Connectivity and COVID-19: The Case for Improved Wi-Fi Access has Never Been Clearer

Posted on 28th July 2020

Christopher Casarrubias
Head of Region, MEALA

Wi-Fi has been a lifeline for many during the global pandemic, facilitating work, socialising, schooling and entertainment. Access Partnership estimates that Internet usage has increased by the equivalent of a year’s annual Internet traffic growth as a result of COVID-19 lockdown measures, with the information available consistently showing Internet traffic between 10-40% above expected levels. This is despite the fact that many high bandwidth over-the-top (OTT) services such as on demand video initially reduced their streaming bitrate to prevent network congestion. As people use the Internet more, however, limited Wi-Fi spectrum is acting as a bottleneck to deliver better connectivity.

Limited Wi-Fi spectrum

Increased demand for Wi-Fi and changes in use patterns are placing more pressure on Wi-Fi networks and leaving users frustrated due to worse performance. Assia’s analysis of Internet performance shows that Wi-Fi upload speeds in particular are suffering due to interference. It estimates that the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz spectrum bands have experienced a 10% and 30% increase in interference respectively. Increased interference generally indicates slower speeds and a worse online experience.

Wi-Fi networks’ struggles to cope with these changes pose a risk to global connectivity. The problem is particularly acute with Wi-Fi as its throughput is delivered over just two frequency bands that are shared with everything from baby monitors to Bluetooth devices. Additional spectrum for Wi-Fi is required for continued delivery and the world’s growing data needs. It is important that this issue remains on the global agenda even after COVID-19 as Internet use continues to rise and new applications demand ever greater performance from Wi-Fi.

Why more spectrum?

Wi-Fi enhances a country’s economic value by improving workplace and governmental efficiency, living standards and spurring innovation. Especially during times of crisis, Wi-Fi and the technologies it supports can maintain a country’s economy. Better and more widespread access to Wi-Fi, made possible by more spectrum, gives countries an edge when trying to mitigate the effects of a crisis. During the COVID-19 pandemic, better access to Wi-Fi would have supported economies globally and allowed more people to successfully work remotely.

Increasing spectrum, and therefore bandwidth, creates value for all Internet users. During periods of remote working and schooling, more spectrum enhances the functioning of tools like video conferencing to support remote education and boost the average router capacity to support more data-intensive applications for workforces. Similarly, healthcare practitioners can more easily consult with their patients remotely, enabling routine and emergency check-ups to go ahead without added risks. Additionally, more spectrum allows space for innovative technologies to be developed and used, such as virtual and augmented reality applications. The benefits of better Wi-Fi links are universal, with studies showcasing it will account for as much as USD 70.15 billion total economic value by 2023 in the United Kingdom alone.

Governments globally are beginning to free up spectrum for Wi-Fi use. The European Commission is currently in such discussions and the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has decided to increase the supply of Wi-Fi spectrum by making the entire 6 GHz band available for unlicensed operation. This decision is the most significant ruling on unlicensed spectrum in more than 20 years. The FCC and their European counterparts are developing rules so that incumbent services and new wireless innovations, such as Wi-Fi 6, can co-exist and thrive.

Connectivity for all

Wi-Fi is a very important source of connectivity and economic value. Its benefits are broad and significant, ranging from supporting mobile networks with traffic offload to supporting households, businesses, travel and leisure with wireless connectivity. Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the pivotal role of Wi-Fi and connectivity as a prerequisite for a functioning society.

While it is clear that augmented throughput should be a priority for those economies with the most demand for broadband connectivity, the availability of additional Wi-Fi should not be reserved to a select few countries. The importance of connectivity in mitigating the risks of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the steps all governments must take in advance of the next crisis to support their workforce and economy.

Wi-Fi connectivity should also be available in developing countries, many of which do not have the mobile and fixed infrastructure to support it. About half of the world’s population still lacks access to the Internet and, as a consequence, these nations are missing out on the benefits of digital products and services that could significantly improve their lives – not least to support the healthcare infrastructure needed to manage the pandemic, such as contact tracing. Connectivity providers must work with mobile and fixed infrastructure companies to bring Wi-Fi to developing countries so they can also enjoy the benefits it brings.

With the aim of closing the digital divide, global technology companies are pressing ahead with their efforts to bring connectivity and innovative technological solutions to unserved and underserved populations across the globe. Alphabet’s Loon previously launched a network of stratospheric balloons designed to bring Internet connectivity to rural and remote communities, while Facebook’s Free Basics collaborated with mobile operators to offer access to basic online services without data charges. There is no ’one size fits all’ approach to bringing connectivity to developing nations and solutions will vary by location. In some regions, lack of broadband is also linked to lack of electricity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated how important connectivity is in boosting the economy and maintaining life as we know it. To enable connectivity, governments must adopt complementary regulatory frameworks and invest in infrastructure. It is also important for technology providers to partner with local authorities to encourage a conducive regulatory environment and promote innovation.

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