Pandemic upsides: what should telcos do about them?

Ian Scales
By Ian Scales

Mar 19, 2020

© Telefonica

© Telefonica

  • How should a telco/DSP behave when faced with a huge traffic increase. Should it...
  • Immediately start worrying about network loadings and its ability to cope, thus preparing the ground for any government assistance? Or should it...

  • Try to make the most of what might be an opportunity to upgrade services to higher speeds and/or come up with new ones?

And there’s a third option. Attempt to do both simultaneously: warn of possible difficulties ahead, but double down on the effectiveness of services such as video conferencing to help overcome the crisis?

News outlets such as Reuters, report that business apps are seeing a spike in demand as the coronavirus spreads and there’s practically a frenzy over mobile app stores which have been experiencing five times the average number of downloads since January, as companies equip employees for home working. 

Apps and cloud services such as Zoom Video, Tencent Conference, Slack and MS Teams have already increased their users by the million. Sure, some user companies may drop the services once the world is back to normal.  But then again, many will keep them on having learned their value. 

But on the telecoms side the enthusiasm tends to be more guarded. Observers such as FCC commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel, worry about weaknesses in the overall infrastructure.  Rosenworcel says that many VPNs - the systems that many companies will rely on to get to cloud-based applications - are not built to handle sudden increases in demand. 

Meanwhile Telefonica reports from Spain that both fixed and mobile networks there are experiencing a Covid-19-generated traffic explosion and it claims traffic through IP networks has experienced increases of nearly 40% while mobile use has increased by about 50% in voice and 25% in data. Likewise, traffic from instant messaging tools such as Whatsapp has increased fivefold in recent days.

Telefonica claims, however, that operators are doing everything possible to increase the capacity of the networks by putting more equipment into service and increasing the capacity of existing equipment, but these measures are not immediately effective. 

It’s therefore calling for “smart and responsible use of the network and the resources it provides,” and it reels off a list of things for users to keep in mind. 

  • Only download the documents or files that you really need, and if they can wait, do it at night or in the "off-peak hours" with less traffic.

  • Whenever possible, do not send heavy files -videos, presentations...-. Send links or routes to where they are stored. And, if it is essential to send them, compress them first or give them a format that weighs less (from ppt to pdf, for example).

  • Use collaboration tools like Teams or Slack, and if you can, don't always do it with video.

... and so on. 

I think there’s two sides to this story, says consultant Chris Lewis of Lewis Insight (and co-founder of The Great Telco Debate). “There’s a lot that end users, people who are perhaps coming to home working for the first time, may need to do in terms of responsible usage of their services. For instance, do you really need to have your video communications on through a call? Understanding that the video stream eats up far more bandwidth than voice alone might mean switching it off which will likely improve the quality of the call as well as doing the socially beneficial thing of relieving congestion through the network.”

It’s about responsible usage, says Chris. But there may also be hard decisions that telcos need to make - enforcing emergency measures to avoid congestion and slow-down. With video for instance, is there a way to crank it down when required while at the same time keeping everyone happy? He asks.

It’s the sort of problem that supermarkets are facing. How do you go about suggesting and then enforcing limits on the consumption of toilet paper without having a staff member punched in the face by a panicking customer. 

But, but...

Overall the telco message so far has mostly been about battening down the network hatches, rather than looking at the sudden new demand as an opportunity to build new usages and service opportunities both during the current crisis and after it’s over. 

That may come as the months unfold, but here’s how Sky Deutschland, a leading player in a telecoms adjacency, has already responded. It’s making its full offering free for a month in sympathy with customers forced into quarantine or banished from school. 

But the free regular content (box sets and all) might be both a godsend in a time of stress and boredom but also an on-ramp to its premium movie content which it’s planning to make available at the same time as its cinema release (for a price of course). That, it calculates, will be a real draw for people stuck at home and unable to go out to viral hotspots like cinemas.

OK, so that move might be interpreted as being 1 part social concern and 1.5 parts canny advanced marketing.  On the other hand it’s the sort of move that next gen Digital Service Providers need to be considering too.


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