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Smart working – what operators need to do

Smart working – what operators need to do

Remote working happened overnight – what next?

Much has been written – and rightly so – about the shift to remote working that took place (and, for many, remains in place) during the pandemic. A wealth of material and studies have been published (with, doubtless, many more to come), focusing on new trends in the adoption of remote working tools. In addition, many operators have publicised analytics that show how traffic changed. With people moving from central offices to their homes, the nature of traffic consumed, and the peak hours shifted.

The majority of these reports and features have focused on the tools that people adopted and the change in patterns that resulted from the shift. As we enter 2021, we can expect more predictions on the likely long-term implications. I think it’s safe to say, at this point, that:

  • The change is likely to be lasting;
  • It will be more enduring in some countries than others; and
  • New tools and applications will emerge to support new work patterns.

Some commentators suggest that the shift will continue beyond the end of the pandemic, although others have also pointed out that this will likely be different in different countries. Barriers to remote working have been eroded, but less so in some places than others. However, much of what has been written has focused on organisational and individual responses – the split between users of Zoom and other similar applications, the rate at which Teams has spread, and so on.

In contrast, much of the commentary regarding operators has focused on performance – network resilience, traffic patterns, user behaviours, and so on. However, there’s another aspect which points to a new opportunity for operators and service providers: package differentiation.

Residential customers are also business customers

Whatever the specifics of the changes (more of this, less of the other, something new), remote working en masse represents a new phenomenon. But, most of these remote workers depend on their home broadband services. Whereas many will have previously benefited from business plans and high performance fibre links from their offices (which provide higher and often symmetric speed rates), the same capabilities are not universally available to those working remotely.

So, while fibre to the home is growing (and set to accelerate), a lasting shift to remote working should drive innovation in the kind of connectivity services that are offered. In turn, this must be driven by a recognition that the current binary separation of “residential” and “business” customers is no longer fit for purpose, or even relevant. We need new definitions of customers – prosumers, remote worker – as well as residential and business.

Offer innovative connectivity packages that reflect the new normal

To achieve this, operators need to define new packages, based on the connectivity they can deliver. So, if a customer has a DSL connection, what could be offered to reflect a change in consumption demand that reflects higher daytime traffic? Can different data rates be offered during working hours from those available during the evening? Should Monday to Friday be treated differently from the weekend? Can boost functions be added for collaboration tools or other purposes? Can bills be split more easily to show daytime (work) vs personal usage?

If fibre is available, can different packages be provided to reflect this shift, with traffic prioritisation according to the needs of the user? Where fibre isn’t available, what can be done with combinations of LTE and DSL?

What’s strange is that operators have long discussed performance optimisation for consumer applications (e.g. gaming) but have neglected to consider the needs of remote workers. They can no longer ignore the needs of remote workers. SD-WAN for the home should be a serious consideration.

And, this doesn’t have to be limited to fixed broadband. I have a Vodafone mobile connection and a BT residential broadband solution. Sometimes, I use mobile to access remote applications, while at other times, I used the Wi-Fi link to the router. It depends on the service I’m trying to use and what I’m trying to do at the same time. Why can’t one of these companies (they know I’m a business user working from home) offer me a combined service accessed through a router that chooses the best available path for the application I am trying to use – and manages connectivity for me? Why has neither addressed any communication to me that offers a way to improve services in the current situation?

It has been speculated that this shift could have a profound impact on where people live. If people work from home for, say, three days a week, they may choose to live further from their main office location. This may enable people to live in more remote and rural parts of the country – or stem the flow of people from such places to the city and suburbs.

Operators can support this (even while rolling out fibre) with more tailored packages to suit the connectivity that’s available in different locations. And, in the absence of fibre, helping customers with lower quality connections make the most of what’s available is surely a sensible step.

Use analytics that you already have

It’s not as if the information to understand per subscriber consumption patterns and what they might really need isn’t already available. Most operators have sophisticated analytics solutions that allow them to understand demand and performance. They probably know, through DPI, whether I’m using Teams, Zoom, just surfing or trying to access WebEx. They already have the tools that would allow them to characterise behaviour (working from home five days a week, working from home periodically) and to deliver a relevant package.

Such enhanced business packages could also be combined with evening performance that’s optimised for entertainment and other use cases. Surging Netflix demand? Provide tailored packages that support relaxation and down-time. Of course, optimisation per application may conflict with net neutrality legislation – but to some extent, this is likely already happening through bundling of such services with other connectivity offers. And, not all jurisdictions are the same. Operators will need to understand what’s possible in the territories in which they provide services.

Innovation is not just about services

Operators generally managed very well, particularly during the early (unexpected) phase of the pandemic. They adapted and adjusted and have continued to deliver effective services. But, the needs of customers are likely to change in the long term. The old distinction between residential and business customer is no longer relevant. Many are both. Operators need to recognise this and to provide packages that are better suited to this reality.

In fact, it’s surprising that they haven’t really begun to do so. The topic of innovation in the telecoms industry is a perennial favourite. From the perspective of the individual user, it’s easy to point to the innovation that has happened outside the classic industry (Zoom, Netflix, Hangouts, etc) and to ask how are traditional service providers relevant to today’s users?

Well, one answer is that they still have connectivity and billing relationships with millions – and control over the access network. Zoom may take credit card payments, but it doesn’t provide – or control – the connectivity. Operators should be innovating in terms of the connectivity services and packages they offer to support application consumption. Innovation isn’t just about services and applications. It’s also about delivery. It’s an opportunity to create relevance and attract subscribers based on more refined offers.

Support remote workers by removing outdated, binary distinctions – and inform your customers effectively

It’s one thing to recognise changing demands as they happen, or to analyse changes after the event. It’s great that networks proved to be so resilient. But, as we look ahead to more lasting changes, it’s strange that operators aren’t focusing on opportunities to change how they deliver their services and to segment their customer bases along lines that are actually representative of the shift that has occurred.

So, while it’s great that operators are thinking about new 5G opportunities, there’s huge potential to do more for their existing connectivity customers. Why aren’t they doing so? They have the tools, the data and the connectivity. Stop thinking in terms of an outdated binary distinction and think about the needs of your customers.

Create a remote worker package, or a family bundle that reflects periodic usage by distributed workers. Add daytime boost functions. Provide QoS optimisation. Help companies deliver remote SD-WAN solutions. Whatever. Just stop lumping everyone into one of two buckets. That’s just not relevant anymore, so do something to help business customers adjust and plan for the future.

Finally, make sure that, when you have defined a couple of new working from home packages and offers, communicate them effectively to your customers, so they know you can help. At the moment, they probably don’t, so are simply making do with what they have, while striving to use whatever external collaborations business demands.