As challenging as the Covid emergency is, it has reinforced the importance of a robust telecom infrastructure given the increased dependence on digital solutions by enterprises, the government and the public. Several technologies have come to the fore as information and communications technology (ICT) has enabled businesses and individuals to get accustomed to a new normal. New trends are emerging in the uptake of digital services, which will shape the post-Covid world. Industry experts share their views on the impact of Covid-19 on the sector, the industry’s response and key priorities in a post-Covid world…
What has been the impact of Covid-19 on the telecom sector?
As the global economy continues to reel from the shock and the lasting impact of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak, work-from-home (WFH) has become the buzzword in today’s business landscape, with the telecom sector being the invisible hand driving this shift. Remote working, videoconferencing and communications technology have quickly emerged as key enablers for business operations. The telecom infrastructure industry has been playing a vital role in containing the impact of the lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The increased consumption of data due to WFH, uptake of digital services such as online/remote education, virtual meetings, telemedicine, use of over-the-top (OTT) applications, etc. in the past three to four months of the lockdown have put a tremendous strain on the telecom infrastructure.
Lt General Dr S.P. Kochhar
The impact of Covid-19 has been profound. The country has been running primarily on telecom networks, with everyone locked indoors yet willing to stay connected and manage life and business as usual.
We all are aware of how Covid-19 has disrupted the entire economy. Most industries have suffered as they have not been able to operate. That said, telecom was one of the few industries that have continued to see a high uptake even during the outbreak. The sector has efficiently serviced the nation by powering key services – healthcare, banking, insurance, supply chains and many more – in this crisis, and facilitating near-normal operations across the country. The pandemic has clearly underlined the significance of connectivity in modern life with the common man relying on good connectivity for productivity, safety, quality of life, etc. in testing times. So, this has been the good impact.
With regard to how the pandemic has affected the sector adversely, physical movement has been restricted. It was challenging for the field teams of telecom operators to resolve quality of service issues as they were not able to access the required sites. Public panic has also led to people, especially communities, housing societies, apartments, etc. disallowing service personnel from entering the premises for the critical maintenance and enhancement of network services. The government’s advisory to all state governments to treat telecom as an essential service and to ensure unrestricted access of the field staff to critical sites was a welcome measure in this regard.
With almost everybody working from home, the concentration of traffic on home networks went up by 20-30 per cent and telcos have done a commendable job in addressing this demand by reoptimising connectivity.
What has been the industry’s response to the pandemic?
The massive adoption of digital services in the past three to four months has led to higher usage of internet bandwidth and data, which was possible only because of the robust telecom infrastructure behind it. As telecom infrastructure providers (IP-1s), we have stood the test of time by ensuring 24×7 network availability. During the lockdown, we came across many issues like restrictions on manpower movement – interdistrict, interstate and of course within a city/town/ village – making it difficult to access telecom sites. The increased data consumption made the operations and maintenance of the telecom network even more challenging.
All telecom sites pan-India were being monitored by IP-1s every hour and the rescue teams were working on the ground 24×7 to keep all sites up and running despite the hurdles/hiccups faced. Infrastructure providers, with the support of local government authorities, continued to maintain connectivity and coverage in all the rural areas, especially in the Northeast, where the non-availability of continuous grid supply, poor road conditions and hilly terrain were affecting connectivity. We are thankful to the Department of Telecommunications and various state government authorities that gave tremendous support in resolving most of these issues.
Lt General Dr S.P. Kochhar
The bandwidth requirements have jumped by 15-22 per cent during the pandemic, but the industry has been able to manage the surge in demand. Channels that had been broadcasting content in high definition were asked to shift to standard definition, so that bandwidth requirements could be eased. This way, we were able to provide connectivity to more subscribers and ensure better quality. Mobile towers were working round the clock. Although towers often face problems of power failure, during this time, the central and local governments ensured uninterrupted power supply. Further, telcos accommodated customers by doing e-KYC (know you customer) during the lockdown, which is otherwise a tedious process.
I think that telcos became heroes in a way. Even during the lockdown, squads of engineers from telecom companies worked 24×7, ensuring that networks were running smoothly despite the immense pressure of increased usage. There were hardly any cases of network interruption. Of course, due to the high demand, certain measures such as temporarily restricting video streaming quality to standard definition from high definition were undertaken. Most of the digital services, for both business continuity and social connectivity, were accommodated by service providers.
OTT and other digital service platforms also have an important role in providing and facilitating remote video and virtual connectivity solutions via various applications/platforms. In the present scenario, it would be near impossible for people to cope with mere audio connectivity to sustain their official/business operations. At the same time, entertainment content provided by applications such as Amazon Prime and Netflix has helped in keeping people engaged in their homes.
What is the outlook for the sector based on the current situation?
We believe that digitalisation has become necessary for almost all organisations now. The dependency on telecom services is bound to increase by 20-35 per cent. For the telecom sector, the overall demand has gone up and has shifted from enterprises to homes, from central business districts to suburban areas. Further, there would be an increased demand for fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) and Wi-Fi solutions, as well as for a robust infrastructure in both commercial and residential areas.
