Governments and their leaders gained newfound insights into the importance of connectivity in 2020.
Governments and their leaders gained newfound insights into the importance of connectivity in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted widespread shifts in how people work, learn and engage with services ranging from health and education to fitness and entertainment. For governments, many of these changes will likely become permanent, including telework, newly digitized services and hybrid models for a wide range of critical functions, including education, justice and governing bodies.
While these shifts hold great potential in making government more responsive and resilient in the face of future crises, the pandemic also revealed critical challenges that must be addressed. The rapid pivot to remote activities in 2020 placed unprecedented demands on networks and revealed longstanding inequities in connectivity within communities.
“Governments need to ensure an inclusive future for all. It has become clear that many communities are not as connected as they need to be,” says Cisco Global Industry Solutions Executive Sielen Namdar. “When people are left out of the digital equation, they’re left out of health care and education, which have longer-term costs for their communities that must be addressed.”
To ensure this inclusive future, government leaders must consider internet connectivity as more than an enabling technology for their operations. Instead, it must become essential to the well-being and economic health of their communities and citizens—an aspirational goal made increasingly possible by advancements in enabling network technologies that offer more cost-effective ways of enabling a more inclusive future.
“There is a need for a new network model that fits our new reality,” says TJ Costello, Cisco global director for cities, communities and transportation. “The internet must be viewed as a core utility and a critical public service. Our communities can build efficient connectivity that can solve the access problem with modern, flexible and scalable solutions for telehealth, education, job growth and more.”
Connectivity needs were increasing exponentially even before the pandemic. Globally, an estimated 4.6 billion users and more than 27 billion devices are now connected to the internet, according to Cisco’s Annual Internet Report (AIR). By 2023, there will be 5.3 billion internet users and more than 42 billion connected devices worldwide.
The nature of connectivity also is changing rapidly, with video now accounting for 82 percent of all internet traffic. Cloud-based services and the proliferation of a new generation of smart devices are also shifting demand to where users are — at the edge of their networks. And with the rollout of 5G becoming a reality, more than 13.1 billion mobile devices will require seamless connectivity by 2023, according to Cisco.
Together, these challenges require governments and other providers to look at the networks that provide connectivity in new ways.
“It’s never been more apparent that now is the time to build trustworthy, mass-scale infrastructure that can solve for the needs of today while keeping an eye on the future,” Costello says.
Mass-scale connectivity supports three essential pillars of the public sector mission, according to Namdar. They are:
Investments in mass-scale infrastructure, which typically include miles of fiber cable, are not cheap. But communities that have done so are “ahead of the game,” Namdar says, and advancements in enabling technologies are shifting the economics of providing access at scale. Federal funding sources, including the FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF)’s $16 billion in grants and the two rounds of federal coronavirus stimulus funding to date, also provide new opportunities to support state and local government investments in broadband infrastructure.
Government leaders should focus on a community-wide strategy that includes the needs of multiple departments and is integrated into broader infrastructure investments. Some have included upgrades as part of larger utility expansions or renovations. Others have leveraged fiber networks built for schools or other departments to connect other government buildings or taken advantage of public-private partnerships to expand connectivity.
“Instead of working in silos, developing multi-use infrastructure helps build out those connections,” says Dani Schrakamp, Cisco global market lead for government, smart cities and transportation.
Next-generation networking technology is making it much easier to develop unified approaches to meeting connectivity needs. Breakthroughs in the silicon and optics powering next-generation mass-scale networks enable their operators to converge disparate access, edge and aggregation networks into unified IP and optical architecture that supports all connectivity types and services while reducing operating and maintenance costs. Cloud-powered operating systems open the door for automation and virtualization, allowing different departments, including police, health care or city services to create their own independent overlay of services on top of a common network, or provide public Wi-Fi or other access points to address digital divides within communities. And fiber-based network architectures allow the addition of 5G, public wireless access or cloud services over time without rethinking the overall structure of the network, allowing governments to continue to scale to meet citizen needs over time.
To fulfill this vision of mass-scale connectivity, governments will need to ensure that networks are flexible enough to accommodate shifts in demand and emerging use cases, including the connected sensors and devices that comprise smart city solutions.
“Enabling the functionality of new technology is a big part of resiliency,” Schrakamp says. “A singular and secure network infrastructure provides a real foundation for growth in the short and long term.”
Among the key components of next-generation infrastructure:
Governments that develop infrastructure that meets these needs will create a strong foundation for their communities, Costello says.
“Mass-scale network infrastructure enables government resiliency and operational continuity, digital inclusion, flexibility in changing social demographics and opportunities for economic development,” he says.
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