After triggering an unexpected, accelerated shift to digital technologies and services earlier this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed immense pressure at the feet of the UK telecoms industry.
With around 50% of the UK workforce being forced to work from home and the sharp rise in usage of online retail, entertainment and video conferencing platforms, the demand being placed on home broadband and mobile networks during the pandemic-induced lockdown were substantial, to say the least.
However, despite facing their fair share of challenges and concerns over the increased pressure on their networks, the telecoms industry has proven its resilience, value and adaptability throughout the pandemic. Thanks to years of building extra capacity into the networks and accurate forecasting, the networks have been able to stand up to the challenge.
The pandemic has helped to highlight the importance of a strong telecoms infrastructure for the UK economy and made telco services more valuable to consumers and businesses than ever before. But what does this mean for the future of the industry as it starts preparing for a post-COVID future?
We’ve taken a look at some key factors that could help to shape the telecoms industry as we gradually move towards a post-COVID world.
Given their increased reliance on technology and connectivity, there will undoubtedly be a shift in consumer expectations and its likely they will expect more, not less, from their mobile and broadband providers moving forward.
During the early stages of the pandemic outbreak, many telecoms companies introduced measures that would ensure their most vulnerably customers would receive additional support for a three-month period to help counteract the digital divide. While this was a commendable move during a time of crisis for many, it could mean that the bar is set exceptionally high for any actions the industry takes in future.
After gaining parity with essential utilities like water and gas, consumers are also more interested in the telecoms industry than ever before. According to recent reports, interest in the industry has grown by 8% compared to last year, while consumer interest for wired broadband has increased by 26% in the UK.
This new-found interest could mean that the industry faces additional pressure to speed up the expansion of their broadband capacity. Recent studies have found that as much as a third of UK constituencies receive little or no broadband at all, which naturally poses problems as we continue to embrace remote working and digital technologies in order to be productive and connected to one another.
The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the need for the industry to provide robust telecoms networks across the UK, that can withstand both long-term shifts in consumer usage and behaviour and unexpected spikes in demand.
Existing networks have proven themselves to be more than up to the challenge in recent times. In fact, OFCOM’s UK Home Broadband Performance report revealed only minor degradation of internet performance, with slightly slower speeds and increased latency, during the lockdown period. However, with promised increased speed, latency and capacity of mobile networks, 5G could help to make the UK’s telecoms network infrastructure even more equipped for a future of increased connectivity.
After changing their minds about Huawei supplying 5G technology to UK networks earlier this year, the government has started implementing measures designed to accelerate the development of infrastructure needed for 5G and to tackle the delays to the widespread availability of 5G in the UK.
However, while 5G does have the potential to be a key-driver in post-pandemic economic growth, it can only do this with a significant amount of infrastructure and real estate. This could potentially create issues for telecoms operators, as well as policymakers and landlords whose properties or land are needed to host the new 5G equipment.
The telecoms providers also have wide-ranging European regulatory changes to contend with as they start to move towards a post-COVID world. The European Electronic Communications Code (EECC), which overhauls the regulatory framework for all EU Member States, must be transferred into UK law on or before 21 December 2020. The EECC will result in a number of changes to existing communications regulation in the UK.
Internet-based OTT service providers, such as Zoom, and WhatsApp will fall into the communications regulatory environment for the first time and may need to register their offerings in the EU countries that they operate in. Email, connected wearable devices, and an array of other OTT applications, such as audio, video, and other streaming media content delivered online are among these newly regulated services.
This regulatory change means that OTT service providers will need to understand how their applications fit into the new code and how to comply with the associated regulatory obligations throughout the EU. This could bring new challenges to the door of the telecoms industry that they will undoubtedly have to start preparing for as soon as possible.
It seems that the adoption of new technologies and online services and our reliance on connectivity is only set to continue. If the telecoms industry can continue to adapt and evolve with regulatory changes, continued advances in technology and increasing customer expectations as it has done during the pandemic, exciting things are definitely on the horizon.