COVID-19 will change our use of online services — for better

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Technology, online services and the internet will play an important role in the future after COVID-19 (image by Kalila Fleming).

The players in the telecommunications industry have decisively reacted to the COVID-19 crisis.

The NBN is holding up and the company is effecting implementing a range of measures for those who rely on it. Equally, the support from the major telcos and the digital players has been first-class and, where needed, the industry is working together in a collaborative way. The relations struck between the leaders in the industry will have long-lasting positive effects well beyond the crisis. Yes, we need competition but equally, we need collaboration.

The initial problems some experienced were not with telecoms infrastructure. It was more of a logistic issue. Not enough capacity in websites such as Centrelink and online grocery shopping; the overnight closure of many call centres and a lack of interconnections between call centres as well as between data centres.

These issues were addressed swiftly by the industry as well as with the relevant organisations.

The time is perfect to further educate people about technology, online services and interconnectivity. The problems that persist are both technological and social.

One of the key reasons why online services have been so hard to implement has been because of society's reluctance. It has little to do with technology. Educators, health professionals and company bosses haven't widely implemented these applications in any significant way, because it is a major change in the way they have been operating. Humans don’t like change. Obviously, this is shifting here and there.

At the same time, it is also clear that suddenly running our lives online will create problems. Tele-working as a single parent with toddlers is simply impossible. In one or two-person households, teleworking jobs are a bit easier to organise. Having meetings or needing to do jobs that require high levels of concentration requires nobody else to be around you. Obviously the same applies for GPs and other telehealth workers.

What we have seen is that some families are trying to set up planning schemes to spread the work and organise smaller windows for work, education, walks, entertainment and so on. The usual working day regime simply doesn’t work in this crisis.

There are also many families struggling with the discipline to work from home and get the kids to use online schooling facilities, again more of a social problem than anything else. 

With the feedback from millions of workers and students now involved in this massive "tele" experiment, there will be plenty of data to work from on how to move forwards. Despite the issues, many people will have discovered the benefits of these teleservices and this way of work and study will become more and more integrated with the traditional ways of how things were done, such as Zoom.

There is no doubt that tele-gatherings are becoming a far more permanent feature of family life going forward. Privacy remains an issue and perhaps we must look at open source and more transparent systems. The company Zoom has been overwhelmed and could never have expected this level of success and they are working very hard to improve this. Their success will influence how we go forward with the teleconferencing systems.

The NBN standing up to the challenge. The problems are more in the regional areas, where there is not enough capacity in the fixed wireless and satellite systems.  There are some problems in the fibre to the node (FttN) network, but it looks like that the company can manage these problems.

There are also lessons learned from this crisis. While we will go back to normal, teleworking, tele-education and telehealth are going to become far more prominent in the post-COVID-19 period. It is important that we start planning for that.

We also see the stress on the system in relation to quality and capacity for the more "bandwidth-eating" applications.

Imaging applications and high-quality tele-consults are needed. In research and development (R&D), education and business applications, better quality networks are needed when people must work remotely.

Doctors and specialists will have to look at such images at home and high-quality meetings and consultations need to be done via the national network. The Government has provided free additional bandwidth for GP clinics to facilitate telehealth. But a 50MB/s service is not good enough.

One of the major problems introducing telehealth has been the large upfront costs. Until the crisis, the Government baulked at that. With this massive investment now behind us, telehealth will become a permanent feature of our health service. The use of telehealth services could save the nation billions.

It is a shame that, despite the positive news regarding the NBN, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher keeps politicising the issue by continuously harking back blaming Labor for making the wrong decisions.The Coalition has been in charge for seven years. We don’t need this at a time when we have a golden opportunity to find common ground for solutions.

There is global agreement that fibre to the home (FttH) is the future. And that was the original plan, why can’t Minister Fletcher admit that? This will eventually be the network that we need.

The crisis would be an ideal situation to put politics aside and start making plans for the final completion of the NBN using FttH and FttC technologies. If we want a robust high capacity network, as has now become crystal clear in situations such as climate change and pandemic crises, we need to upgrade the network.

Vodafone’s initiative – announced at the recent online CommsDay conference – to look at co-investment models to upgrade the NBN with FttP is a step in the right direction. Let’s hope that industry initiatives will end government inertia.

Paul Budde is an Independent Australia columnist and managing director of Paul Budde Consulting, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organisation. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde.

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