World-changing events tend to cause permanent behavior changes. Our predictions for 2020 did not include COVID, but all five of the technology advances we predicted at the start of 2020 were accelerated by the pandemic. In response to COVID, the industry delivered better broadband access to support work and education from home. The expectation of permanent behavior changes underpins many of our predictions for wireless connectivity in 2021.
2021 will see a growing variety of fixed wireless use cases implemented by service providers, enterprises, mobile operators and governments. No one wireless technology fits all applications. Spectrum and funding are scarce resources. Leading broadband network operators will deploy a mix of different wireless solutions to tailor the network from point of presence all the way to the Wi-Fi access and create a purpose-built network. This is to get the best leverage from the available spectrum while providing a solid business case that satisfies end customers.
- Remote work isn’t going away. Workers and companies have realized that a good percentage of employees can be just as productive, if not more, working from home. For the wireless industry, that means the fast-growing need for bandwidth, and robust and secure connectivity to the home will continue. There has been a huge population shift from office work to remote or hybrid work, solved in part by the broadband that powers videoconferencing and other at-home work needs. The benefits, from time saved not commuting and greater personal flexibility, will begin to play out on a bigger stage. The need for more remote work services isn’t going away – it’s increasing. And broadband will need to keep pace by continuing to evolve. The quality of the home network requires enterprise class performance and security.
- Wireless millimeter wave technology is going to make connectivity much more compelling in all city center areas, not just downtown Barcelona, Manila or Chicago, but also the centers of towns in rural and suburban areas. The typical city center in the USA has 200-300 commercial entities within 20 square blocks. These shop owners feel underserved with current technology, which means broadband service providers have a significant growth opportunity for using millimeter wave wireless to offer Gigabit speeds to businesses and multi-dwelling units. Fiber is not the only means to deliver multi-gigabit backhaul. Wireless backhaul technologies deliver a better ROI in comparison to fiber, especially in lower density applications.
- Dynamic spectrum sharing will expand beyond the United States. The CBRS auction in the United States attracted billions of dollars in bids from companies we expected – and from some we didn’t. Countries around the world are dealing with problems similar to those in the United States – underserved areas stricken by interference such that major operators are unwilling to invest absent some level of spectrum access prioritization and protection. The FCC’s spectrum sharing approach to CBRS is a model that other countries will seriously consider. We predict that in 2021 at least three countries with densely populated regions will follow suit by announcing spectrum sharing methods of their own.
- People are leaving cities for rural residences, which will continue to be very good for all broadband service providers. Forced to work from cramped homes, people are leaving costly city centers for larger rural residences with green space. A recent Fortune article suggested as many as eight percent of Americans are moving out of their city (or country) because of COVID. Suddenly, residential connectivity must be as good as commercial. For service providers focused on providing broadband to rural areas, that means more business in 2021. Many DSL networks can’t handle the demand. Broadband service providers won’t be able to lay fiber to the home fast enough. Luckily, wireless technology is now available in many areas to fill this gap cost effectively and quickly.
- Private networks will grow in number. Looking at the list of companies that bid for spectrum in this year’s CBRS auction, the typical folks are there: cable and satellite companies. But there are also enterprise companies such as San Diego Gas & Electric, Chevron and John Deere Company. Perhaps they’ll find it easier to run part or all of their own networks, or maybe they need to expand their network due to hybrid work models. Or perhaps they are looking for ways to network aspects of their core business – in the case of John Deere, that could mean smart farming, autonomous tractors or both. These atypical players see the opportunity to construct for themselves the exact purpose-built network they need to innovate their service offerings to employees and customers and have it completely under their own control. This is definitely a trend to watch. Secure outdoor wireless is the need of the hour.
No doubt, 2020 showed how wireless communications rapidly stepped up to meet demand in response to the pandemic. We predict 2021 will see many of those changes become permanent and set the stage for future opportunities.