Pandemic lockdowns had been a beta check for the way forward for linked tech, says Deloitte

A survey of consumers found that COVID-induced lockdowns tested the limits of our networks, smartphones and services. While largely successful, these forced changes also highlighted some weak spots.

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The 2021 edition of Deloitte’s survey of tech consumers found that most happily adapted to new technology initially foisted on them by COVID-19 lockdowns, but not without problems and stumbling blocks. 

Describing the past year as “one big beta test” of the future of connectivity, Deloitte said internet connectivity and the devices that grant it became more important than ever, but many households began to push the limits, forcing 19% to upgrade their internet, 30% to add Wi-Fi extenders to counter dead spots, and 40% to change mobile data plans, many of whom did so to add unlimited data. 

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Unsurprisingly, consumer use of mobile technology greatly increased during the pandemic, with activities like using a mobile app or website to order food growing from 36% to 56%, curbside pickup growing from 31% to 51%, and contactless payments increasing by similar numbers. Of those who started using smartphones for retail purposes, 70% said they’ll continue to do so. 

Remote work was another test of connected technology, with 55% of U.S. households having someone working from home at the start of 2021, and 43% having a student learning from home. Of those, 28% of workers and 32% of students said they had connectivity issues, indicating that stressed networks still held up well, Deloitte said. Despite technological shortcomings, professionals working from home reported that the inability to meet face-to-face with clients and coworkers was a top challenge, as well as increased working hours. 

Virtual healthcare was also stress-tested during the pandemic, but 82% of respondents reported being satisfied with their remote healthcare experiences. More than half of the U.S. adult population had a virtual doctor’s appointment in the past year, Deloitte said, and 62% are likely to continue scheduling remote visits after pandemic restrictions have ended. 

The greatest drawback to remote healthcare matches that of remote work, Deloitte found: Patients reported missing face-to-face interactions and being frustrated with the inability to have vital statistics recorded. The overall success of virtual medicine during the pandemic could overcome those drawbacks, though, with Deloitte suggesting that advancements in wearable technologies that allow for better health and wellness data collection are likely to counter some dissatisfaction with remote care. 

Despite some discontent with the pandemic forcing us to adopt technology that Deloitte LLP and U.S. tech sector vice chairman Paul Silvergate described as “like a time machine that suddenly propelled us tens of years into the future,” the pandemic proved that technology held up and managed to adapt to increased demand. Despite that, Silvergate notes, we’ve stretched our current connected infrastructure to the point where it may not be able to deliver a more connected future. “As well as we have adapted, we hit the limits of what our current technology can deliver,” Silvergate said. 

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During the pandemic, much of the population was stationary, the report said. Networks that were pushed to their limit by people stuck at home may not adapt to increased mobility without a drop in usage. “It’s not yet clear how well existing smartphones and mobile connectivity will serve post-pandemic behaviors,” the report said. 

Future innovation in remote technology needs to focus on meeting needs, said Jana Arbanas, Deloitte LLP and U.S. telecom media entertainment sector leader and vice chairman. “As we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, this innovation should focus around the essential elements of daily life to help people thrive in their crowded homes — underscoring the simple fact that technology and invention, ideally, is about supporting human needs.”

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