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Coronavirus shines spotlight on mobile connectivity

Mobile operators in Asia-Pacific are playing their part in the fight against Covid-19, even as some of them are facing roadblocks in rolling out 5G networks

The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has cast a spotlight on the importance of mobile connectivity in enabling governments and people to contain the disease, according to the GSM Association (GSMA).

During an online media briefing on 16 April 2020, GSMA’s head of Asia-Pacific Julian Gorman said in countries such as Singapore, access to information and broadband connectivity have been valuable in the fight against coronavirus.

In the city-state, the government has been actively using social media and video-streaming platforms to educate people on measures they can take to protect themselves, as well as to provide information about the financial support available to businesses and individuals.

“The mobile industry and mobile technology have cushioned or provided the basis for the world to be able to respond to [the virus] as far as it has done, and mobile operators have been significant contributors,” he said.

Gorman said some mobile operators are now providing additional data as well as broadcasting information from national health authorities. They are also enhancing their networks to accommodate the surge in internet traffic, which has flipped from workplaces to homes, along with content consumption patterns.

“Everyone talks about watching Netflix now, but some people are also experiencing their first business video call in the past couple of weeks,” he said. “Personally, being in Bali with a 50Mbps fibre connection, I often need to go back to using mobile because the latency does not support a decent video call.”

This has highlighted the differences between operators in forecasting their network traffic. “We have an industry traffic profile paradigm where traffic is growing in multiples each year, so network operators mostly have some sort of forward capacity,” said Gorman.

“In countries like Singapore, it’s generally been within that headroom, but in some other countries that hasn’t always been the case,” he said, adding that connection speeds of some operators have been affected since the lockdowns came into effect, citing Opensignal reports.

Mobile operators are also grappling with the impact of the coronavirus on their workforce. Gorman said those that rely on cross-border foreign workers have had to secure additional resources to support their operations, while others have been unable to send technicians to the ground to manage their networks.

In some Asia-Pacific countries, Gorman said these technicians are not considered essential workers, even though mobile networks are recognised as essential in supporting efforts to contain the outbreak. “That has created some difficulties because allowing people to travel to sites to maintain them has not been allowed,” he said.

Adding to those challenges is the three-month delay by the 3GPP standards body in finalising Release 16 and 17 of the standalone 5G standard. Gorman said the delay will have less impact on 5G network launches than the operational issues affecting mobile operators right now.

“The main delay will come from social distancing or movement control measures that will limit their ability to build sites,” he said. “So, we expect to see some short-term impact that might turn out to be a couple of less sites at launch…but we don’t see significant delays in launches.”

Still, Gorman acknowledged that in markets such as Singapore that have mandated operators to roll out standalone 5G networks, much significant delays can be expected if the standards drift too far.

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