As a sensible reaction to COVID-19 many employers are now encouraging their office-based staff to work from home. Not long ago remote working for many was a distinctly second rate affair, suitable more for working offline on a large document than joining meetings and fully participating in team projects.
Thankfully times, including software and infrastructure, have changed. Many businesses have adopted a range of applications that allow for cloud-based file sharing, communication and teleconferencing, such as Microsoft Teams, Google C Suite, Webex and Slack among others.
These platforms allow teams to work together wherever they are, relying on the cloud (remote data centres, which could be anywhere) to look after everything – exactly the same resource home workers would be accessing if they were actually in the office.
But for all of this to work, home workers need connections to the internet good enough to support work-related activities. This has led some to question how the UK’s broadband network might cope with millions of homes being simultaneously used as offices when they would ordinarily be empty.
Thankfully, the evidence is that the UK’s broadband network could cope.
While there have been a few well-publicised examples where live streams of Premier League football matches have crashed for subscribers, the companies which operate the internet beyond your nearest BT internet exchange continually invest to ensure that such events remain rare and problems which do occur are addressed.
Howard Watson, BT's chief technology and information officer, recently said that BT’s network (which does the heavy lifting for the UK) is built to cope with peak usage, which usually occurs between 20:00-21:00. This is when demand for streaming video, which is the biggest source of online data, peaks at least ten times the demand during typical working hours.
Investment by BT to meet such demand means that when Amazon Prime streamed live a Liverpool versus Everton match in December, which drove significant peaks in traffic over BT’s network, this caused no major issues for their customers.
Crunching the numbers
While increasing working from home could change the pattern of traffic over domestic broadband connections, few enterprise applications require as much speed or capacity as streaming video (about 2.5 Mbps for YouTube or 5 Mbps for high definition iPlayer or Netflix).
Stream gameplay through Twitch and you’ll be wanting 3-6 Mbps, depending on how eye popping you want it to look. But To join a meeting with Zoom you only need about 1.5 Mbps, and could get by with a lot less. Emails and surfing websites without video require hardly any speed at all.
With UK domestic fixed broadband subscribers having an average download speed of 54.2Mbps, domestic connections should be able to cope with most enterprise use. If consumers do find it hard to use enterprise applications, the problem may not actually be in the broadband networks.
Making sure your home setup is optimised
At work your computer may well be connected to a wired connection, whereas at home you’re almost certainly connecting to your Wi-Fi router. Yet Wi-Fi is subject to interference from neighbours, and the position of the Wi-Fi router can be hugely important.
Physical obstructions on the line of sight between devices, and the distance between devices (where it’s most convenient to sit at a computer may not be a good location for your Wi-Fi) matter a lot. Avoid putting the router near radios or microwaves. Or just raise it up, maybe put some books under the router. So, it’s worth looking at that before complaining to your internet provider. You could also add a Wi-Fi repeater or extender.
A further performance factor is that if a consumer has a high-speed connection, then they need a router which supports that. Wi-Fi technology is improving all the time, but most homes never change the router provided by their internet provider. If a consumer is still using an old Wi-Fi router, they may find the speed they can actually get is half of what they thought they were getting.
So, for most, home broadband needn’t exclude engaging with colleagues at all.
Enjoy the change and, who knows, maybe when normal life resumes employers which have been resistant to adopting flexible working may consider this anew. Connectivity and collaboration tools have improved enormously in recent years. Remote working no longer has to mean not participating.