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Coronavirus: how the telecoms world is answering the call


The global outbreak of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, continues to dominate the news cycle, as it wreaks havoc on all aspects of life; the telecoms industry has been no different. With providers having their usual processes disrupted and users even more dependent on their communications services while in isolation, how is the industry responding to its greatest ever challenge?

The cancellation of MWC20 was an early sign that the telecoms sector would not escape the creeping contagion of COVID-19, that has now brought many countries to a complete halt.

This week, the UK government sent out mobile text alerts via major operators warning customers of the new rules in force, debuting a mass alert system that was first trialled in 2014. With governments worldwide imposing sweeping social distancing measures to contain the spread, enforcing working from home where possible, combined with the closure of many venues and advising against or outright banning social interaction, the dependence and pressure on telecoms providers to ensure guaranteed service has never been greater.

This comes as leading mental health authorities advise those in isolation to remain in contact with friends and family via telephone, email or social media. The effects of isolation are expected to take a particular toll on those with pre-existing health conditions and the elderly, many of whom aren’t equipped to make the most of modern digital communications. Now more than ever, telcos have a duty to their customers beyond simply providing them with service.

As many people are being encouraged – or forced – to self-isolate, companies are sending staff home and relying on remote collaboration tools to bridge the gap. In fact, the number of Microsoft Teams users has more than doubled since January.

Here in the UK, ISPs have reassured the public that the infrastructure can handle the increase in demand – and that a series of outages across all major mobile networks on 17th March was completely unrelated to a rise in home working. Despite these assurances, Netflix announced it would reduce the streaming quality of video in Europe in order to free up bandwidth, with YouTube quickly following suit.

Further afield in Italy, on lockdown since 9th March after one of the biggest outbreaks of the virus outside of China, there has been a 70% increase in overall Internet traffic, according to Telecom Italia CEO Luigi Gubitosi, driven largely by video streaming and online gaming. WhatsApp has also seen a 20% increase in calls and messages sent.

In the United States, approx. 80 telecoms providers including Comcast, Verizon and AT&T have signed the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, promising to not cut telephone and broadband services for non-payment of bills for the next 60 days. Meanwhile, in India, subscribers to BSNL, Reliance Jio and Airtel are being greeted by a pre-recorded message before every phone call, reminding them of vital measures to contain the spread of the virus. The work of network operators in Kenya has not been confined to communications, as they have also been asked to waive fees on mobile payments in order to reduce the amount of banknotes changing hands.

Meanwhile, Israel is taking the bold step to track the phones of people suspected of infection. A similar measure was introduced in South Korea, leading to some very public declarations of certain citizens’ private affairs. BT are currently in talks with the British government to monitor whether stay-at-home measures are working by creating maps of anonymised user movement data. Whilst in Paris, mobile phone data has revealed that nearly 20% of residents left the city as it went into lockdown.

The potential long-term impact of the crisis may accelerate adoption of 5G across the world as the increasing volumes of data, for both work and play, place immense strain on existing 4G networks. In fact, China has already committed to pushing ahead with the rollout as their domestic situation improves, with other countries likely to consider following suit – providing supply chains don’t falter too much.

However, with no end in sight to the disruption caused by this global pandemic, it is likely that coronavirus will shape the nature of our longer term digital future. At this time of uncertainty and unprecedented crisis, telcos are underpinning key functions like never before, as the necessity for isolation raises the need for communications services and tools. But with customers under financial and social strain making more calls, using more data and more likely to contact customer services, it’s crucial that BSS/OSS platforms are scalable to support the increased load, flexible to support frequent changes to products and offers, and offer a digital first customer experience.

About the author

Adam Hughes


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