Telecom Networks Answer the Covid-19 Call

Pandemic thrusts the need for connectivity into the spotlight

The pace at which Covid-19 has spread has been one of the most frightening aspects of the crisis to date, challenging governments to respond at a speed to match. The provision of medical services has been the vital priority, of course, but the need for communication tools and networks has come a close second around the world. Telecom networks have become part of the critical national infrastructure and central to how countries are handling the emergency and the lifting of lockdowns.

I cover some of these points in the video below. But there are some other important areas that I’d like to highlight in this blog.

One of the most impressive contributions to the crisis from telecom operators has been their ability to deliver custom networks within days and sometimes hours. They’ve supported the construction of temporary clinical facilities and provided networks and devices to patients unable to have family and friends close by, enabling them to communicate safely and securely in the most trying of circumstances.

Networks are also allowing us to stay in touch and operate complex businesses remotely, almost without interruption, thanks to video collaboration tools. At CCS Insight, we started using Zoom and Microsoft Teams a couple of years ago, but the explosion in the adoption of such platforms at the onset of lockdown was astonishing — see the image below. Indeed, Verizon’s recent acquisition of BlueJeans offered some insight that operators were already seeing this type of service as important to their customers.

Faced with this immense need to connect widely distributed workforces, providers of communication and collaboration tools have stepped up their service levels and product offerings to meet this exponential rise in demand.

At the release of Microsoft’s latest financial results in April, CEO Satya Nadella suggested the software giant had seen two years of digital transformation in two months. As the world comes out of lockdown, many of these new experiences will become business as usual for many organizations.

But it’s in the next stage of the fight against Covid-19 that I expect mobile technology to take centre stage. It has become clear that for the world to emerge from lockdown, mobile networks and smartphones will be essential. For most countries affected, the management of programmes to test, track and isolate infected people will depend on the data from our mobile infrastructure.

Many govenments have pointed to South Korea’s approach as a model for how to implement such a system. In fact, the country’s programme is based on several data inputs, and was developed in response to previous scares with outbreaks of bird flu, SARS and MERS in the past 15 years.

South Korea didn’t formally go into a lockdown. Like much of Asia, its experience of previous epidemics had prepared it for the outbreak of Covid-19, so the government had a set of plans ready to implement in days rather than weeks. Large gatherings were banned and working from home encouraged, but people have been able to continue participating in society.

An example of the role that mobile tools can play in helping to quell the spread of infectious diseases is the Global Epidemic Prevention Platform (GEPP). Launched by Korean operator KT, the platform warns people travelling to Korea to isolate for 14 days if they’ve visited high-risk hot spots such as London or Dubai. GEPP provides network roaming data to the Korean Centre for Disease Control.

The GEPP forms part of South Korea’s broader national tracking-and-tracing initiative. It informs the population by text message if they’ve come into contact with a person that may have been exposed to the virus, and directs them to self-isolate.

The platform works by identifying and tracking people through their mobile phone, credit card transactions and CCTV footage among other sources. It then uses an anonymized list of infected people to determine which locations in the country are potentially at risk; these areas are then communicated on TV and the Internet to deter people from travelling to or from those locations.

It’s a multifaceted, complex monitoring system that requires several industries to consolidate their data, with data from mobile devices and telecom information at the heart of the service.

Clinical remedies and procedures will always be the highest priority for any nation affected by such a crisis, but it’s clear that the communication industry will take an enormous role in this crucial next phase to save even more lives.

There’s still a long way to go in the fight against Covid-19. However, now more than ever, mobile networks are proving their worth, becoming indispensable for tracking, tracing and isolating populations, load management of curtailed transport networks and for the connectivity that allows us to keep in touch with our families and collaborate effectively at work. Networks have done well in the first phase and it’s telecom infrastructure that will be critical to the planning and delivery of a new living and working environment.