In a matter of weeks the world has changed dramatically. Governments have mandated closures of educational institutions, leisure venues and offices to control a novel virus, save lives and protect healthcare systems. Millions of people have had to adapt their social and professional interactions, leaning heavily on telecoms networks to contact family, friends and colleagues. Overall internet traffic is up, peak data hours have shifted, voice call volumes have rebounded and certain videoconferencing solutions have become almost ubiquitous.

In a recent blog, we discussed how mobile operators are leveraging their networks and businesses to support customers and societies struggling during the pandemic. Laudable efforts include expanding voice and data allowances (for example, Telefonica and Veon), and providing free access to education and/or healthcare services (Airtel Uganda and Dialog Sri Lanka).

Telecoms regulators, too, have understood the importance of fast and reliable broadband, and acted accordingly. Several authorities, including those in the Republic of Ireland and South Africa, have granted additional (temporary) spectrum to help operators boost capacity, while Kenya fast-tracked approval of Alphabet’s Loon project. This will soon allow for the commercial deployment of internet-enabled balloons in partnership with Telkom Kenya, delivering 4G coverage to remote, previously unserved communities.

BEREC and various regulators are monitoring changes to online behaviours and network load, and Ofcom stated it is taking a “pragmatic” approach to balancing the need to guarantee citizens remain connected with the enforcement of consumer protection rules.

Moreover, governments are taking unprecedented fiscal and economic measures to support the telecoms industry and ensure affordability does not become a (greater) barrier for consumers. Commendable actions have been designed to reduce sector-specific taxes, stimulate investment and enable the use of mobile money services (see chart, below, click to enlarge).

Nevertheless, the crisis has exposed a degree of vulnerability. The EU moved quickly to request streaming platforms including Netflix and YouTube reduce their video quality to prevent network congestion. Large, densely populated cities remain Covid-19 (coronavirus) hotspots, but even a broadband penetration rate of more than 90 per cent can still leave tens of thousands of individuals without a decent and dependable internet service.

In rural areas, where the harm from poor connectivity can be more acute, the corresponding percentage figure is typically far lower.

Policy levers post-coronavirus: what should come next?
During the pandemic, telecoms infrastructure has been crucial to enabling the continued operation of critical government functions and provision of vital information to the public. Policymakers have been agile, but must redouble support for the industry once normality resumes, particularly given the supply chain disruptions and financial implications of retail store closures and plunging roaming revenue. This does not mean discarding well-established regulatory principles, but there is impetus for a renewed (symbiotic) relationship to emerge, in which pragmatism carries through.

Use the telecoms sector for GDP growth
Digitisation has been a mitigating factor in how society has handled the impacts of the outbreak, however, with several countries already entering recession, operators must be emboldened to invest in strengthening networks as the pandemic retreats. For instance, the Chinese government is urging mobile operators to ramp 5G investment programmes, considering that next-generation networks can be a pivotal growth engine to catalyse innovation across verticals, including autonomous vehicles. In addition, the Chilean regulator updated antenna regulations to drive 5G infrastructure deployment by reducing permit approval times. Policymakers should also explore how digital technologies could support efforts to effect a green economic recovery by underpinning seamless remote working and learning, powering low-carbon smart cities and helping industries become more productive and energy efficient.

Expedite assignments of 5G spectrum
While several countries have postponed 5G spectrum auctions, New Zealand announced direct, fixed price assignments in the 3.5GHz band. The allocation is for an interim period until November 2022, but it means all three main operators now have 60MHz of C-band spectrum and can therefore accelerate 5G deployments and the commercialisation of new use cases. Encouragingly, Finland is maintaining its 5G auction schedule, with the process due to occur in June. Other European markets should use this as an example and finalise dates and rules for awards to provide certainty and keep pace with pioneers like South Korea and the US. Further decisions on C-band spectrum in New Zealand and elsewhere need to recognise the capex commitments operators are making now for 5G rollouts.

Support operators targeting rural areas
The crisis has triggered a greater disaggregation of the labour force and seen a larger share of economic activity conducted from a study or dining room. With remote working set to be the norm for office workers for some time, policymakers must maintain focus on extending connectivity beyond urban centres. Networks have weathered the storm pretty well, but incentivising private sector investment will be paramount. Policymakers must embrace ambitious strategies to expand high-speed broadband services to the underserved by addressing bottlenecks to capex and rapidly disbursing public funding without encroaching on state aid rules. These challenges may bolster the case for network sharing, such the UK’s Shared Rural Network, to create synergies and promote mobile broadband investment in the most rural geographies, while moderating competition concerns.

Focus on unserved communities
Connectivity is a foundational aspect of modern life, with an importance that stretches beyond entertainment or social media. Policymakers should remain conscious for the scope of this crisis to exacerbate the inequalities between those who are connected and those who are not. Millions of people either live beyond the reach of mobile broadband networks (3G or higher) or they are covered but do not have an active connection. Consequently, these individuals are facing Covid-19 without the information channels and communications tools that many in developed markets have only just come to appreciate. Addressing coverage and usage gaps by guaranteeing service availability must be at the top of the regulatory agenda. Hastening reductions in the digital divide will help markets rebuild and new businesses thrive, supporting future economic repair and value creation.

Though restaurants, shops and schools are beginning to reopen, the virus will leave its mark at all levels of society.

As countries look forward, policymakers have the opportunity to harness the potential of telecoms networks and new technologies such as 5G, IoT and AI to drive economic regeneration and resilience. Regulators, while making sure markets are competitive, must be pragmatic in their mindset and prioritise collaboration with operators to break down stubborn barriers to investment. High-quality internet access for all will be central to achieving inclusive economies, inspiring innovation and ensuring governments have the ability to tackle future crises more quickly and effectively.

– James Robinson – lead analyst, GSMA Intelligence

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.