If 2020 was the year when Covid-19 turbocharged the adoption of digital technology, 2021 will be when Kiwis innovate to take advantage of these new ways of living and working. Digital infrastructure will catch up with what we want to do with our technology – but we’ll also need to battle with the cybercriminals trying to exploit our increased presence online and economic uncertainties. It is going to be fascinating, but it’s also going to be hectic, says Vodafone’s chief technology officer Tony Baird.

He brings Newsroom his top five tech trends set to shape 2021 and beyond.

Digital adoption leapfrogged at least two or three years in 2020, says Vodafone’s Tony Baird. Photo supplied

1. 5G turns mainstream and tech innovations come to the fore

With millions of people needing to stay connected to work, live and play while in lockdown, everyone turned to their mobile phones or home internet connections. Vodafone customers used 145PB (petabytes) of mobile data between January and November 2020 – the equivalent of streaming 58 million high-definition movies. This is mind-blowing when you consider how many people spend their online time emailing, surfing the internet, or scrolling social media feeds – all relatively low data eaters.

We estimate digital adoption leapfrogged at least two or three years in 2020, and next generation technology came into focus. At the forefront is 5G which, as the latest mobile network, is opening up applications like never before.

As more people buy 5G-enabled devices, more applications will come to the fore. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Next year we’ll expanding the reach of Vodafone 5G, and extending what is already Aotearoa’s largest 5G footprint by far in terms of population coverage. As more consumers start to buy 5G-enabled devices, like the latest Apple or Samsung phones, new applications will come to the fore.

Uber, Instagram and the YouTube app all became possible using 4G tech. We don’t know what the Next Big Thing will be with 5G mobile technology, but we know it’ll be something cool. And we want a Kiwi business to be inventing it in 2021.

Likewise, 5G broadband is set to become mainstream in New Zealand in 2021, which will make high-speed internet access simple and easy. This opens up almost-instant connectivity – whether it is powering numerous data-heavy devices at a building site, enabling office Wifi in minutes, or fast and reliable broadband on the day you move into a new home – without the need for cabling or a technician to install anything.

To take advantage of this 5G platform, hopefully 2021 will see more students enrol into technology-focused degrees, and businesses apply for R&D grants as they innovate. This innovation will lead to new industries emerging in Aotearoa, and bolster our digital export economy. I’m excited about what new technologies will emerge in 2021, and about seeing the potential of our 5G network come to life.

2. Cybersecurity in focus

The dark side of technology acceleration is that organised crime also went online this year. Credible sources suggest that international crime syndicates now make more money from cybercrime than they do from the drug trade.

In 2020, many boards of directors around Aotearoa realised the elevated potential for financial and reputation harm during the high profile series of DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks on a number of our institutions, with cybersecurity rocketing to the top of risk registers.

We’ve seen an increase in all sorts of online crime and cyber threats – from scam delivery texts to one-ring call fraud and fake sextortion email scams (as Netsafe explains here). In 2021, this is only set to get worse.

Correspondingly, 2021 will see companies increase their spending on security services to protect their data, and that of their customers. Security needs will evolve quicker, so more products, services and companies will launch to help organisations protect their data assets. Consumers will need to get even more cyber-savvy in order to protect themselves from increasingly sophisticated attacks, as cybercriminals don’t stand still when there is money to be made.

3. Working from home (WFH) becomes working free-range (WFR)

If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that teams can be just as productive when working from home – if not more so. Under lockdown, many businesses continued operating – but needed to turn to online channels to do so. We all learnt how to video conference and “you’re on mute” became one of the most common phrases of 2020. Even post-lockdown, video calls continue to be the business meeting mechanism of choice in many organisations.

Now that WFH is more normal, and internet connections are available in most parts of New Zealand, this will grow into working free-range (WFR) in 2021 using mobile technologies. Connected employees will take their work with them – whether it is to the bach, waiting at a child’s music lesson, visiting whānau in another town, or sitting at the local café for a change of scenery over lunch.

More businesses will differentiate themselves by the flexible working policies they offer, and in-demand workers will look for jobs at organisations that enable staff to embrace working free-range, and juggle their work lives around their home lives better.

It’s not just personal productivity and satisfaction that will improve with this push towards free-range working. The broader societal benefits are obvious, with traffic in the main cities already reduced – as well as the environmental benefits of using video conferencing instead of flying across the country for a one-hour meeting. As Aotearoa grapples with new ways to reduce our carbon emissions, turning to online channels will become even more popular.

4. Rural connectivity will be even more important

As remote working became more acceptable in 2020, city property prices skyrocketed. This, combined with Covid-prompted connectivity, has provided the ability and increasingly the desire to move to a regional location and obtain a cheaper lifestyle. In 2021, inter-regional commuting will increase, which can only be good for our provinces.

But that also puts our rural and regional internet and phone networks into focus, because you need a reliable network connection if you have to sit on video calls all day. Just as we have highways in the city and gravel roads in remote locations, we have the equivalent for internet connections. Both get you where you need to go, but one is (usually) quicker than the other.

With the appointment of a Minister for the Digital Economy and Communications as a new portfolio in the Government, there will be a bigger focus on digital inclusion in 2021 – which includes access as well as affordability, skills and trust. New Zealand is well-served for internet and the Government already invests via the Rural Broadband Initiative in improving regional coverage in areas where it would be uneconomical for individual companies to bring internet in. Still, the pressing need to bridge the rural-urban divide will continue to grow.

On the affordability side, the growing strain on people’s finances is evident and addressing digital exclusion is a broader societal challenge we all need to collaborate on – with government, industry and community groups working together to help Aotearoa’s most vulnerable citizens access the benefits from being digitally included.

We’ll also need to work together to address the skills and trust gap, as vital services go digital and having online access becomes a necessity in our ever-connected society.

5. Sensible infrastructure sharing will grow

As part of this government/industry collaboration, infrastructure sharing will come into focus even more in 2021. Data use increases more than 40 percent each year, and to support remote working and learning we need to continually invest in building more digital infrastructure.

But just one new mobile cell site can cost anywhere between $250,000 to $1 million to build… and it’s generally the far-flung places where costs are higher – because there are often additional complexities such as bringing in power or fibre to connect that cell site. Moreover, the smaller population means the economics of generating a return on that investment are harder, hence the need for the Rural Connectivity Group.

Building cell towers in rural areas is expensive. Telcos should share the load. Photo: Getty Images

Therefore the final prediction is that 2021 will see infrastructure sharing mature further – just as has happened in other parts of the globe. When telecommunications companies invest in joint networks, sharing the costs of digital infrastructure in a sparsely populated country (even while they compete vigorously at a retail level) consumers across Aotearoa get a much better experience and benefit from improved connectivity.

This is also important when we consider telco industry economics. Experts indicate the New Zealand economy remains vulnerable to another downturn. In this climate, business investment becomes harder and we continually need to look for operational efficiencies. Correspondingly, the need for government and its agencies to work with business and remove regulatory uncertainties will continue to grow, and any additional and costly compliance requirements will likely be passed onto consumers.

2020 was the year where technology turbocharged, and 2021 will be the year where technology matures even further as we all grabble with the challenges of an uncertain economic environment and a need to go online. Despite this, the potential for innovation out of necessity is an exciting prospect, and one we need to harness to create a better Aotearoa for future generations.

Vodafone is a foundation supporter of Newsroom.co.nz.

Tony Baird is wholesale & infrastructure director at Vodafone NZ

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