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Growth of enterprise Wi-Fi at home spotlights digital divide

Remote enterprise workers need a reliable internet connection. Learn how the digital divide can touch workers and how companies can help bridge this gap.

The looming challenges of the digital divide do not spare enterprise remote workers. The COVID-19 pandemic has no definite end in sight, meaning the home office, bedroom or even sofa will remain the permanent office for millions of workers all over the world.

But enterprise networks aren't necessarily prepared for this lasting change, according to Brandon Butler, senior research analyst at IDC. "Networks weren't designed to support their entire workforce working from home all the time, which caused anxiety and struggle for employees who weren't getting the necessary resources to do their jobs," Butler said.

Many remote employees are using broadband internet and Wi-Fi for their work, but unreliable connectivity in the home can result in an increased reliance on the public Wi-Fi hotspots available in cafes, public libraries and even parking lots. Working in such circumstances is far from ideal, so what can enterprises and ISPs do to help accommodate remote workers in this new normal?

John Burke, CIO and principal research analyst at Nemertes Research, is not optimistic that larger ISPs, such as Verizon, Comcast and AT&T, will introduce more Wi-Fi hotspots. "I wouldn't expect them to rapidly embrace the idea of sending out hotspots for free, especially because so many phones can be hotspots in themselves," he said. "The big data carriers don't rapidly embrace these opportunities -- it takes them a while."

Technologies to address connectivity

Traditional home broadband connections may have worked fine for remote workers when they only required email and the occasional meeting. But in this new era -- especially in the case of nonstop Zoom and video meetings -- employees need reliable connectivity that traditional connections cannot always deliver. This goes double for workers based in households where several other people need to access the internet and use multiple devices to do so.

Enterprises have tried to step in and bridge this connectivity gap by deploying technologies that include cloud-based VPN, software-defined WAN, mesh Wi-Fi, cloud access security brokers and wireless access points, all of which largely focus on secure remote access, Burke said. "We are already seeing, with the first wave of work from home, a massive increase in existing technologies driving big change," he said. "All of these tools center around creating the most secure connections possible across less secure connectivity."

Because too many people on one connection can significantly slow Wi-Fi speeds and compromise security, companies may begin to explore deploying separate Wi-Fi connections just for their workers, something Gartner director analyst Bill Menezes noted.

"We may see organizations consider, which will require separate networking connections for workers, setting up their own Wi-Fi network access point at the worker's location that connects to a dedicated broadband connection -- not a shared one with the rest of the household, but a dedicated one that the company can monitor and manage remotely rather than having the worker access through the VPN," he said.

Connectivity and worker location

Another challenge beyond the immediate worker household is worker location. Similar to students in less-connected areas, remote workers based in neighborhoods and areas with weaker broadband connections are at a huge disadvantage in their ability to perform their jobs.

"We're going to see an increased need for internet services across all parts of the country, even in urban areas where there are robust networks," Butler said. "That problem is exacerbated as you move out into rural areas."

Butler predicted that more and more enterprises may start covering connectivity expenses -- but only if enterprises had direct problems in their networks, capacity and performance that would make it worthwhile for them to make those investments.

Only time will tell how service providers and enterprises will adapt to this new normal. Menezes also saw a chance for enterprises themselves to play a role in facilitating the creation of new connections in rural, lower-income or any other areas where internet connections are spottier.

"One thing enterprises can do is start engaging with the local broadband providers to see if they can build out into those areas now that they're getting more important," Menezes said. "There's no reason that enterprises can't be a part of trying to find the solution."

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