The classrooms are empty, the hallways are deserted, and the Wi-Fi networks sit idle across the more than 100 K-12 public schools operated by the Loudoun County school district in Northern Virginia.
Schools have been closed since March due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the wireless team has been busier than ever, making sure that all of the 85,000 students in the district have reliable Internet access for distance learning from home, and planning for a future in which wireless connectivity becomes even more vital to the school district's mission.
Mitch Dickey, lead communications engineer, said that when the schools were abruptly shut down in mid-March by order of the governor, the wireless team jumped into action, acquiring 1,500 wireless hot spots and distributing them to students who needed them.
Working from home, Dickey is now putting together a proof of concept (POC) to deploy 60GHz point-to-point wireless in school parking lots to give students and staffers Internet access while the physical buildings are off limits.
For Dickey and other WLAN professionals, the pandemic has demonstrated the critical importance of wireless communications. Nearly two-thirds of American workers – double the number from early March – are doing their jobs via home wireless, according to a Gallup Poll survey. Cisco, in its latest earnings report, announced that 95% of its employees are working from home.
That means WLAN pros have had to shift their attention from maintaining corporate networks to remotely assisting workers, many of whom are non-technical, in getting their home networks up to speed and securely connected to corporate assets.
Tam Dell'Oro, founder and CEO of the Dell'Oro Group, surveyed about 20 enterprise network managers and WLAN distributors, and reports that new in-building deployments have pretty much stopped cold.
She adds that with WLAN pros charged with setting up and securing at-home workers, "remote access devices, particularly those with higher WAN connectivity and higher security, are flying off the shelf."
IDC analyst Brandon Butler says the 2020 forecast for the WLAN industry has been downgraded from the 5.1 per cent growth rate predicted prior to the pandemic to a 2.3 per cent decline. He adds that industries like retail, hospitality, sports stadiums and theatres, which make up the largest share of WLAN spending, have been hit the hardest by Covid-19.
"Overall, we've seen that enterprise WLAN projects are generally taking longer to get approved and executed as decision lead times increase and businesses reassess their investments."
He adds, "For network engineers, this can be an opportunity to optimise their environments while they don't have workers in the office or customers on their premises. It's also a time to support their work-from-home colleagues and plan for future business use cases when employees/customers do return."
And it's a great time for network engineers to raise their profile from someone who only interacts with workers when there's a trouble ticket, to someone who is proactively helping people get their jobs done in a time of crisis.
These new responsibilities call for a slightly different skill set. As Lee Badman, wireless network architect at Syracuse University, puts it, "We communicate more with various electronic methods, and certainly need to polish our soft skills of patience and consideration as we deal with everyone in this odd time."
Prepping for next phase of enterprise Wi-Fi
Now that companies are starting to think about the safest ways to bring people back to the workplace, WLAN experts are taking centre stage. The job of the Wi-Fi engineer is no longer just about the technical aspects of coverage, bandwidth, uptime and performance. It's about creativity, adaptability, resilience, innovation and taking on a leadership role.
For example, a significant percentage of employees may end up working from home permanently. In the Gallup survey, three in five U.S. workers who have been doing their jobs from home during the pandemic said they would prefer to continue working remotely even after public health restrictions are lifted.
Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. just announced a permanent transition to a hybrid work model in which it will continue to operate four main corporate offices, but the majority of other locations will close and employees will continue working remotely. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently informed his employees that they can continue working from home "forever."
"Fewer people at the office means commercial real estate may free up, portions of buildings may be leased and Wi-Fi may become more important than wired Ethernet to accommodate the reallocation of space associated with new office layouts," Dell'Oro says.
Conversely, more people working from home on a full-time basis may require new ways of thinking about remote networks. Traditionally there has been a clear line of demarcation between work and home networks in terms of maintenance and troubleshooting. Enterprise IT was reluctant to cross the line into taking responsibility for equipment that it did not buy or configure.
