If some good news were to come out of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it is this: The telecommunications infrastructure has been able to meet the demands of heavy increases in voice and data transmissions and new usage patterns as waves of employees have migrated to home offices and sucked up bandwidth with broadband-hungry apps like videoconferencing.

Why hasn’t the internet crashed, as so many speculated it would? Communications service providers (CSPs) for many reasons have been aggressively expanding their fiber footprint and extending network capacity on fiber as well as wireless networks for the past 20 years. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City focused CSPs’ attention on diverse routing for resiliency. Their goals to attract more business clients with low-latency connections and five-nines of availability SLAs also played a role, as did the need to pave the path first to 4G LTE and now to 5G — whose advanced networking capabilities can help them compete better with over-the-top media businesses.

Verizon, for example, in 2017 signed a $1.1 billion contract with Corning to provide fibre optic cable and hardware for the CSP’s next-generation fibre platform to improve 4G LTE coverage and speed 5G deployments. The fifth generation of mobile networks — which respondents to DXC Technology’s  2020 Enterprise Leadership Survey named as one of the top three emerging technologies that will have big value for their business — offers more speed and lower latency, promoting better remote work/collaboration experiences for an expanded offsite workforce.

Fortunately, carriers’ investments in building up their infrastructures have enabled them to seamlessly meet the surges in broadband and cellular traffic due to the pandemic. Indeed, it has been pretty much business as usual for most CSPs, especially when it comes to servicing the most densely populated areas where they have plenty of practice easing network congestion.

Had carriers not been diligently expanding their capabilities, they would not have been able to accommodate the shift from workplace to home office settings and from schools to kitchen tables, with laptops and handheld devices drawing hard on LTE and WiFi networks. Insight into the carriers’ excess capacity can be seen in the example of AT&T: When confronted with the impact COVID-19 was having on businesses, schools and consumers, it opened up bandwidth at no extra cost.

CSPs also took steps to help communities, schools, healthcare facilities and governments that suddenly had to grapple with the dangerous virus. AT&T, CenturyLink, Comcast, Cox Communications, Google Fiber, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon are among the broadband and telcos that have agreed to support the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, opening WiFi hotspots to all Americans who need them and not terminating any services to residential or small business customers that can’t pay their bills due to complications from the pandemic. Other major initiatives have included prioritising connectivity for frontline healthcare responders and providing free data for schools.

A call to the cloud

One result of the COVID-19 pandemic is that businesses will speed their migration to the cloud. Most have known for a long time that the cloud is key to their business transformation. But the urgency wasn’t necessarily there to push the companies that were hesitant to make their first moves into the environment, nor was it there to drive others to transition more of their operations to the cloud. That’s changed, as companies face the challenge of supporting a worldwide work-at-home staff and collaborative virtual teams, where the cloud will enable them to meet demands for capacity, scalability, low latency and resiliency.

Carriers have proven their mettle, demonstrating they have the bandwidth and MPLS, mesh networks and software-defined WAN to move business operations across data centers as needed and to manage disaster recovery. Just as AWS, Azure and Google Cloud grow their business customer base, traditional carriers will significantly accelerate to become digital service providers to all audiences. For instance, carriers’ highly secure and stable connections — and the never-before-experienced speeds and feeds 5G will bring to the arena — could serve as the ideal underpinning of innovative technologies such as digital identity services.

There’s no sign of a slowdown in carrier spending on more infrastructure, services and speeds. CSPs are always influenced by governments, and when it comes to 5G, the United States and China are leading investments in a battle for global economic leadership. For now, though, the telcos’ main task is keeping the lines of communication wide open.

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