COVID-19 crisis – what can the industry do?
The global health emergency has had a huge impact on all our lives and will continue to do so for some time to come. In the latest of our guest blogs, Gayan Koralage, Director, Group Strategy of Asian towerco edotco considers the impacts and implications for our industry.
COVID-19 has led to an unprecedented era of nations being locked down, international borders being closed, social distancing being legally enforced, working and schooling from home, business and social behaviours taking digital form. This has created unparalleled change in mobile network behaviour and patterns, especially with regard to peak time and locations where operators have built radio access network capacity. To meet the shift in mobile network topology and growing gaps in connectivity, the mobile industry will see (i) greater need for next generation solutions including small cells for in-fill capacity in dense areas, (ii) further blurring of the active-passive distinction. The shift is caused by the following new behaviours:
- Unprecedented 20-75% surge in overall data/voice traffic
- Shift in traditional peak time of 9-11 pm
- Shift in data hotspots – the increased data consumption surge was observed not in key cities or metros where offices are set up but in suburbs where the employees reside
- Shift in usage pattern – video streaming services, e-commerce, tele-medicine, online purchases including groceries, increased use of communication apps like Jitsi, Facebook Messenger Rooms, Houseparty, WhatsApp and virtual educational platforms
- Downgrade of network speed and quality of service
GSMA, “Tracking COVID-19’s Impact on Global Internet Performance,” 15 April 2020.
Telcos have these responsibilities:
First and foremost, keep the network up.
Second, build incremental radio access capacity at the earliest. This means deploying more equipment in existing residential sites. It also includes, precision re-planning of the network, identifying network gaps via analytics and AI, truck rolling to the location during lockdown.
New capacity sites in residential areas can be through temporary sites, cells on wheels or rapid deployment units. Focus on the use cases for better end-user experiences – example, if online purchase or e-sports etc are at a surge, providing processing closer to the residential hotspots via edge computing might be the right thing to do.
Top ups must go digital – only a minor percentage of top-ups in emerging Asian markets are done via digital means. If lockdown is prolonged, physical top-up is indeed not possible.
Build a robust social impact layer – promote e-education, e-health, distance learning, spread the message of COVID-19 via hold tone, IVR, call centre, etc, free educational channels, free data for community centres, hospitals, etc.
Different data plans for GenZ and millennials, that bundle stay at home use-case and higher data quota.
Shift discretionary and initiative capex expenditure to business as usual, to provide better uptime in the crisis.
Should we be looking at disruptive play in a pandemic?
- Software defined network – would make network architecture more flexible and dynamic, allowing new capabilities to be added quickly. SDN allows configuration and behaviour to be programmatically defined and modified. By moving decision making to a virtual network control plane, the control plane decides where to send traffic
- Use of low altitude satellite such as SpaceX – beaming broadband down from space, low-earth orbit satellite could bring coverage to remote areas, and boost communications capacity to mitigate disruptions to life from the pandemic
- Retailers can use computer vision to manage inventory, improve warehouse operations, coordinate along the supply chain and use AR/VR for better product information and experience
- Smart manufacturing powered by analytics, AI, and advanced robotics reducing need for a human workforce can run at maximum efficiency, optimizing and adjusting processes in real time—not only on select assembly lines but across multiple plants.
- Intelligent transport systems can do away with a human driver and exposure to potential virus carrier
- Use of facial recognition to decrease transmission risk, by detecting temperature. Megvii, which specializes in facial recognition technology, has created a detection system with 16 classic and infrared cameras that can detect high temperatures at 3m, scans 15 people per sec, even if the person’s face is covered and is in a crowd
- Use of drones equipped with thermal cameras that detect people carrying the virus. Such drones regularly patrol streets in China to constantly remind people to wear masks or to go home or wash their hands
- Use of private, low-latency networks and high densities of connected devices and sensors to make it possible to monitor multiple patients at over-burdened/under-staffed hospitals, in real time.
- Use of robots to boost health-care manpower, in carrying out guidance, disinfection, cleaning and drug-delivery duties. 5G robots reduce risk of cross-infection among medical staff in Wuhan, Hubei, Shanghai, Shandong, Gansu
- AI-powered decision support tools can make faster and more accurate diagnoses. Data can flow seamlessly throughout entire medical systems to smooth operations and coordinate care. The ability to aggregate and analyze enormous data sets from a pandemic could yield new treatments.
Immediate opportunities for service partners include increasing battery capacity in residential areas; increasing high-performance computing capacity to keep up with increase in web traffic, improving network quality and management of network traffic congestion.
Is tower industry ready for the new normal?
The massive pressure to continue delivering critical infrastructure and seamless connectivity during COVID, and questionable time frame to leverage new opportunities, is the “new normal” for the industry. The traditional towerco model of tower and power services has incentive to move towards antenna as a service, edge, network as a service halving the total cost of ownership for telcos.
This becomes critical for telcos as consumers’ disposable incomes begin to dip and the world edges towards a recession, while need for network expansion grows, from higher data usage. The line between telecom and towerco is, therefore, likely to blur in next 18 months.
The new normal for the industry will be dominated not by steel and concrete but next generation technology in-fill solutions for dense areas like multi-technology multi-operator small cells, IBS in residential complexes, accelerated adoption of open alternative to the traditional hardware-based RAN through innovative partnerships such as Telecom Infra Project. The telecos and towercos that embrace the new normal will emerge stronger from the crisis.
It’s time for the industry to stand up and deliver to keep mankind moving.