2020 rewind: WFH takes center stage during Covid-19

This year will be remembered for many different (bad) things, but "work-from-home" could be one of the most enduring aspects of 2020.

Work-from-home (WFH) entered the lexicon in 2020 as millions of employees moved to home offices and students shifted to online learning. Going forward, companies have been grappling with how many employees will return to the comfy, and secure, confines of their home offices.

In a recent interview with FierceTelecom, Colt CEO Keri Gilder said roughly 60% of her company's employees want to go back to their offices one or two days a week while 30% said they wanted to continue working from home. Gilder said a large portion of Colt's enterprise customers plan to keep some of their employees home next year.  

"What we're hearing, nine times out of 10, is that they don't expect their full workforce to come back into the tall, shiny buildings," she said. "Some of our financial clients have already made the determination that certain parts of their financial business units never have to come back."

The initial stages of enabling WFH in March included best efforts by service providers and vendors around better virtual private networks (VPNs) concentrators as home users battled other in-house users for bandwidth on residential tiers.

According to a blog earlier this month by OpenVault CEO Mark Trudeau, consumption in three key areas—overall usagebusiness-hours usage and the upstream—surged to unprecedented levels when lockdowns were imposed in March.

RELATED: COVID-19 network traffic levels ease up for Verizon and Comcast

Service providers, such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast, saw a 30% surge in network traffic on their networks in the early days of the pandemic, before traffic started to level off to a 20% increase in the spring and summer.

Network engineers have typically built in capacity headroom on their networks to stay ahead of ongoing bandwidth consumption, but they ramped those efforts in 2020. In April, Vodafone announced it was upgrading its network by 4 TB of capacity in order to be ready for the long haul. 

RELATED: Vodafone to add 4 Tbps of capacity to its networks due to COVID-19

With networks originally being built to push services into homes or businesses, Covid-19 accelerated the dynamic of users pulling in services and applications on their own. It has also led to an increase on service providers' upstreams. Comcast reported that upstream traffic had increased 32% during the pandemic while downstream network traffic was up 11%.

Even after the initial network surge leveled off, AT&T announced this month that download data usage was up 26% while upload data usage was up 62% when comparing November 2019 to November 2020.

RELATED: Why service providers and vendors are tuning up home-based SD-WAN services

As the pandemic progressed, which was marked by rolling hot spots across the globe, service providers responded by creating specific WFH solutions, including a separate broadband offering from AT&T Business that included failover LTE connectivity and a gateway option that was compatible with SD-WAN. At an investor conference earlier this month, an AT&T executive said the telco has seen a 16-fold growth in traffic for its SD-WAN services this year.

The Covid-19 pandemic also spurred vendors and service providers to develop WFH SD-WAN solutions. Lumen Technologies, formerly CenturyLink, launched a Cisco Meraki based-SD-WAN solution during the early going of the pandemic and plans to offer a more robust SD-WAN solution on its edge compute nodes early next year by using VMware's VeloCloud SD-WAN technology, according to Lumen CFO Shaun Andrews.

Andrews said Lumen's partnership with Zoom, which included wrapping Zoom's application with Lumen's network, managed services portfolio and security features, meets most users' requirements for WFH.

RELATED: Masergy tees-up two SD-WAN options for WFH employees

In October, Masergy announced two new WFH SD-WAN services as part of the company's Managed Secure SD-WAN portfolio.

In June, Versa Networks launched Versa Secure Access, which was designed to provide SD-WAN and security capabilities for employees that were now working from home. Earlier this month, Versa said the pandemic drove a 100-fold increase in home use of its SD-WAN or SASE platforms since the start of the year.

"Most of the activity and connectivity for SD-WAN vendors has been for VPN remote access, and most of the VPNs are enabled with a software agent on a worker's device such as a PC or phone," said Dell'Oro Group Vice President Shin Umeda, in an email to FierceTelecom. "These implementations have not been big revenue drivers, and generally represent the quick and easy solution to connect workers. The incremental revenue from true WFH SD-WAN in 2020 has been relatively small, mostly driven by essential and/or high-value workers that require high performance connectivity and applications.

"Not all WFH deployments are incremental to the market. Some may be substitutive or reallocated from branch deployments where occupancy has been reduced or eliminated. Vendors have been developing and repackaging specific WFH solutions, and we expect meaningful market traction will take hold in 2021. Security will be an important component, perhaps even more so than SD-WAN features."

Going forward, Umeda said the new WFH SD-WAN solutions would have much lower prices for the customer premises equipment and subscriptions.

"Some early feedback indicates WFH price points 40% to 90% below prices for branch facilities, depending on features," he said.