The way we behave, act and interact with the world has been radically changed due to the impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19). Social distancing and strict instructions to “stay at home” have thrust the importance of resilient telecom services and digital infrastructure into the spotlight, and into the consciousness of regulators, consumers and businesses alike.
Working from home, home learning of school and university curriculums, and the desire for human contact has led to a boom in demand for and use of videoconferencing services. The need to keep children occupied during the confinement has led to an increase in streaming of various kinds of content, not least data guzzling videogames. Evening activities often consist of watching any one of the various platforms offering entertainment for our viewing pleasure. Most critically, the capacity and resilience of life critical communications systems, such as 112 must be maintained.
Our communications infrastructure has never before been in such high demand and of such critical importance. Following an initiative of Mr. Breton, the EU Commissioner for internal market and services, dated 19 March 2020, Netflix has reduced the streaming quality in Europe by 25% in order to leave capacity available for other uses (except in Spain, because of its excellent optical fiber network with 10.2 million Fiber To The Home connections). Google, Amazon and Sony have taken similar measures. All telecom operators report increased data traffic: Vodafone has reported a 50% increase in mobile traffic linked to COVID-19 in some markets; BT claims that the traffic of its fixed network climbed as much as 60%; Nokia is reporting a 40% increase in global internet weekday traffic worldwide, and a 700% increase in videoconferencing apps; and Telefónica reports that mobile traffic has increased by 40%, data traffic has increased by 70%, use of Whatsapp is six times higher, use of Netflix is four times higher and use of videoconference platforms (Zoom, Webex, Facetime) is seven times higher. The good news is that the networks are responding well, so far. However, for this to happen, the physical presence of engineers and technicians that are a scarce resource, is sometimes required.
Unsurprisingly, legislators across the world are seeking to ensure its service continuity for public safety, social and economic reasons by introducing emergency measures. The Commission and the Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications (BEREC) are discussing setting up “a special reporting mechanism to monitor the Internet traffic situation in each Member State to be able to respond to capacity issues”. Several EU Member States have classified electronic communications services as an essential public service which must not, by law, be suspended, and others have issued guidelines which aim to guarantee that companies and consumers receive acceptable operating conditions, sometimes accepting the sacrifice of other rights of minor importance.
We should however consider the grander concepts in jurisprudence that exceptional emergency measures need to be implemented in such a way that is proportional and transparent. Further, they emergency measures must not be maintained for longer than is strictly necessary.
Telecom operators are also useful in helping authorities fight against COVID-19 itself. Telefónica is using its anonymised big data in Spain (in cooperation with Vodafone), Brazil (in association with the Sao Paulo Municipality) and Germany (in partnership with Teralytics and Senozon Deutschland) in order to track the movement of people, predicting which areas the virus could spread to next and providing the police with anonymised data of illegal events.
The current crisis and all the constraints that arise also reveal not only immediate but future consequences, not least the timetable for the rollout of 5G. The importance of 5G in the medium term has never been more evident, in the same measure as the short-term difficulties of its deployment have never been more burdensome.
Click on the country links below to explore how national regulators are tackling the heavy demands on digital infrastructure and telecom services, and what the longer-term impacts on 5G may be.
Download the full multi-country report here.
Article co-authored by Grace Ang-Lygate.