The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to find new ― or renewed ― uses for all our familiar technologies in order to maintain something of our old normal lives. It has also forced the country to confront the long-neglected need for universal broadband service and has people adopting digital services we’d have dismissed as utopian — or dystopian — just a year ago.
Many changes are likely to be long-lasting, whether the shift to virtual classrooms or remote health care or the rise of video games as a spectator sport. Here’s more on what we can expect in the next few years.
Broadband: universal at last?
None of this stuff succeeds if we don’t all have good Internet connections. Yet the Federal Communications Commission estimates 18 million Americans lack access to a reasonably fast broadband connection, while the organization BroadbandNow says the real number is closer to 42 million.
Democrats in Congress are lining up behind a plan pioneered by Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to spend $86 billion to wire the entire United States. Pre-pandemic, this would have been a nonstarter with Republicans. These days, even Trump allies such as GOP House leader Kevin McCarthy say they’re open to the idea.
Optical fiber is the ideal backbone for the network, but hellishly costly to run to every home and business. Enter 5G, the much-hyped new wireless standard capable of delivering data at dozens or hundreds of megabits per second. While 5G hasn’t made much of an impact so far, telecom analyst Tim Bajarin predicts faster deployments of the technology in the aftermath of COVID-19.
The FCC’s recent approval of a space-based 5G service from Ligado, despite furious Pentagon complaints that the system will disrupt GPS satellite navigation systems, shows the depth of the administration’s commitment to building out the nation’s 5G network.
There’s also Starlink, entrepreneur Elon Musk’s ambitious plan to provide global broadband service by parking thousands of satellites in low-Earth orbit. Already about 540 have been deployed, and Musk’s company SpaceX is starting to sign up consumers to participate in a beta test of the system.
Online retailing: a bit more competition, a lot more robots
Thanks to COVID-19, we’re doing a lot more Internet shopping, but not just at Amazon. When the online giant suffered delivery slowdowns, rivals like Walmart, Target, and Boston-based Wayfair picked up the slack, and some welcome market share.
And behind those big names are companies such as Locus Robotics, of Wilmington, and 6 River Systems in Waltham, which make the robots that scurry through warehouses gathering merchandise for shipping.
“These mobile platforms, they’re just going through the roof,” said the robotics industry analyst Dan Kara of WTWH Media.
Other robots work to keep up with the fast-growing demand for online grocery shopping. Alert Innovation, of North Billerica, and Takeoff Technologies, of Waltham, make “micro-fulfillment centers” for Walmart, Stop & Shop, and others. These are automated warehouses built near standard retail stores that contain a large selection of consumer items that can be packed quickly. Robotic carts race through the warehouse, filling orders and handing them off to human workers who carry them to customers’ cars or deliver them to homes.
Takeoff Technologies has built seven of these systems and plans to install 53 more this year. “All of our clients are selling two to three times what they were before COVID,” said its president, Max Pedro.
The doctor is always in
Wearable devices such as the Apple Watch or Fitbit that can track users’ heart rates, body temperatures, and blood-oxygen levels are already a hit with consumers. Sales have boomed this year, and you can expect to see even more post-COVID-19.
“Personal health care has never felt so important and top-of-mind,” said Steven Waltzer, a senior analyst at Strategy Analytics. “The wearables industry is well positioned to help consumers, governments, and businesses manage their personal health care in a post-corona world.”
Thanks to the COVID-19 lockdowns, doctors are again making house calls, through telemedicine systems. Arielle Trzcinski, a telehealth analyst at Forrester Research, said her company analyzed Medicare and Medicaid data and found that 40 percent of all outpatient visits could have been handled online. And in the near future, they probably will be.
Education: a back-to-the-future school
For decades, futurists touted online learning as a substitute for traditional schooling. COVID-19 has made it happen — even after schools reopen. The continued need for social distancing will force many to adopt a hybrid approach, with students in school for some classes, online for others.
Old-fashioned classrooms are likely to remain the norm for K-6 schools as soon as the pandemic passes, said Phil Hill, education software analyst at the research firm MindWires LLC, while courses for older students will be redesigned to “require you to be less in the classroom than before.”
They’ll need to be redesigned. Most college students were unhappy with their remote c;asses. according to a recent survey by the educational technology firm Top Hat. Traditional teaching methods, Hill said, often don’t work online. “It’s not so much a technology issue,” he said. “It’s instructors knowing how to design a course.”
Schools and instructors will spend the summer revising curriculums and mastering new teaching methods.
“Faculty are doing an amazing amount of work trying to prepare for what will happen in the fall,” said Edward Maloney, director of the Program in Learning, Design, and Technology at Georgetown University.
Colleges are also reinventing the social aspects of campus life. Maloney suggested one option: Online students in Boston, say, could form small groups that would log onto classes together, then socialize afterward. More colleges could emulate Minerva, a San Francisco college that brings students together in residence halls but conducts all its courses online.
First-run movies come home
When COVID-19 closed movie theaters, Universal Pictures released the animated kiddie flick “Trolls World Tour” directly to Internet pay-per-view streaming services for $20. Three weeks later, Universal had raked in $100 million, without having had to pay a dime to movie theaters.
Hollywood studios will keep it up after the pandemic ends. A recent survey by Variety magazine found that 70 percent of US consumers prefer streaming to a trip to the theater. “Streaming is part of the ecosystem now,” said Mark Malinowski, vice president of global marketing at National Amusements, the movie theater chain owner.
Theaters aren’t doomed, though. As the fear of infection fades, Malinowski expects people will be eager to venture to the local cineplex. When they arrive, they’ll find masked, gloved employees, seats placed farther apart, and hand sanitizer everywhere. “People are ready to leave their homes as long as they know it’s an environment that’s as safe as it can be,” Malinowski said.
E-sports gets real
It’s no surprise that video game sales spiked during the lockdown — up 35 percent in March alone, according to the research firm NPD. But few foresaw millions of sports-deprived TV viewers would watch simulated auto races. The NASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series became the most successful “e-sports” event in US history.
“It’s had the effect of introducing e-sports . . . to a much larger audience.” said John Harrison, global media and entertainment sector leader for the consulting firm Ernst & Young. Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League also broadcast e-sports events during the lockdown.
Sean Gilbert, head of gaming and e=sports at Teknos Associates, a tech consultancy in San Francisco, thinks these new fans will graduate to digital versions of traditional sportsand the much larger e-sports universe, where huge audiences tune in to watch experts play video game competitions in titles such as “Call of Duty” and “League of Legends.” Gilbert predicts those tournaments could be standard fare on broadcast TV within five years.