Lt General Dr S.P. Kochhar
The outlook is very positive. The telecom sector, like all other sectors, is now undergoing a metamorphical change. Users have tested working from home in virtual spaces. Going forward, we see that network requirements will increase. There will be several OTT applications that will run on telecom networks. We will see that a lot of services, especially analytics, will get enabled by telecom networks. Of course, this would mean that the industry will have to expand networks into areas that have low or no network availability right now. This will involve substantial investments and significant hand-holding by the government. Further, tax structures must be rationalised and taxes reduced. We would like GST to be rationalised to reduce the burden on the already bleeding sector. Meanwhile, we will see a crop of Indian entrepreneurs coming up in the digital space. We will see aggregation, and mergers and acquisitions taking place in the digital sector. The analytics industry will come up in a big way, especially to help the discerning population choose from several online offerings.
The outlook is good. Covid has brought to the fore the importance of videoconferencing and its positive impact on productivity as well as cost. Going forward, I expect that these productivity and efficiency trends will stay. Tata Consultancy Services has already shown the way by saying that 75 per cent of its workforce will continue to work from home even in the post-Covid world. I believe that this will indeed become the order of the day for most organisations. As WFH becomes the new norm, fibre-based solutions for home, that is, fixed broadband, will get an impetus. We are likely to see a demand for in-building solutions such as fibre-to-the-buildings, and the creation of new Wi-Fi hotspots inside buildings, which will help carry the fibre bandwidth to individual consumer devices.
What will be the key priority areas in the post-Covid world?
Several initiatives taken by businesses/ organisations are going to continue post-Covid as cost reduction measures. E-services will continue to prevail due to the convenience factor. The pandemic has resulted in the widespread adoption of
e-services, and the inertia of the general public to use various types of e-services has also vanished now. As a result, virtual meetings, e-commerce, OTT streaming apps, e-learning, webinars, WFH etc. would remain popular post-Covid as well. All this would certainly lead to demand for a robust, resilient and omnipresent telecom infrastructure.
Lt General Dr S.P. Kochhar
Post-Covid, we have to concentrate on increasing fiberisation so that an adequate amount of bandwidth is provided. This will be crucial as we step into the 5G era. Further, we will have to ensure that 4G reaches a wider audience and at a price that is acceptable to the consumer as well as viable for the industry.
There has been a very clear lesson that our digital infrastructure needs to be strengthened to cope with the massive rise in demand that we are witnessing. With people increasingly becoming familiar with the online world, the demand for bandwidth will only move north. At present, we have easily crossed 12 GB consumption per user per month, and it will continue to rise. Liberal policy and regulatory guidelines to incentivise fresh investments in infrastructure would be a welcome and much-needed measure in this regard.
Today, mobile constitutes the bulk of India’s broadband play, but as the data traffic grows, we cannot support it on radio waves alone. We will have to bring in fibre connectivity. Again, fibre backhaul may not be possible in certain situations, especially for roll-out in congested areas. So, we would need solutions like E-band and V-band (wireless fibre) to cope with the data surge. Moreover, only about 25 per cent of the telecom towers in India are fibre-connected, which limits the efficiency of operations, especially in providing backhaul support. India needs to enhance its fibre connectivity expeditiously to strengthen capacity and enhance the quality of services being delivered. Therefore, it is highly recommended that the government incentivises fibre roll-outs and allocates fresh spectrum resources. With the new normal of “work from anywhere”, robust Wi-Fi availability is required across the country as mobile broadband alone cannot cope with the congestion and capacity and quality demand. Public Wi-Fi networks can free up operators’ spectrum to handle more customers and help them provide better quality of service. For the millions of unconnected Indians who live in geographically remote and inaccessible areas, satellite technology can be extremely beneficial in reaching these far-flung areas sooner and in a more cost-effective manner.
Digital applications and e-commerce platforms have also become an integral part of today’s daily affairs. It is, therefore, imperative that a positive and encouraging policy and regulatory environment be provided for the growth and development of digital applications/e-commerce platforms.
In light of the Covid-19 outbreak, what are some of the key technologies that are likely to come to the forefront?
In-building solutions, small cells, Wi-Fi, FTTH would see huge demand. Telecom operators have already started focusing on the fiberisation of buildings to cater to this demand. It appears that some use cases of 5G – fixed wireless service, automation, IoT, M2M and Industry 4.0 may fast gain economic viability post the launch of 5G.
Lt General Dr S.P. Kochhar
In the future, most people will go online for various experiences that they were earlier getting in brick-and-mortar stores, indicating an uptick in the adoption of technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), augmented and virtual reality, and blockchain. Further, there will be an increased requirement of fiberisation for connecting towers as well as for last-mile connectivity. To this end, we would need support from the state governments and directives from the central government to support fibre installation activity in cities as well as rural areas. This will help in easing the bandwidth crunch and providing seamless connectivity to users. The industry would have to roll out more towers and dispel the misinformation regarding EMF radiation.
Going forward, we have to see how 5G can be brought seamlessly into the country. The ecosystem has to be made viable for the private industry to invest in the technology. 5G is going to be a game changer as it will make telecom the foundation on which various other sectors will ride. I would urge the government to look at the telecom sector as a vital sector, which will be foundational for the growth of all other sectors in the digital age.
The play of technology is significantly strong in current times. We are looking at increased adoption of technologies like AI and IoT for business efficiency as well as for network maintenance and operations. This trend will keep growing in coming times. The industry will soon witness trials of 5G technology, which will be a big step in the right direction. 5G cuts across several verticals, such as education, healthcare and manufacturing, all of which will benefit significantly from the technology.
In a way, Covid is also facilitating the adoption of digital payments. People are wary of accepting paper bills due to the fear of infection, and most transactions are now being conducted online. As mentioned, WFH is well on the way to being established as a viable option for the future. As a result, the scope for innovative in-building solutions is also expected to grow substantially.