COVID-19 triggered challenges for the telecom sector

How policy makers, regulators and telecom operators are coping with the crisis

Summary of a report by Georg Serentschy

The eminent social and economic importance of resilient telecom networks, with sufficient capacity and resources even under unexpected stress, is strikingly demonstrated by the COVID-19 crisis for governments, regulators, the economy and citizens. In many countries, this crisis has also brought about a surge in digitization in all areas overnight as it were. Projects that had been in the drawers of decision makers for years were implemented in a few weeks because it simply became necessary.

In Europe, Commissioner Thierry Breton’s suggestion that digital platforms such as streaming services may voluntarily reduce their bandwidth requirements in order to support network stability has led to some speculation and misinterpretation, which is addressed in this report. The fact is that so far, European telecommunications networks are not overloaded, are generally stable and have sufficient capacity reserves to meet the demands of many customers for increased bandwidth. This has been confirmed by the latest BEREC Summary Report (15 April 2020) on the status of the internet.1

On the basis of European experience and my own observations and reflections, what can be cautiously recommended to governments, regulators and telecoms operators after five weeks of good practice to date can be summarized as follows:

  • Clear your mind of the idea that the crisis will suddenly be over, and we will all return to our long-lived world. Many smart comments have now been written about why the world will be different post COVID-19,2 even if an effective treatment for the disease is available. How could the world look like post COVID-19?

    • From the pressure of events, we are currently developing and practicing alternative forms of communication and cooperation, both in the private and the business field, working from home will become the new norm for more people, entertainment and shopping will move even more into the online realm.

    • Global supply chains will become fragmented and need to be diversified to ensure the supply of the economy and population. The “just-in-time” concept will become less important and “single-sourcing” will be a concept of the past. The idea of “de-globalization” will not remain in the off-world scientist’s “ivory tower”, it will become the anti-thesis of our world before COVID-19.3

    • Telecommunications networks will establish themselves in the consciousness of all people in the long term as the digital backbone of society and as a system-critical element for all areas of life.

    • The concepts of strategic sovereignty and social resilience will move from the academic halls into the consciousness and actions of politicians and all people.

    • The digitalization of all areas of society is currently experiencing the greatest thrust that all the speeches of politicians in the last 10 years have not been able to achieve. This is an amazing opportunity for telecom companies.

  • Good management skills, delegation of responsibility to decentralized teams, clear and quick decisions followed by crystal clear communication have never been more important than today because of the complexity of global problems such as COVID-19.

  • Set up fixed communication dates with a standard agenda every 1-2 days between government, regulator and network operators followed by swift decisions and clear external communication.

  • Design and practice short decision-making processes and implement redundancies to be prepared for all eventualities.

  • Set up contingency plans and redundant key teams that must undergo regular fire drills.

  • Stay vigilant and don’t be naive. The cooperation partner of today, which has emerged from the pressure of events, can again become an adversary as soon as the crisis subsides or even earlier. Nevertheless, trust, quick decisions and handshake quality are very important.

The EU published an initial European Roadmap towards lifting COVID-19 containment measures for coordinated action4 to relax measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic in the EU Member States. The key prerequisites for easing measures are a significant reduction in the number of infections and the availability of sufficient medical care. This roadmap does not specify a time frame. However, the decision to end restrictive measures remains – according to the EU roadmap – essentially a multi-dimensional political decision in which the benefits for public health are weighed against other social and economic effects.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) published a document calling for preparation of the “new normal”, “now is the time to double down…[and] to be very, very careful”.5

ITU’s new Global Network Resiliency Platform (#REG4COVID)6 is a place to share and pool experiences, ongoing initiatives, and innovative policy and regulatory measures designed to help ensure communities remain connected, that we support one another, and that we harness the full power and potential of ICTs to save lives. ​Around the world, institutions and individuals are urgently seeking digital strategies that can help mitigate the catastrophic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on individuals, communities, institutions, companies and the economy.

In conclusion, it should be emphasized once again that this subject is developing extremely dynamically, and it is therefore very difficult at this stage to draw any final conclusions. Above all, it should also be borne in mind that the data base as a whole is not very robust because simply not enough data has been collected to make reliable statements.

The structure of the full version of this report is as follows:

  1. Introduction
  2. Executive Summary
  3. How the European network congestion saga began
  4. How telecom carriers are supporting customers during the COVID-19 crisis
  5. How telecom carriers, mobility data and apps are supporting governments to fight the spread of COVID-19
  6. COVID-19 impact on spectrum awarding
  7. Leading businesses through the COVID-19 crisis – Best practices from Asia and Italy
  8. Conclusions
  9. Annexes

Chapter 3 describes and analyzes different approaches taken by EU Member States to cope with network congestion. Compliance with Net Neutrality rules became subject to heated debates in this context.

The question of what telecom carriers are doing to support their customers in this unprecedentedly exceptional situation and what customers should do in return to support network stability is a major topic of public discussion. Apparently quite a lot is done by telecom carriers, as described in chapter 4.

Chapter 5 is a central piece of this report, looking at how governments and telecom carriers are working together, for example, to track anonymous patterns of movement and thus helping to contain the spread of the virus. However, privacy issues are a major concern when it comes to tracking and tracing. The numerous national and international activities and cooperation in the field of tracking apps are also described in this chapter, the very controversial topics of data protection and Big Data as well as the arising legal considerations are also addressed.

Chapter 6 gives an overview on the impact from COVID-19 on spectrum matters, especially the numerous postponements of 5G auctions.

Chapter 7 describes useful international best practices from the COVID-19 precursor countries in Asia and Italy in the area of Business Continuity Management (BCM).

Chapter 8 attempts to draw some conclusions, which is not easy and at any rate not conclusive at this stage in view of the constantly changing information situation.

Some more complex topics and detailed descriptions have been moved to a number of annexes (Chapter 9.1 – 9.3) for ease of reading.