The telecoms industry has not faced sterner test than the Covid-19 crisis.
When half the world has been subject to lockdown measures since the pandemic broke out, it is fair to say that telecommunications has become a lifeline for millions of people in more than one way. Many industries and companies could and did carry on with a large part of their workforce working from home, relying on telecoms networks. The functioning of emergency services, telemedicine, and remote education depend on reliable connectivity. Families and friends staying connected while apart is not possible without the digital infrastructure the telecoms industry has put in place over the years.
Telecom operators have experienced a traffic hike of between 20 and 100 per cent as a result of Covid-19 lockdowns, accordingly to Alex Sinclair, Chief Technology Officer at GSMA, who recently delivered a keynote speech at Better World Summit 2020. While most of this was carried by fixed-line residential networks, mobile networks saw up to 20 per cent higher data traffic and a 20 to 70 per cent increase in voice calls. The industry has risen to the challenge. Operators around the world have reported that their networks responded well to the change in usage patterns, and they were able to quickly expand network capacity where needed. Even in the hardest hit countries like Italy, Spain and France, where lockdown measures were implemented earlier and were more strict, broadband speeds only marginally degraded by the surge in traffic.
Mobile operators are at the frontline in the response to COVID-19. They have been working with stakeholders around the world, including governments, international organisations, NGOs, and academics, to respond to the crisis. Many are working with national authorities to leverage their big data and AI capabilities to monitor movement during lockdown and limit the spread of the disease, helping inform government decisions. Others have stepped up with their health and education initiatives and have provided other crucial services during the pandemic. The mobile industry can therefore be proud of itself for not only holding out well in the crisis but passing the test with stellar marks.
Now, as the health crisis gradually eases, minds are inevitable turning to the recovery. As always, the mobile industry is expected to carry high expectations in the next stage of the journey. To “build back better”, the mobile industry will have a critically important role to play in these four pillar strategies:
Aggressively roll out 5G: for countries striving to bounce back from the economic impact of the pandemic, digital ambitions are more pressing than ever. Deployment of 5G networks must remain at the forefront of recovery plans, as this next generation technology will stimulate digital growth and innovation and new levels of efficiency across industries. The European Commission has identified 5G as an important pillar for Covid-19 recovery.
The roll out of 5G will drive future innovation and economic growth, delivering greater societal benefit and enabling new digital services and business models. The pandemic has proven mobile’s ability to help during a global crisis and 5G will enable technology to tackle the world’s biggest challenges, such as climate change.
Enable the building of a greener digital economy: the mobile industry will continue to be committed to climate actions and is driving climate ambition as it has been. 50 of the world’s leading mobile operators, serving more than two thirds of mobile connections, are now disclosing their climate impacts, while 29 operator groups representing 30 per cent of global mobile connections have committed to setting Science-Based Targets as a part of a sector-specific decarbonisation pathway.
However, the mobile industry’s biggest contribution is in enablement. Mobile technology has the powerful and unique ability to support climate action across wider industries through digitisation, with significant impact already being made in other sectors, including transport, agriculture, and smart cities. The use of mobile technology enabled a global reduction in emissions of around 2,000 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2019, roughly the same total emissions each year for a country the size of Russia. The emissions savings were almost ten times greater than the global carbon footprint of the mobile industry itself.
Start undertaking the next decade of actions to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals: this year marks the start of a decade to go to deliver the 2030 promise of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Despite the progress already made, more can be done to leverage the power of mobile and support the delivery of the SDGs. The COVID-19 response has shown how to help people realise the full benefits of mobile technology to accessing health information, public services and digital payments. At the same time this technology could be used to reduce pollution and increase energy efficiency.
Continue to bridge the digital divide and to build a fairer society: the Covid-19 crisis has also highlighted new forms of digital exclusion. Despite the impressive growth over the last decade, around 51 per cent of the world’s population is still not online. 9 per cent live in locations without mobile broadband service while 42 per cent have coverage but are not using mobile internet services. Those without internet or even mobile access have suffered disproportionately during the crisis without basic access to healthcare and education services. Even in the most developed markets some children lack the basic tools to take part in the online education provided.
To maximise the mobile industry’s impact over the next decade, we need to bring the other half of the world online too. The opportunity is in closing the usage gap. Caused by lack of affordability of devices and services, low levels of literacy and digital skills, lack of relevant local content, as well as safety and security concerns. To address these barriers, mobile operators are continuing to work with the ecosystem as a whole, including vertical sectors, governments and civil society organisations to ensure everyone has access to the unparalleled value that mobile can bring to communities and the global economy through access to life enhancing services and business opportunities.