Holding the Fort

Telecom comes to the rescue during Covid-19 outbreak

As challenging as the Covid-19 emergency is, the pandemic has reinforced the importance of robust telecom infrastructure with the increased dependence on digital solutions by enterprises, the government and the public. Industry experts share their views on the impact of Covid-19 on the sector, the industry’s response and key priorities in the post-Covid world…

What has been the impact of Covid-19 on the telecom sector?

T.R. Dua

As the global economy continues to reel from the shock and lasting impact of the outbreak, work from home 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.

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.

T.V. Ramachandran

We all are aware as to how Covid-19 has disrupted the entire economy. That said, telecom was one of the few industries that has continued to see good uptake even during the outbreak. The pandemic has clearly underlined the significance of connectivity in modern life. So, this has been the good impact.

However, the pandemic has affected the sector adversely, in the form of restricted physical movement. It was challenging for field teams of telecom operators to ensure quality of service as they faced issues in accessing and operating the sites.

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 efficiently by reoptimising connectivity.

Based on the issues that have been faced, what has been the industry’s response to the pandemic?

T.R. Dua

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 – inter-district, interstate and, of course, within a city/town/village.

All the telecom sites pan-India were being monitored by IP-1s every hour and rescue teams were working on ground 24×7 to keep all the sites up and running despite the hurdles/hiccups faced, if any.

We are thankful to the Department of Telecommunications and various state government authorities that showed tremendous support in resolving most of these issues.

Lt General Dr S.P. Kochhar

Bandwidth requirements have jumped by 15-22 per cent during the pandemic, but the industry has managed to cater to the surge.

Channels that have been broadcasting content in high definition (HD) were asked to shift to standard definition (SD), 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. Though towers often face problems of power failure, during this time the central and local governments ensured uninterrupted power supply. Further, while know your customer (KYC) compliance is normally a tedious process, telcos accommodated customers by doing e-KYC during the lockdown.

T.V. Ramachandran

I think that telcos became heroes in a way. Even during the lockdown squads of engineers from telecom companies worked 24×7 and  went about ensuring that networks were running smoothly. We have hardly heard of 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.

Over-the-top (OTT) and other digital service platforms have also played an important role in providing and facilitating remote video and virtual connectivity solutions via various applications/platforms.

What is the outlook for the sector based on the current situation?

T.R. Dua

We believe that digitalisation has become a necessity for almost all organisations now. The dependence on telecom services is bound to increase by 20-35 per cent hereon. For the telecom sector, the overall demand has gone up, and the demand has shifted from enterprise to home and from central business districts to suburban areas.

Further, there will be an increased demand for fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) and Wi-Fi solutions, as well as 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 in the process of a metamorphical change.

Going forward, we see that the requirements on networks 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 which have low or no network availability right now. This will involve substantial investments and significant hand-holding by the government.

Tax structures must get rationalised and taxes reduced. We would like GST to be rationalised to reduce the burden on the already bleeding sector. Meanwhile, we would 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.

T.V. Ramachandran

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.

As work from home becomes the new norm, in-building solutions such as fibre to the buildings, and Wi-Fi hotspots inside the buildings will see a clear impetus .

What will be the key priority areas in the post-Covid world?

T.R. Dua

The pandemic has resulted in the widespread adoption of e-services and the inertia in using various types of e-services by the general public has also vanished now. As a result, virtual meetings, e-commerce, OTT streaming apps, e-learning, webinars, work from home, etc. will remain popular post-Covid as well. All this will certainly lead to a demand for robust, resilient and omnipresent telecom infrastructure. In building solutions, small cells, Wi-Fi and FTTH will see huge demand. Telecom operators have already started focusing on fiberisation of buildings to cater to the growing demand.

Lt General Dr S.P. Kochhar

Post-Covid, we have to concentrate on increasing fiberisation so that an adequate amount of bandwidth is provided. Also, 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.

T.V. Ramachandran

First of all, there has been a very clear lesson that our digital infrastructure needs to be strengthened to cope with the massive demand rise that we are witnessing. With people increasingly becoming familiar with the online world, the demand for bandwidth will only move north. With the new normal of “work from anywhere”, robust Wi-Fi availability is required across the nation, as mobile broadband alone cannot cope with the congestion, and demand for capacity and quality.

India also needs to enhance its fibre connectivity expeditiously. We would also need solutions like E-band and V-band (wireless fibre) to cope with the data surge. For the millions of unconnected Indians living  in geographically remote/ inaccessible areas, satellite technology can be extremely beneficial.

It is also imperative that a positive and encouraging policy and regulatory environment be provided for the growth and development of the digital application/e-commerce platform providers.

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