In the past decade, telecommunications have been somewhat forgotten by markets, who are enamored by much cooler digital brothers, as well as taken for granted by consumers – and given ‘tough love’ by policy-makers.
But in the time of the Coronavirus global health crisis in which many people are being asked – or mandated – to stay home, telecoms connectivity is vital to keeping the economy going and keeping society intact.
Now it is the time to demonstrate that they are up for the job – and so far, it seems that, in large part, that they have.
How have operators been dealing with the crisis so far?
Telecoms operators are recognizing that their customers will be more reliant on their services in quarantine – for work, entertainment and maintaining social connections – and at the same time will be experiencing economic difficulties.
Operators in Australia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Russia, France and Belgium, to name just a few, are announcing an increase or removal of data caps, or even free unlimited Internet – at least for fixed users.
“Operators have a great responsibility to manage somewhat unique stresses and keep their networks running, all the while keeping their own employees as safe as possible.”
For example, the United States’ telecoms industry, prompted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), pledged to “Keep Americans Connected”, to maintain services for residential and small business customers and open its Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them.
Similarly, Vodafone announced five commitments to consumers and societies it serves across Europe, among other things, committing itself to: maintain the quality of service, with mission critical communications given a priority; provide network capacity and services for critical government functions, especially hospitals and emergency calls; and, improve the dissemination of information to the public, including via text alerts.
What is the situation today?
At the same time, telecoms networks are showing effects of the stress caused by the traffic increase in both data and voice.
Despite the popularity of messaging apps, voice has seen a resurgence – as demonstrated by the more than 30 percent increase in voice calls in the UK, tripling of voice traffic in Switzerland, 50 percent increase in Belgium, and voice traffic congestions elsewhere.
Network disruptions have been reported across Europe – from Lithuania, through Switzerland, to the UK. Spanish operators have issued a plea to their consumers to use their services “responsibly” during the quarantine. Italian operators experienced 70 percent increase in traffic. Vodafone has seen 50 percent traffic increase in some markets.
It seems for now that most of the stress is national, especially access networks, with major Internet Exchanges reporting ample redundant capacity to absorb projected increases in the load. This may change, however, if a similar crisis engulfs smaller and more remote countries with more limited and more expensive international connectivity.
In any case, the fears of broadband network overload seem to be real enough for the EU’s Thierry Bretton to issue a call for streaming services to limit their services to standard definition only and users to be more responsible about their data consumption. In response, Netflix announced they would cut streaming quality in Europe for 30 days on Thursday 19 March.
Encouragingly, great examples of collaboration among industry players together with proactive regulators are starting to emerge.
The US’ Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been using Special Temporary Authority powers to grant temporary additional spectrum to T-Mobile, US Cellular as well as Verizon in order to help meet increased consumer demand for mobile broadband.
In anticipation of significant traffic increase, Australian operators have come together with their policy-makers as well as NBN Co., which provides nationwide wholesale connectivity, to “work collaboratively” as well as “share relevant information and discuss emerging engineering, security or operational issues” during the Coronavirus crisis.
Operators have a great responsibility to manage somewhat unique stresses and keep their networks running, all the while keeping their own employees as safe as possible – and the job is nothing less than keeping society going.