Much has been written about the impact of COVID-19 on businesses. However, little research has been done about its impact on business consumption of communications services. Thanks to the Syndicated Solutions team at Kantar, we better understand the changes in the B2B telecom market. In June, they interviewed decision-makers at 600 businesses geographically representative of the US.
As their findings reveal, the Zoom phenomenon is real. Due to the pandemic, businesses of all sizes have relied more on videoconferencing and audioconferencing as well as other communication services.
For a majority of the businesses that increased their usage or these newly adopted services, the change is long-lasting. For example, 73% of those embracing cloud computing at greater levels or for the first time see the change as permanent. In the case of videoconferencing, it's 71% – proof that the pandemic has accelerated shifts that otherwise may have happened five or ten years from now.
Turning to the work-from-home (WFH) trend, 37% of businesses that either initiated or expanded their WFH policies indicated that they will keep these changes in place. In the services sector, half of the businesses grew their WFM workforce. Almost a third of those businesses view the change as permanent.
The ability for WFH employees to effectively fulfill their professional responsibilities is dependent on technology and telecommunications. If their network bandwidth and security at home are inadequate, their business performance will suffer. To achieve high levels of professional and network performance, employees, employers and service providers should consider the following. Question #1: At home, how do we match the connectivity, performance, security and network services provided in the office?
First, employers should supply their employees with the specification minimums. The required throughput and latency should be indicated. Note that the requirements may vary based on the employer's sector, the employee's role and the applications. For example, a video editor's home-based environment will be different than that of a customer service rep. It's not surprising that one in three businesses that increased their WFM workforce have added bandwidth, according to the Kantar study.
Since connectivity is over a residential network, it will continue to be "best effort," particularly over DOCSIS, and not be subject to a commercial SLA with latency, jitter, packet loss and MTTR specs. If distinct home-based business service is provided over fiber or PON, an SLA is possible. Employers could request a new SLA reasonable for a home-based employee. The specs should cover security. It's unlikely that an employer will risk putting the company's network on a potentially compromised home LAN.
The employee and, if need be, the employer should work with the current service provider to meet the employer's specs. It's interesting to note that the level of contact with the provider varies by business size. The larger the business, the greater the likelihood of interaction with service providers during the pandemic – with 40% of enterprises doing so versus 13% of small businesses, according to the Kantar study.
If the existing provider cannot meet the employer's specs, a new provider should be engaged. The reasons for switching can be seen in the above graphic from the Kantar study. Whichever provider is chosen, they must maintain the necessary QoS and continue network management as conducted pre-pandemic. They must be able to handle the unprecedented daytime demands on their residential network and apply any lessons learned from serving home-based employees pre-pandemic.
What steps do employees and their service provider need to take to achieve the desired specs? Some employers may be fine with most employees using the existing connection – akin to working pre-pandemic while on the road. However, there are workforce segments with distinct work-from-home service and network needs.
In the case of DOCSIS service, a second cable modem may be needed for business to ensure adequate bandwidth and security. This will also enable business connectivity without risking interference from use by others in the household.
As to the type of DOCSIS, most employees can work effectively from home with DOCSIS 2.0 (limited to 25 Mbit/s down, 5 Mbit/s up). If video streaming is part of the job, it would be better to have DOCSIS 3.0 (typically 300 Mbit/s down, 20 Mbit/s up). Also, If (near) real-time uploading and downloading is required, then DOCSIS 3.0 or better is necessary. If employees have to upload high volumes of data in short amounts of time, symmetrical services may be required. DOCSIS 3.1 is popular for gigabit downloads, and normally required for uploads in excess of 20 Mbit/s.
A DOCSIS upgrade may be necessary to achieve the throughput requirements needed for specific applications. Fiber would be required if the DOCSIS network is inadequate – with applications exceeding what can be handled.
Security is a key consideration in determining how the employee's service should be set up. If security is of no/little concern to the employer, then no action need be taken other than possibly a different router. However, if security is a concern, there are three different solutions based on the level/type required. A VPN can be established. However, this level of security is limited to the device(s) running VPN software or behind the VPN router hardware.
If Layer 2 extension of the employer LAN is required, an SD-WAN can be established. With SD-WAN, the employee connects directly to the Ethernet of the employer and gets to use their IP space. For example, a customer service rep can connect both his/her computer and IP phone securely on the company LAN.
The highest level of security can be achieved with a separate network – using the equivalent of a special access circuit. Essentially, this would extend the employer's LAN to the employee's home. DOCSIS modems only support one network per device. If a separate network is required, a second DOCSIS modem provisioned for Business Services over DOCSIS (BSOD) will typically be needed.
For FTTH, the ONT (optical network terminal) will likely support multiple VLANs – not requiring a separate ONT with a separate router.
Generally speaking, one or more VPNs per employee should suffice. COVID-19-driven WFH has certainly affected VPN use, with the capacity of two in three VPNs expanded for enterprise employees. Of these VPN expansions, 69% are likely to be permanent, according to the Kantar study.
Are service providers up to the challenges brought about by the pandemic? It certainly appears so. Over half of the businesses expressed satisfaction with their provider performance during this time and only 15% noted dissatisfaction. Thanks again to Kantar for these facts.
Want to learn more about the latest trends in the business services market and efforts by cable operators to compete? Then join me and sign up for Light Reading's free digital symposium, Cable Next-Gen Business Services, on Tuesday, October 6. Please click here to find out more and register for the event.
— David Strauss, Principal, Broadband Success Partners