Telcos take on coronavirus

The rapidly unfolding coronavirus pandemic has underlined the criticality of telecom infrastructure. The global health emergency is placing new pressures on telecom services, as well as spotlighting the key role they can play beyond simple connectivity in emergency scenarios such as this.

In locked-down countries such as Spain and the UK, communications service providers (CSPs) have issued guidelines to residents in a bid to maintain service quality as traffic surges. In Spain, for example, by early last week, IP network traffic was up by 40%, with mobile phone use up 50% and mobile data jumping 25%. Suggested measures include prioritizing work and education over entertainment and gaming during office hours, downloading large documents out of peak times, compressing files, using landlines where possible and even avoiding using microwave ovens.

Following a request from the European Commission, streaming services such as Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ have also agreed to throttle quality to free up capacity.

AT&T said its network has seen a 40% increase in mobile traffic and a 100% increase in Wi-Fi calling. CEO Randall Stephenson, who likened the pandemic to “a time of war” said AT&T’s network is performing well though has shown “some signs of stress,” and that the company is working on  “network augmentation” to ensure effective operations.

Data sharing is key

At the same time as they work to keep people connected, businesses can still maintain some level of productivity and support the healthcare sector through prioritized connectivity, operators are also making more direct contributions to the fight against coronavirus. A key area where telcos have stepped up is sharing data which can be used for movement analysis and contact tracing to slow the spread of the virus.

 Austria’s A1 and Deutsche Telekom, for instance, have provided anonymized mass data to visualize the movements of groups and help health officials understand whether people are complying with advice to stay at home and limit social contact.

Operators have been keen to stress that data-sharing initiatives are compliant with the EU’s Global Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Reports now say that the European Commission is taking further steps to gather additional operator data.

Tracing interactions and isolating those at risk is also a key strategy for many countries, and apps are springing up all over the world. Singapore’s TraceTogether app works by exchanging Bluetooth signals between mobile phones in close proximity. People consent to give the information, which is held for 21 days, to the health ministry so the department can contact other individuals who have been exposed to the virus. Similar apps have been used in China and South Korea and are beginning to emerge elsewhere.

Israel has passed an emergency law to use mobile phone data for tracking people infected with COVID-19 including to identify and quarantine others they have come into contact with.

Such measures have sparked understandable concerns about privacy and surveillance and highlight the delicate balance required in extraordinary times. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu is quoted as saying:

“Israel is a democracy. We have to maintain the balance between the rights of the individual and needs of general society, and we are doing that.”

The UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, said, too, that GDPR does not inhibit use of data for coronavirus response.

“GDPR has a clause excepting work in the overwhelming public interest. No one should constrain work on responding to coronavirus due to data protection laws,” he tweeted, adding: “We are all having to give up some of our liberties; rights under GDPR have always been balanced against other public interests.”

Catalysts that could help

It’s early days in the battle against coronavirus, and research is happening at an unprecedented and accelerated rate throughout the world, with the hope of restoring some kind of normality back to our lives soon. Several TM Forum Catalyst proofs of concept are working on ways to help in this important effort.

The Smart livelihood and emergency management project is addressing coronavirus monitoring and prevention. In line with the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s strategy, China Mobile’s big data technology has been used to analyze the movement of users in Wuhan City, Hubei and other provinces. This has enabled the recreation of user journeys and supported government-to-citizen notifications for the prevention and control of infection. Through the Catalyst project, which will be demonstrated virtually in June and again at Digital Transformation World in Copenhagen (now postponed until October due to coronavirus), this work will be expanded and enhanced.

Further, the ongoing Skynet project has previously shown how 5G could help tackle epidemics. It demonstrated a 5G-enabled remote healthcare and drone management in a multi-operator orchestrated environment.

Watch this video to learn more about the Skynet Catalyst:

Telcos are, in the main, invisible – unless something goes wrong, with shiny over-the-top providers and tech companies typically taking the spotlight. Operators could emerge – like many others on of the frontlines of the crisis – with the recognition that they provide an essential service which underpins much of daily life, and therefore require corresponding protection and support.

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