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It’s an all-too-common scenario of the last 18 months: remote workers struggling with bandwidth issues in video meetings because others in their household are watching Netflix, playing video games or doing schoolwork.

Michael Beesley, CTO of Service Provider Networking at Cisco, can relate. 

“I can’t tell you how many detailed conversations I’ve had with my wife and two teenage children with regard to what bandwidth is, how it works, and how it gets used and exhausted,” he says.

According to a new Broadband Index survey commissioned by Cisco and published today, eight out of 10 respondents (84%) actively use their broadband at home for four hours or more each day. And three in four respondents say that broadband must dramatically improve to support hybrid working. 

The survey asked 57,000 workers in 30 countries how they use broadband and what changes they expect to see in the future. In addition to supporting hybrid work, topics covered included Internet inequality, closing the digital divide, the vital role of security and more.

The two key takeaways from the survey: Improving broadband services will define the long-term success of hybrid work. And broadband must be treated as a universal necessity to achieve an inclusive recovery. 

A changed landscape

In transforming the way we work, learn, and play, the pandemic brought seismic changes to the broadband landscape. Now Service providers are rising to the challenges of these new demands.

“Providing the bandwidth has become their top priority, along with ensuring that their infrastructure is reliable, robust, and secure,” Beesley says. 

The shift to hybrid work was a major focus of the report. Nearly half (48%) of the workforce now relies on their home Internet to work from home or run their own business, the study found. As a result of this shift, along with different ways people are using the network and the overall increase in usage, network traffic patterns have radically changed.

“The networks run hot on a 24/7 basis now,” Beesley says. “Previously, you would have hot hours — 8 o’clock in the evening would be a peak load. But it’s not a hot hour anymore; it’s a hot day.” 

That’s driving service providers to make adjustments not just in the capacity of the network, but also in how they do automation, change management, and maintenance windows.

In order to better support hybrid work, Beesley says service providers are also offering more complete managed service packages. 

These comprise things like IT, security, troubleshooting, audit, and compliance so that remote workers — both enterprise workers and small and medium business workers — can have the same quality experience they were used to in the office.

All in on 5G?

While we’re building toward a 5G-enabled world, Beesley says 5G is just one in a range of networking technologies needed to address different use cases.

Many of Cisco’s service provider partners report ever-growing volumes of aggregated bandwidth — compound annual growth rates (CAGR) of 30% to 50% — on their very large networks.

In order to carry that traffic in dense urban and suburban areas, fiber makes most sense. Fiber is also the technology of choice for transmitting aggregated high-bandwidth traffic over long distances — for example, when “backhauling” traffic from a remote site or network to a central one.

But 5G is more cost effective for moving traffic in sparsely populated areas. And wireless technologies are well suited for short-distance connections — such as last-foot or last 100-foot connections to devices and things (machinery and equipment on farms and in manufacturing plants, for instance).

Again, where there is high device density — such as a stadium packed with 100,000 smartphone-toting fans — 5G is better than Wi-Fi 6.

“The answer to facilitating connectivity and bandwidth is all of the above,” Beesley says. “We will use every tool in the toolbox to do so, choosing one tool over the other depending on what we’re trying to optimize.”

The quest for Internet equality

According to the survey, 78% of workers said everyone should be able to securely connect to fast and reliable Internet, regardless of location. 

And nearly two-thirds of the workforce (61%) said they’d be prepared to pay more for fast, reliable and secure Internet. Many others, however, simply cannot afford broadband costs.

To help ensure reliable and cost-effective Internet access for all, Beesley says Cisco takes a two-pronged approach.

On the technological front, Cisco continues to invest in innovations like Silicon One that allow its service provider partners to build the Internet for the future. The result is a simplified and more automated network architecture that translates to lower operational costs, greater power efficiency and increased sustainability, Beesley says.

On the second front, Cisco works with service providers, the public sector, industry and others to underscore the importance of broadband and “to ensure that whatever digital divide there is gets remediated and does not come back in the future,” he says.

Bracing for more growth

Looking ahead, with many regions emerging from COVID’s grip, nearly half of workers (49%) suggest their internet usage will either stay the same or increase in the next year.

Beesley predicts continued high bandwidth growth for the foreseeable future. He says much of the growth will be driven by more video content, higher definitions and advances in video collaboration on networks already dominated by over-the-top video traffic (70% to 75%). 

And Cisco’s focus? To continue to make the innovations and investments needed for the network to handle these loads and to deliver these services, reliably and cost effectively, to consumers.

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