly as possible. We’re extremely proud of the great work WBA members are doing in this regard, but we’re not out of the woods yet. The effects of this crisis are going to be broad and far reaching, and I suspect we’ll see some permanent changes to the way we work and communicate – perhaps finding greater efficiencies with an improved work-life balance that’s also kinder to the environment. I suspect what we are experiencing now will drove investment and innovation into advance services that will help the way we work, study and play in a more efficient and richer experiences. For example, a faster adoption of applications based around augmented and virtual reality and edge computing.

In the meantime, the WBA will continue its efforts. Our three core priorities this year are driving seamless and secure Wi-Fi roaming through OpenRoaming, RAN convergence (Wi-Fi 6 and 5G) and Wi-Fi 6E. We will continue to explore and communicate the benefits of Wi-Fi 6, establishing deployment guidelines and carrying out end-to-end trials in real life environment to ensure a swift and seamless implementation. We believe Wi-Fi 6 should benefit everybody, particularly in light of the current crisis.

That’s why we’ll also be working hard with our members to deliver more stable and dependable broadband services to the remote areas that need it most.

  • Tiago Rodrigues is CEO at Wireless Broadband Alliance .

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