To envisage the telecom sector response to COVID-19, first and foremost we need to recognize that this is neither a ‘usual’ recession, nor a unique one.
Thus, the response of the telecom sector beyond the immediate offer of assistance to our subscribers in various forms – from free or price-reduced access to critical sites to discounted offers on demanded services while ensuring the networks remain robust – has to account for a changing geopolitical environment, lasting impact on country economies and population wealth, the growing role and more protectionist view of the State as well as changing consumer behavior.
We take these trends into account when envisaging the world in the post-COVID period.
The pandemic itself has acted as an accelerator of an already ongoing trend of achieving broader digital, financial and economic inclusion. This is to the benefit of all stakeholders: telecom companies and their shareholders, governments, businesses and the general population.
VEON is present in ten different countries with various economic profiles and levels of prosperity – thus making generalizations would simplify the issues. Still, for most of our jurisdictions, the pandemic uncovered the problems that require urgent action.
For instance, reliance on physical stores not only to purchase a handset but simply to recharge the balance on the phone, has been put to a massive test by lockdowns. It reveals the urgent need to accelerate the use of online channels to conduct almost every activity that is connected to the customer relationship with their telecom provider: order a handset and SIM for home delivery, choose a suitable tariff plan, select digital products and services and be able to pay for all without leaving the comfort of one’s living room.
While this is easier done in countries like Russia, which have a high penetration of banking services, it is more difficult – if not impossible – in countries like Pakistan, where two-thirds of the population does not even have a bank account.
However, this fact also accelerates financial inclusion and in jurisdictions where mobile financial services are allowed. These governments realize that telco-enabled financial services allow for the speediest, safest and virus-free cashless distribution of financial aid, as well as for continuity of some economic activities through telco facilitated e-commerce or e-service.
We believe these trends provide a strong impetus to bridge existing basic digital and financial divides in the countries where we operate.
Demand for some services, like e-learning and e-health, seem to be temporary but this is only at the first glance. We think social distancing will remain a pattern of our lives for a period beyond the end of lockdowns and the longer the services are in demand, the more likely they become part of our lives – especially if these services are wholesome and provide a one-stop solution.
For instance, in Ukraine, VEON operator Kyivstar’s ‘online doctor’ service not only allows the customer to receive the remote doctor consultation, but also to obtain a digital prescription, which is then digitally accepted by a pharmacy. We think such types of services have a long shelf life.
Remote work is another trend that is here to stay. This is not only because travel is unlikely to resume until the pandemic is over, but mostly because working from home has proven to be often more efficient and more convenient, reminding many people about the need for a better work/life balance.
This means demand for secure connectivity with a high throughput and reliability – which suddenly moved away from traditional business areas of towns to the residential areas – is unlikely to go back to pre-COVID times even after the cure for the virus is found.
It is important that telco views are shared by the governments, and not in simply acknowledging our critical role for the societies and economies we operate in – which was brought to the fore by the pandemic – but also that telcos are the best partners for governments to accelerate the closure of digital and financial divides, and also becoming guardians of private data.
Telcos are eager to play their role if the necessary licences are issued, additional frequencies are granted and laws protecting sovereignty of data are passed.
*Any views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of ITU.