Next time there is a highly deserved round of public applause for NHS workers, do add one additional clap for the tele-communications industry for — so far — keeping the show on the road. High-speed broadband, for those lucky enough to have it, has made self-isolation more tolerable, and may have significantly reduced the impact of the disease in Britain.
I say this because, for several weeks before it became mandatory to stay indoors, a large number of people did so voluntarily. That includes me. Ever since my grandfather contracted jaundice and so avoided landing at Suvla Bay in Gallipoli, there has been a proud family tradition of calling in sick at the first sign of a sniffle.
And here, just outside the M25, I was not alone in self-isolating early. From the half-empty station carparks, it was clear people were avoiding London when they could. (Did this help? We’ll know in a few years. But many of the Home Counties have infection rates which seem oddly low compared with the capital.) The reason people could avoid this journey is down to two fairly recent developments. Decent broadband upload speeds and video--conferencing software that doesn’t stink.
To give you some idea of the astronomical expansion of the world’s data transmission capacity, what better than a story from astronomy? In the mid-1990s my brother, an astrophysicist, was involved in a project where a telescope near Canberra in Australia would send star-survey data overnight by internet to Lawrence Livermore in California. A night’s data might amount to six gigabytes or so — about the same as watching two films in high definition on Netflix. Soon after the project began, they received a nervous call. Their project, it emerged, accounted for 10 per cent of the internet traffic between Australia and the west coast of the United States.
So when your sulky teenager throttles your home internet connection by downloading a 51GB patch for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare on the PS4, they are casually using what used to be a day’s worth of trans-Pacific bandwidth shortly before their birth.
The fact that millions can enjoy video-calling simultaneously at near broadcast quality is a technological miracle. What took a little longer was software that made it relatively easy to do so. Zoom deserves a specific mention here, not only because it is very good but because it has become so widely used. One of the obstacles to video-conferencing was that, however good the technology, it only took one participant to get confused with the interface to render the whole group call a disaster. Since most people in business are now reasonably adept at using Zoom, this problem is diminishing.
Zoom’s success is all the more remarkable because it succeeded against competing offerings from giants including Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft. They achieved this by several very clever design and technology features, but also by the very simple idea of giving each meeting a URL internet address. If you click on this link, five seconds later you find yourself in the meeting.
The simplicity that makes Zoom good for business meetings also makes it useful for video-calls including more Luddite friends or family. One-to-one meetings are free and unlimited. Calls with more people are limited to 40 minutes. Alternatively, the member of a family with a tax accountant can pay £11.99 a month and this limitation is lifted. During the crisis, Zoom is also offering free unlimited use for schools.
The URL to sign up is www.zoom.us. A sign of their modest beginnings is that the domain zoom.com was too expensive for them. The company is now valued at a little under $40 billion.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy UK.