COVID-19 is changing communications forever

a map on a phone showing the spread of COVID-19 wordlwide

The COVID-19 crisis is showing us the fundamental importance of connectivity as an essential utility and as a contributor to life in modern society. Communication service providers (CSPs) are under the spotlight like never before — and their response has been fantastic.  So many have put Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) front and center: donating technology, equipment or hard cash to those on the frontline of the crisis or stuck at home; providing free services and relaxing payment obligations for customers in financial difficulty; or encouraging their employees to volunteer where they can help the most. And beyond that, the current crisis is a crucial juncture for the telecom sector as a whole.

Immediate medical response

CSPs and their technology platforms have provided essential contributions to the immediate medical response to the crisis. Many have broadcast information about the pandemic, with pre-recorded hygiene messages, automated SMS alerts for travelers, home screen warnings, and awareness campaigns. Many have also provided connectivity to temporary medical facilities, aided by global network equipment vendors rapidly deploying mobile base stations in record time.

Mobile operators have also been instrumental in helping track the efficacy of lockdown measures and even curb the spread of the virus. Mobile phone data can show the movements of a population, allowing authorities to monitor and predict the spread of the virus and protect citizens. In Korea, for example, apps can alert users when they go near a location known to have been visited by an infected person. In China, IoT solutions help alert communities with confirmed cases of COVID-19, control population movements with electronic passes, or enable touchless door opening to reduce the risk of transmission.

Some of these initiatives raise obvious privacy concerns. For the most part, operators have been open about their activities, using only anonymized or aggregated data as necessary.  The lasting effect of COVID-19 on privacy and human rights, however, is one that will need close scrutiny once we reach the other side. 

Robust connectivity

The lockdown measures enacted all over the world are causing an unprecedented and sudden change in traffic patterns. Mobile and fixed networks around the world have seen a surge in traffic volume, a shift of traffic from business districts to residential areas, and more intense and prolonged peak times. Traffic from video and TV on demand have shot up, as has online gaming, video conferencing, and even the humble phone call has made a comeback with voice minutes worldwide on the rise 

An infographic showing Nokia's observations of COVID-19 on CSPs

While this phenomenon has played out around the world, networks have so far held up and demonstrated the value of CSPs’ core capability: providing robust connectivity when and where it’s needed. This is testament to the resiliency that CSPs have built into their networks and their operations, and to the advances pursued by technology providers who have been unlocking new levels of bandwidth across mobile (e.g. 4G to 5G), fixed (e.g. GPON to XGS-PON), and in-home (e.g. Wi-Fi 5 to Wi-Fi 6) technologies. But it required using emergency reserve capacity and planning overheads designed to cope with the growth of a year or more, but used within a matter of days.

Some networks have approached the limit and are registering some degradation in service quality. Over-the-top (OTT) providers have downgraded video quality on their services to save bandwidth. Many spectrum regulators have redistributed licenses temporarily to ease congestion. Unfortunately, cyber-attacks have also risen across the globe, from trojans exploiting people’s anxiety to fake Covid apps.

Accelerating digital habits 

As people are forced to restrict their movement and reduce contact with others, we are also seeing a shift in digital behaviors. CSPs had to close their stores and often also their call centers. In some cases, alternative physical touchpoints could be found; for example, ATM-based cash deposits can substitute in-store cash transactions for balance top-up. But in many cases, digital interactions have become the only way of providing customer care and enabling services. Many operators have hence promoted their customer care apps and seen adoption increase.

As operators have worked to secure their business continuity, they also have found surging demand for digital services. Entertainment, already huge in the digital arena, became even more popular as many people have been suddenly deprived of most other means of entertainment for themselves, or sometimes more importantly for their children. Many CSPs with TV on demand or streaming services have provided these at reduced rates or for free; those with entertainment offers for children have promoted these in addition. Even the fundamental business models of Hollywood and Bollywood are impacted: some movies that could not premiere in theaters have been brought online immediately with premium pricing.

Little girl lying on floor using mobile phone to play.

But as lockdown measures persist, more digital services in all areas of life are becoming important: CSPs with digital payment services have promoted their use, e.g. by waiving fees temporarily, as a touchless and risk-free alternative to cash transactions, especially in the developing world. Working and learning has shifted online for many white-collar workers and students; many operators have provided free access to online learning platforms and business conferencing services. Telehealth is on the rise, too, with both Covid-19 specific apps and a general push for virtual consultation services. 

Positioning for a “new normal” 

It is inevitable that the huge impact of COVID-19 on the global economy will have a long-lasting effect across the telecom landscape. Many CSPs currently forgo revenues to provide economic relief to their customers. While global economies are recovering, consumers and businesses will be hard pressed to maintain their spend on telecom services. CSPs are hence more than ever in the dilemma of needing to provide ever more capacity with limited means.

But there will be long-lasting positive impulses for the telecoms sector too. Businesses and society are gradually opening up again, yet the use of telecoms and digital services, and digitalization at large will not reverse. We are rather evolving towards a “new normal”.

Businesses and even whole industries that had shied away from teleworking will almost certainly liberalize their policies. Services in eHealth, eLearning, online financial services, and many other new applications now have the chance to attract usage and new customers. Many of them will continue to appreciate these services as substitutes or complements to their traditional lifestyle.

a senior couple doing online banking in their living room

 CSPs stand to benefit in the long run if they use the current momentum to evolve their position for the “new normal.” It will require operators to become Digital Service Providers (DSP) in two ways: a digitalized provider of telecom services, and a provider of a broader portfolio of digital services. Operators that are already advanced on this journey are currently in the lead. After all, there was no time or warning to establish seamless digital business processes when Covid-19 emerged, and operators could only provide digital services that they had already developed. But it seems unlikely that we will reach the “new normal” quickly — every CSP should consider which role they want to play and start preparing for it now.

Join Hans Geerdes on Wednesday, May 13 for the “Strategic Responses to COVID-19” webinar, exploring the role that communication service providers (CSPs) play in the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and the lasting impact of the crisis on the telecom industry.

About Futurithmic

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