All eyes are focused right now on the role of healthcare professionals in fighting COVID-19. While we should all be applauding medics and support staff for providing a lifeline for patients, it’s also worth mentioning the vital role that telco operators are playing by delivering ‘life support’ for businesses and services as they are forced to adopt new ways of working during the pandemic.
Many businesses risk floundering as their cash flow dries up, with typical SMEs and SOHOs especially vulnerable to short-term financial knocks. The government is investing heavily in keeping businesses going and telcos are being asked to do the same, as customers wrestle with practical challenges and paying their bills. Some operators have already taken steps to help small businesses and consumers.
Life support for businesses
For instance, BT’s enterprise business unit is working with customers to provide short-term upgrades to network capacity and increased virtual private network connectivity, as well as providing business-friendly tools for conferencing and diverting calls.
Meanwhile O2 is one of several telcos that are ‘zero rating’ NHS UK and some social welfare websites, so any data used on these sites won’t count towards a customer’s monthly allowance. O2 also says it will try to help those who are not able to pay their bill.
Virgin Media’s post-paid customers can access unlimited minutes to landlines and other mobile numbers, as well as 10 GB of extra data each month. Virgin is also lifting data caps on its legacy broadband products.
Here at NTT DATA we’re also helping out where we can. For instance, we’re working with Microsoft to get free access to Microsoft Teams, and also with Firstwave to give access to market leading endpoint security. This means we can offer it free to our customers and, in some cases, the customers of our customers – helping to tackle some of the key issues created by the massive increase in home working during this crisis.
In addition, NTT DATA’s Italian colleagues have been helping to develop an app-based system to allow more reliable monitoring of infected people in their homes. Each patient is provided with a thermometer and a pulse oximeter and the app feeds back readings automatically, only requiring the input of medics if the readings trigger an alert.
Managing the recovery
Telco-led initiatives make sense from the perspective of network operators acting responsibly to support the economy. It also makes sense for telcos to store up good will for their own businesses beyond the lockdown.
The marginal cost of maintaining services to customers temporarily unable to pay their bills is often minimal and the last thing operators want is to upset customers and induce extra churn once this is over.
Even so, a likely dip in free cash flow may leave telcos with a problem, because they’re right in the middle of two of the industry’s biggest capital investment programs of recent years – fibre rollout and 5G. I would argue that now is not the time to pull back from these investments.
Operators need to bite the bullet and meet any shortfall in internal capital by bringing in capital from external sources. For any business with a robust balance sheet it’s a good time to borrow, because infrastructure has long been a safe haven for investors in difficult times and a safe bet is just what they’re looking for now.
What’s more, these projects will provide operators with solid assets as a buffer against future uncertainty once the battered economy begins to recover.
Demonstrating the true value of communications infrastructure
If anything, the COVID-19 situation has demonstrated even more than usual just how critical a modern and robust communications infrastructure is. Operator networks are the conduits for the data that’s helping with everything from keeping people entertained during lockdown to engaging with the new army of NHS volunteers and delivering remote diagnoses.
There is an obvious temptation for operators to pull back from investing in big projects right now, with cash in short supply as customers struggle to pay their bills. However, just as the British government has promised to invest ‘whatever it takes’ to help as many businesses as possible come through the pandemic intact, telcos should do whatever it takes to keep going with 5G and fibre rollouts.
There will be a life after COVID-19 and these vital infrastructure projects will play a critical role in everyone’s future success.