The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health crisis shared by all, requiring consumers, companies and governments to adapt to new circumstances and support efforts to contain the spread of this disease. The foremost goal is to save lives. But there are many other critical factors, including making sure people affected by the pandemic remain connected. The importance of connectivity has never been clearer than it is today.
As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the world, social distancing and stay-at-home directives have driven an unprecedented surge in network traffic volumes. However, with the support and cooperation of customers, content partners and governments, operators are confident they can handle the additional demands on their networks and ensure vital connectivity.
It is encouraging to see stakeholders working together to ensure connectivity is not compromised by these unlooked-for circumstances: major video streaming providers have reduced their video bit rate, governments have categorised telecommunications activities and personnel as essential, regulatory authorities have allocated additional spectrum. Operators are taking a wide range of responsive measures — not only adding extra network capacity and calling on customers to use mobile networks responsibly, but also providing customers cost-free (zero-rated) access to essential websites and mobile money services, for example.
In this spirit of cooperation and doing the right thing for society and the economy, the GSMA invites governments and regulators to consider the following measures, depending on individual market needs, to help the mobile sector continue to provide vital connectivity during this crisis.
As a result of more people working from home, interacting online and accessing digital services, mobile networks in some countries are experiencing a 50% increase in voice traffic and a 30% increase in data traffic, on average. Mobile operators are acting fast to manage this significant change in traffic demand. Although in some markets the mobile networks are performing well in response to the additional traffic, based on continuing investments in network capacity, the following temporary measures could alleviate the pressure on networks:
- Network management: Provide regulatory flexibility and certainty for operators to manage network traffic and quality-of-service parameters to ensure network resilience and access to the full range of services by consumers and businesses
- Network equipment: Categorise mobile network equipment as essential infrastructure and streamline customs and logistical processes to speed up procurement and delivery of network equipment to operators
- Spectrum: Authorise operators, following consultation, to deploy the most appropriate, compatible mobile technology across the spectrum bands they hold, and grant cost-free temporary access to additional emergency spectrum as necessary
- Sites: Streamline planning processes and access to sites to facilitate rapid installation of additional network equipment on new and existing sites
- Infrastructure cooperation: Allow operators to work together on infrastructure planning and voluntary sharing of infrastructure for the purpose of meeting the exceptional connectivity demands
Flexibility for personnel and prioritisation of crisis-related activities
Public health advice to suppress this pandemic focuses on the principle of social distancing, and many governments have introduced stay-at-home measures. Many of these measures categorise telecommunications workers as key workers, thereby permitting essential personnel to continue with the provision of vital connectivity. The following measures would help operators comply with social distance advice while continuing with vital network operational activities:
- Key workers: Exempt telecommunications personnel and sub-contractors, who perform essential functions related to the continuity of services and deployment of new services and installations, from strict social distance measures
- Digital channels: Permit operators the flexibility to meet consumer obligations by minimising face-to-face contact and offering alternative digital channels to comply with the objectives of such obligations; adjust obligations that impede such flexibility
- Regulatory timelines: Adjust regulatory review and reporting timelines so operators can prioritise business-critical activities related to the crisis
Responsible approaches to digital connectivity
The mobile industry is aware of its responsibility to provide connectivity to all subscribers and vulnerable consumers in particular. Operators are committed to working with governments, authorities and customers to find pragmatic, sustainable and responsible approaches to meet the vital connectivity needs during this crisis. The GSMA recommends the following measures:
- Continued connectivity: Convene a dialogue with mobile operators on supporting customers who, due to the economic impact of COVID-19, find it difficult to top-up their prepaid phone or pay their bill
- Vulnerable consumers: Support operator initiatives for vulnerable consumers by relaxing regulatory barriers and permitting commercial flexibility to offer special tariffs and zero-rated access to specific services and websites, while acknowledging the importance of robust, sustainable, mobile networks
- Digital interactions. To encourage social cohesion and use of digital communications and transactions during this crisis, reduce or waive sector-specific taxes, excise duties and fees on mobile communications, data, mobile money transactions and international gateways
The COVID-19 crisis has put the spotlight on digital connectivity as an absolute necessity of modern life, and a tool that can be depended upon as governments work to protect citizens and save lives. These regulatory measures are proposed in the spirit of working together to help all of humanity get through this public health crisis. The GSMA appreciates the ongoing cooperation with policymakers and regulatory authorities.