TelcoFuturism - Part 6
This is the sixth blog post in a series on “TelcoFuturism” – which focuses on the intersection points between the telecom industry, areas of advanced technology, such as drones, AI, AR/VR and robotics, plus societal changes such as climate change & shifting demographics. Disruptive Analysis looks at these adjacent technologies through the lens of what’s really happening in networking, opportunities challenges that could emerge and the tough practicalities and complexities telcos face, rather than accepting the general hype and rose-tinted views common among some forecasters.
Note: this post has been written in early March 2020, as the COVID-19 Coronavirus had infected about 110,000 people worldwide. It is intended to give a future view, rather than being a direct analysis of the current situation. The author is not a medical professional or epidemiologist – please observe official advice.
2020 is turning into a wake-up call for the world regarding the risks of pandemics, to a far greater extent than earlier situations with SARS or Ebola. Whatever the outcome, we can be certain that COVID-19 will not be the last such outbreak – something similar will occur again in future.
This time, what’s different is the way that technology – and especially telecoms and mobile technology – is taking a central role. From assistance with diagnosis and medical response, to underpinning the changes needed in workplaces, homes and cities, as people cope with “social distancing” and restrictions on travel and large gatherings.
This post gives an overview of what is happening at the moment – and how that may change in future, as this epidemic is brought under control and we start to think about lessons learned.
Impact on the medical & emergency services sector
Above even the impact on remote working and “self-isolation” of at-risk individuals, the first and foremost impact of telecoms in a pandemic is how it applies to the healthcare and broader medical and public-safety services.
Obviously, there is a consistent need for communications amongst emergency services’ for ambulance and paramedic dispatch – which in a number of markets is evolving from legacy two-way radio to 4G and then 5G. Over time, this will enable improved on-scene emergency diagnostics and treatment, with video feeds and streaming data from medical sensors and equipment.
Similarly, everyone is familiar with 911 / 112 / 999 emergency call numbers, plus a range of less-urgent numbers for reporting symptoms or gaining advice. The latter tools are being supplemented with online diagnostic or filtering websites and apps, to ease the load on congested call-centres.
But there are numerous uses of telecoms and mobile for healthcare that go beyond these core elements. Others to consider include:
- A key area of response in the COVID-19 crisis has been that of contact-tracing. Authorities have used mobile network records (and broadcast alerts) to help work out potential vectors for disease transmission, clusters occurring at specific events or locations and so on.
- In-hospital communications between staff, ideally working in a fashion that can support those wearing protective gear. Increasingly, older radio systems will be replaced by Wi-Fi or local/private cellular networks.
- Data connectivity between hospitals, labs and other sites for rapid analysis of scans, blood tests and ongoing patient data. This will also feed into near-instant analytics to determine effective courses of treatment.
- Collaboration platforms for scientists researching vaccines, anti-virals, epidemiology and so forth. This can require huge network capacity not just for data input and sharing, but also protein-folding visualisations, international research meetings and so on.
- Maintaining public order and safety in quarantine zones, for example with video surveillance, remote diagnostics and telemedicine etc.
- Reducing non-urgent calls on healthcare resources, allowing more effort to be focused on epidemic response and isolated patients. For instance, repeat prescription drugs can be ordered and authorised online, and linked with deliveries from pharmacies. This also reduces the risk of exposure to new viruses by people attending clinics or pharmacists for routine purposes.
- Public information, delivered by national healthcare agencies, the WHO and wider media. For COVID-19, this includes sources such as videos on better hand-washing technique, as well as other public resources.
- In future, we may also see wearables able to detect fevers or other unusual patterns, allowing rapid diagnosis and perhaps even early-warning of the outbreak a few days ahead of it becoming externally apparent.
Remote-working and collaboration
While many companies have adopted conferencing and cloud-based collaboration tools in recent years, these have largely been incremental to, rather than substituting, face-to-face meetings and events.
Now, many businesses have implemented strict no-travel, no-conference and even no-internal meeting rules for their staff. This can be expected to continue for several months at least, and may lead to longer-term organisational and behavioural shifts,
This is driving:
- More use of video- and web-conferencing, with platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams growing in usage.
- Growing use of home-working, necessitating good residential broadband, VPNs and other security tools, and a variety of team-collaboration applications such as Slack. (While these are common in the tech industry, many sectors have been much more conservative in their adoption).
