The enforced lockdown of many major economies has resulted in numerous challenges as businesses and citizens have got to grips with new digital platforms to enable them to stay in touch during a period of physical distancing. As we move out of lockdown, how much of this new way of living and working will continue? And what does it mean for the telecoms sector?

During lockdown, access to good telecoms infrastructure and high-speed internet has been essential for anyone wanting to keep in touch with relatives and friends, collaborate on work projects, interact with clients, access telemedicine or home school their children.

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“As many countries work under new lockdown rules, we are using tech products more and more,” says Ahuti Chug, executive chair of Mara Phones, a company manufacturing phones in Rwanda and South Africa. “Smartphones are tools for meetings, document creation and submission. They’re also an eCommerce tool, an educational facilitator and a tool for families and friends to connect.”

Some of these new ways of operating have gained traction because of lockdown, and are seen as a way of improving services and efficiencies. Speaking at the FT Global Boardroom digital conference in May, Sonali De Rycker, a partner at venture capital Accel, highlighted that policy-makers, regulators and care providers now recognise telehealth as a new alternative. “The shifts in stance and sentiment have catapulted us maybe 10 years,” she said.

Rise in traffic

In April, Vodacom South Africa announced an increase in investment to boost its network capacity so it could cope with the rise in traffic caused by the pandemic, allocating ZAR500m ($28.5m) over a two-month period. Meanwhile in May, UK mobile operator EE said its network recorded a 45% increase in traffic for communication apps during the lockdown in the country, with WhatsApp, Houseparty, Skype and Teams being the most used services.

“The pandemic has brought major shifts in how people use networks, and our industry has been forced to adapt,” Patrik Cerwall, head of strategic marketing for group function at Ericsson, tells fDi. “For example, there has been a major shift in data traffic, with increases in residential areas and decreases in urban areas. Most of the data increases are being absorbed by the fixed residential network.

“There have also been fundamental changes in how people are using networks. Streaming services are seeing major increases in use, the video conferencing service Zoom saw a monumental 535% rise in daily traffic, while voice calls have sky-rocketed.”

The next step

Talk is now shifting to kick-starting economies, reducing costs, finding new ways of operating and acting more sustainably. In the short-term, social distancing rules will continue to require many office staff to continue to work from home. Longer-term, some chief executives have indicated that they could look to make cuts to their property portfolios as they seek to get their businesses back on track.

Mr Cerwall says that so far network performance has not been affected by major shifts in traffic. “There is in fact a slight improvement in many performance indicators due to the reduction in handovers caused by people being less mobile. All networks, mobile as well as fixed, are dimensioned to handle the peak load during the busiest hour of the week, so we believe the industry will be well placed to handle the continued social distancing necessary for citizens until a coronavirus vaccine is found.”

Alex Blowers, director of Regulation at UK digital infrastructure provider CityFibre, says: “The Covid-19 crisis has proven beyond doubt that the UK needs world-class digital infrastructure. As we rebound from the crisis, it will be more important than ever to have a coherent plan to deliver ubiquitous full-fibre coverage. The good news is that the basic building blocks required – an increasingly competitive market structure, and the necessary funds for investment – are in place. But our investors still need to see the policy and regulatory measures put in place to support that competitive fibre investment.”

A digital divide

Changing the way we live and work has renewed the focus on the digital divide, something that experts say needs to be addressed if people in the most remote or poorest locations are going to be able to access similar work and life opportunities as those in the wealthiest, metropolitan areas.

The World Bank, the International Telecommunication Union, GSMA and the World Economic Forum have launched a joint action plan to serve as best practice for governments and regulators during the Covid-19 crisis. The stakeholders say their plan addresses bandwidth, security, connectivity and welfare issues.

In some economies, the focus is on both network infrastructure and getting the basic hardware into the homes of citizens. “We are working very hard on making the phones affordable without compromising on quality,” Ms Chug tells fDi. “We have a phone-locking partnership that will enable financial institutions to lend to consumers who are buying a Mara phone and enable them to pay over a 12-24 month period.”

5G under spotlight

The pandemic has put 5G connectivity under the spotlight. Myths linking the technology to the disease were circulated on social media but these have been widely debunked.

Experts also argue that the pandemic has demonstrated the importance of high-quality network connectivity that is easily available, affordable and secure.

“While 4G gave us the app economy, 5G will be the greatest open innovation platform ever, helping to unlock the potential of digital technologies and bring forward the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” says Mr Cerwall. “There is a large consensus that the acceleration of 5G would have helped combat the coronavirus disease with the use of immersive technologies, robotics, remote-controlled equipment or other devices to help safeguard frontline workers.

“For this reason, we are expecting governments across the world to accelerate 5G adoption as a means of reviving their economies and protecting against health crises in the future. In fact, our Mobility Report team has raised forecasts for 5G subscriptions for year-end 2025.”