The current crisis has obliterated that line, with WLAN experts diving in, helping people with their home nets on an ad hoc, emergency basis. But if working from home becomes more prevalent and permanent, formal policies will need to be established.
Home networks may come to be viewed as extensions of the corporate network, or treated the same way as BYOD devices. Maybe the WLAN team will end up deploying corporate-approved Wi-Fi routers with pre-set security, access control, compliance and usage policies.
What the new normal might look like
Virtually all of the changes and adaptations that people are envisioning as part of reopening the economy require some manner of wireless connectivity.
"WLAN vendors and networking professionals have an opportunity over the medium and long-term to position Wi-Fi technology as an enabler of new, contactless business operations," such as checking in a hotel guest via a contactless transaction, IDC's Butler says.
Other wireless-enabled functions include tracking and monitoring hotel guests or mall shoppers to make sure social distancing is adhered to and that requirements around the number of people gathered in public spaces are followed.
Retail stores might decide to use video cameras to track whether people are wearing masks. Then there are the more advanced scenarios like deploying mobile temperature check systems prior to allowing workers back into a manufacturing facility.
Juniper, for example, just announced a cloud service that enables companies to use Wi-Fi location data for journey mapping, proximity tracing and hot-zone alerting, based on data collected from badges worn by employees or through mobile phone apps.
Butler points out that Wi-Fi systems have the ability to collect enormous amounts of data about users and devices that are connected to the network, including which APs they connect to, when they connected, for how long they connect and where they move within a facility. "This data could be used for a variety of benefits as organisations think about reopening," he says.
In the event someone at a company tests positive for the virus, Juniper says its system can be used to identify who the person came in contact with, and what areas of the facility the person visited. It can also be used to alert people in real time that they may be heading toward a congested area.
These Wi-Fi intensive scenarios may require companies to upgrade to 802.11ax or Wi-Fi 6, which offers higher performance, adds Dell'Oro.
Moving to cloud-based Wi-Fi management
When employees were all working in a corporate office, WLAN management was relatively easy, compared to the current scenario of workers scattered everywhere. This change has sparked interest in offloading WLAN management to cloud-based service providers.
"Over the long term we expect some of the trends that have been driving the market in recent years to increase in popularity due to Covid-19, namely the shifting to managing WLANs from cloud-based platforms and relying on advanced software-based machine learning and AI capabilities," Butler says.
Dell'Oro adds that around half of the people she polled indicated that the pandemic is serving as a "catalyst triggering enterprise interest in cloud-based applications and infrastructure."
For WLAN experts, shifting to a cloud service requires an entirely different skill set that includes things like managing relationships with multiple cloud service providers and making sure that SLAs are met. These skills will not only make WLAN professionals more effective in their current job but also position them to advance into higher level cloud management roles within the company.
Future of WLANs and WLAN professionals
As companies slowly reopen, WLANs will play an increasingly important role in enabling new wireless-based capabilities and in making sure that remote workers are secure and productive.
WLAN engineers will need to brush up on their soft skills, expand their horizons to include cloud-based management services, and focus on innovation and creativity in leading companies on the path to new wireless-based capabilities.
WLAN-related jobs will continue to be highly coveted and highly compensated. For example, in the latest Foote Partners research, the Certified Wireless Network Administrator certification gained more than 10% in market value in the three months ended April 1.
Badman points out that "the LAN and WLAN are pivotal to keeping our university running." Syracuse University still has a few thousand people (down from more than 33,000) on its wireless network, so he is conducting the usual monitoring activities and responding to the rare trouble ticket.
He's also consulting on home wireless networks of staff members. Home Wi-Fi might have been taken for granted prior to the pandemic, but now it's mission critical for teachers, administrators and students, Badman says.
He adds, "I know that many of us are trying to fill any newfound extra time we have with self-development" in order to be better prepared for whatever the new normal might look like.