- Industrial-grade collaboration involving 4K video (eg for remote inspection and oversight of aircraft engine maintenance) or augmented reality (AR), for instance for an architectural “walk through” of a half-completed building, compared to the blueprints.
- Virtual-event technologies. While webinars are commonplace, that format is not ideal for replicating a day-long conference online, with all the business and social interaction around the presentations themselves. Even panel sessions are hard to replicate well online. This is likely to be a major area for innovation in future.
It is likely that each industry will need to rethink its approach to collaboration and remote work within teams, or with clients and suppliers, or industry peers. This will involve experimentation and measurement, as organisations seek to choose the optimum approach. At a higher level, all of these changes will also impact the way in which managers and leaders coordinate their businesses. Good in-person communicators will need to learn new skills, while junior staffers will likely need more responsibility.
Behind the scenes, the IT and network departments will need to adapt as well – and perhaps outsource to service providers
Network capacity and demand flexibility
Where pandemics result in a mass change in human movements, for example with enforced quarantines and “social distancing”, we can expect knock-on impacts on the telecoms and network infrastructure.
- More home-working (and home-entertainment) will likely drive a need for fixed broadband capacity upgrades. While some will just shift peaks around (for example more daytime work and cloud traffic on residential broadband), there may also be a greater reliance on streaming live news, entertainment and online shopping in the existing peak evening periods that could stretch operators’ infrastructure.
- Mobile capacity demand patterns will likely shift from busy venues and road/rail corridors, to residential areas – often indoors. This will have significant impact on network dimensioning and perhaps frequency choices, as well as perhaps offload to Wi-Fi or small cells. With rapid outbreaks and government interventions, these changes could happen abruptly.
- There is likely to be a renewed focus on policy-control, as network capacity may need to be protected for the most important applications such as telemedicine or public-information sources.
- There will clearly be a lot of focus on infrastructure resilience and security, if home or mobile broadband becomes ever more of a “life-line” for those isolated.
Clearly, the exact impacts will depend on the extent and location of the pandemic in a given country, and the responses taken by authorities. Nevertheless, it is important that network operators consider unexpected demand shifts of this type – especially as these may sit outside the parameters for automated systems and existing, trained, machine-learning datasets.
After the current coronavirus epidemic subsides, there will undoubtedly be detailed analyses of the impacts on the telecom industry. However, certain factors and trends can be predicted or imagined upfront – and taken into account when organisations plan their responses.
Some of the issues that Disruptive Analysis is tracking include:
- General macroeconomic and financial impacts, such as the potential for a global recession, frozen bond markets, difficulty in raising new equity, and a general lack of appetite for extra risk. This will likely translate into slower network upgrades, and perhaps some bankruptcies among the more fragile telcos and enterprise customers.
- Supply-chain impacts on devices, network elements, and underlying components. This is already being strongly felt by many vendors. In the longer term, we can expect companies to focus more on alternative sources of supply, “just in case” rather than “just in time” logistics and inventory management, and various other shifts in business practice.
- Possible slowdown in global standards and regulatory meetings / agreements (for instance 3GPP Rel16/17). While this will likely be countered with improved remote-attendance, that may be unsuitable for replicating the informal discussions needed to reach effective outcomes.
- There may be staffing issues in the hardest-hit regions, impacting operations, deployment and maintenance for networks, datacentres etc.
- There may be less government tolerance of encryption & anonymity, if it is shown to thwart efforts to trace infected patients and their contacts.
- All pre-2020 market forecasts should be considered unreliable, given their input assumptions of “business as usual”.
- New forms of social network and entertainment will likely emerge, if people are forced to stay, work and learn at home. There will be a big focus on childcare, eldercare, eSports and gaming, entertainment streaming, home delivery services, healthcare and so on. Some of this is already being seen in China, with virtual gym classes and other innovations becoming popular. As a historical note, the large Chinese online commerce firm JD.com was first set up in 2003-4, when its founder closed his brick-and-mortar retail stores during the SARS outbreak.
In summary – both with the current COVID-19 and any future pandemics, networks and telecoms will form a core part of the direct medical response and crisis management. But perhaps more importantly, it will enable humanity to adapt to challenges and difficulties in entirely new ways, by improving the ability to work and live wherever required. However, the telecom industry needs to work through the lessons carefully, understand bottlenecks and pinch-points (both physical and virtual) and be prepared to evolve rapidly. Regulators and policymakers also have extra roles to play.