Reflecting on a year of lockdowns for the UK
It’s safe to say that as we entered the first national lockdown on 23 March 2020, few predicted we would be deep into our third lockdown a full year later. Nor did anyone anticipate just how much would change in that timeframe. Today, many of us now consider remote working the norm, likewise putting our kids through virtual lessons, doing the weekly food shop online and socializing via apps like Zoom have become commonplace.
Digital connectivity has underpinned so many of the most significant adjustments in the last year. And the UK’s network has dealt with the strain so well, it’s easy to take for granted just how essential it has been.
Initial explosive data growth
In the UK, and in Europe more broadly, the first lockdown had an instantaneous and pronounced effect on our digital habits. We used more internet data than ever before. And we connected almost exclusively from home, with mobile traffic shifting from town and public spaces to suburban residential areas.
There was also a marked increase in overall internet traffic – between 20 and 100 percent over pre-lockdown levels. Globally, consumers’ use of fixed broadband increased by an average of two and half hours per day, and by one hour on mobile. This worldwide trend reflects what we saw in the UK, where our internet use was driven by ‘at home’ usage of broadband and Wi-Fi.
And what were we using all this extra data for? Somewhat unsurprisingly, healthcare, telemedicine, online gaming, shopping, and work accounted for most of the rise in traffic and time spent online.
My favourite statistic? We saw an increase of up to 70% in voice traffic over networks right after the first lockdown began. People were talking with family and friends more, and calls were going on for longer. Although we were physically distanced, we sought to connect with one another through the phone.
Networks (and teams) took the strain
Despite the unforeseen and sudden shift in usage patterns, as well as an unprecedented surge in online traffic, the UK’s networks performed admirably, as did most worldwide. This strong performance was reflected in users’ perceptions, with 83 percent claiming ICT helped them a lot, in one way or another, to cope with lockdown.
On the ground, our field team and other essential workers were critical, carrying out incredible work in keeping the UK’s networks up and running. We dealt with challenges ranging from a national shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to difficulties gaining access to sites thanks to self-isolation protocols. Our team even had to contend with arson attacks on critical mobile infrastructure, facing extra security measures as well as a round of enhanced risk assessments to keep networks running and people connected.
Despite these many challenges, looking back I’m in awe of the work our team did in making sure the UK’s vital connectivity was maintained. And it was a privilege to see our Head of Field Services Organisation, Adam Gordon, recognised with a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for the collective role he and his team played in this task in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in October last year.
Without the investments made in 4G and 5G, and the tireless work of everyone in the industry right across the country - including engineers, field teams and network operations staff – new applications like telemedicine, remote work and video calls could not have been delivered consistently throughout the pandemic.
The long-term implications of COVID-19
Clearly, some of these shifts in our online behaviours will be temporary. Time spent on education and fitness apps, for example, could be observed rising and falling in line with lockdowns being imposed. However, others look to be more consistent – use of business, social and entertainment apps increased immediately after the first lockdown and has remained at similar levels since.
Interestingly, we seem to be making habitual, long-term changes in some areas of our lives. Time spent using food delivery and telehealth apps increased 81% and 355% respectively in Q4 2020 compared to the same time in the previous year. And rises in use have been consistent during lockdowns and when restrictions are eased.
UK consumers themselves expect to see big changes in the next five years due to the pandemic, supporting these insights. Where 27% were working from home at least once a week before the first lockdown, 40% anticipate doing so post-pandemic. Meanwhile, nearly half (44%) believe that consuming entertainment and culture, as well as social gatherings will continue to happen virtually alongside a return to in-person engagements over the next five years.
Turning to the future
How we work and play have changed permanently for many, while the way healthcare is delivered is undergoing an almost revolutionary transformation. And we should expect a range of other shifts in society’s digital habits as well – workplaces will become more dematerialised as ‘work from home’ becomes ‘work from anywhere’, with technologies like Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality enabling workforces to collaborate with each other from anywhere in the world. Sports fans will enjoy more immersive experiences too, and fully connected and flexible smart factories will look at how technology and wireless connectivity can solve operational challenges. There’s nothing that won’t benefit from ultrafast connectivity.
While today’s networks have been designed and managed to support these changes, emerging strongly and sustainably from COVID-19 depends on accelerating digital transformation even further – something we can only achieve with 5G at the forefront.
Delivering high speeds, low-latency and unprecedented capacity, 5G is a key enabler of other emerging technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence and Edge Computing. The economic benefits for the UK are clear. We will benefit from nearly £15 billion in additional economic growth if we can seize the full potential of 5G and implement advanced industrial use cases. That figure is over and above the substantial benefits already expected from enhanced mobile broadband.
As restrictions are loosened and vaccines allow for a more open economy, we all hope that the end of lockdown is in sight. But for us as leaders in the telecommunications industry, the changes in how people use digital infrastructure, the demands that will be placed on it, and how central it could be to our country’s ambitions show we could be embarking on an exciting phase in UK connectivity. This is just the beginning – and we can’t wait to get going.
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