Author: Moira Watson
Since lockdown, the number of people working and studying at home has rocketed. Many of us are very familiar with the frustration of slow broadband or limited Wi-Fi coverage. The UK government has set targets for an extensive fibre network connecting the majority of households directly to fibre broadband. There has also been a commitment made that 5G should be available to most of the population by 2027. For home-workers currently enduring poor quality Zoom calls when it is virtually impossible to follow what is being said, let alone make any meaningful contribution, 2027 cannot come soon enough.
According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS) nearly 50% of us were doing at least some work at home during April 2020, with nearly 90% of these homeworkers stating that this was due to COVID-19. Data gathered in previous ONS surveys had indicated that homeworking had been becoming ever more prevalent even before the current pandemic, but lockdown has undoubtedly sent this trend on a steep upward trajectory. A collaborative study carried out by Cardiff University in conjunction with the University of Southampton compared data from before April 2020 and in the early stages of lockdown (Felstead, A and Reuschke, D (2020) ‘Homeworking in the UK: before and during the 2020 lockdown’, WISERD Report, Cardiff: Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research). In this study, 9 out of 10 of those employees who worked at home during the initial lockdown period indicated that, in spite of the frustration that many experienced with poor broadband and limited or non-existent access to mobile signal, they would be keen to continue to work at home for at least part of the time. Many indicated a desire to work predominantly from home, even after the pandemic.
In order to make this new employment model a reality and to enable a shift to working in a truly flexible, mobile way, there is an urgent need to increase not only the coverage but also the reliability and the speed of networks. One potential way in which faster and more reliable wireless network could be delivered is through the new 5G global standard. 5G includes enhanced mobile broadband, which promises to provide high bandwidth wireless connectivity to support video streaming, virtual reality, as well as everyday working needs. There are however, some situations in which something different is needed; something more than just enhanced mobile broadband services. For the safe functioning of driverless cars and robotic surgery, huge quantities of data must be transferred and processed in more or less real time. This provides an additional challenge to 5G capabilities. Low-latency and high reliability are seen as game changers in the widespread adoption of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, industrial automation and autonomous driving.
Moira Watson is a Lecturer (Education) in the School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Queen’s University, Belfast. She is an experienced educator with over 20 years’ experience teaching in Higher Education. Moira’s current research focusses on the issues around recruitment and retention of female students to STEM subjects, in particular Engineering and Computer Science.
Moira has always been committed to promoting women in STEM, taking part in events and interviews on this topic. Since taking up her post in Queen’s University in May 2020 (during lockdown), she has joined the University’s Athena SWAN team as a SWAN Champion and through this role is leading on projects to support the University’s diversity, equality and inclusion agenda.