Covid-19 is upending the global economy, financial markets, businesses and the lives of people. During these difficult times, the telecommunications sector has played a crucial role in keeping ‘India connected’. It is helping people, start-ups and businesses replace physical dependencies with digital infrastructure. According to industry estimates, the telecom sector is supporting 30%-35% of the country’s gross domestic product amidst the lockdown.
Focus on continued connectivity: Over 95% of people in India are pre-paid users. Nearly 2.2 million recharges are dispensed daily, of which 40% are online. Sixty percent of Indians still recharge offline through a retail store. Given this construct, telcos have been taking a number of measures to alleviate difficulties of offline recharges. They extended validity for continuation of services and provided additional talk-time benefits to feature phone subscribers and vulnerable segments to ensure people remain connected. For pre-paid recharges, apart from digital means, top-ups at grocery stores, pharmacies and bank ATMs are being made available. In addition, incentives are being given to customers making recharges for others digitally through their apps.
Innovating on customer service: The entire customer onboarding, Know-Your-Customer (KYC) and SIM-issuance processes have been disrupted due to store closures and limited mobility. As a work-around, telcos started home delivery of SIM cards. It is a one-time-password-based system in which the verification process is carried out at the customer’s premises. In future, the sector regulator may consider providing alternative end-to-end digital KYC norms. In addition, telcos are offering a gamut of services at the customer’s doorstep, right from installation of broadband/DTH and supplying mobile mi-fi devices, while adhering to contactless protocols. This has the potential to alter the customer service experience through an on-demand omni-channel customer touchpoint.
Focus on augmenting network capacity and continued expansion: The telecoms field force has been trying to ensure uninterrupted service access for all. They are the ‘corona warriors’ to keep us connected during isolation. Close coordination with various government agencies was needed to ensure networks functioned smoothly. For instance, telcos engaged with authorities to curtail fibre cuts and obtained necessary permissions for laying optical fiber cable. Another step was to request local authorities for de-sealing of towers. It helped cater to increased demand. Further, telcos continued network expansion. According to industry estimates, about 1,455 new towers were added in two months between March and May 2020.
Supporting exponential growth in content consumption and enabling work-from-home: Since March 2020, mobile data consumption increased 20%-25% and the time spent on smartphones has risen 27% to an average 4.3 hours per day. Indians are spending 40% more-time streaming video. The changing consumption patterns are shaping a new normal towards a more digital way of life. On top of this, there is a surge in remote working.
All this has put greater pressure on the telecommunications network. Networks are designed for higher peaks. Nevertheless, telcos took network management measures to optimize bandwidth. This has helped ease pressure on the network infrastructure so that it can cope with any sudden surge in data.
Ensuring supply chain resiliency: The Indian telecommunications supply chain has been resilient. Contingency plans were put in place to address short-term supply chain disruptions. Continuity of telecom equipment manufacturing units was necessary to ensure minimum disruption to networks. Necessary permissions were sought to ensure uninterrupted supply of essential material for telecom equipment production and finished goods transportation to the points of installation.
Telecoms sector is empowering societies: Among other things, the current crisis has accelerated digitization of industries, and telcos are playing a crucial role to fuel it. Take for instance the healthcare industry. Hospitals have facilitated video calling between covid patients with their family members. As people are reluctant to visit, hospitals are conducting consultations through video conferencing. They are relying on a robust communications infrastructure to manage the crisis.
Strengthening the ‘digital spine’ through collaboration: India’s digital economy is at an inflection point. Half of our population is still offline and investments to get them on broadband highways have the potential to bring unprecedented benefits. For India to operate in a new normal, continued collaboration between various stakeholders is required. A collective effort by the government, regulator, businesses and the people is needed. Forward looking regulatory measures and a clear 5-7-year roadmap needs to be adopted to support growth. There is a need to rationalise levies and taxes to improve financial health. The right thrust will help shape the future for a digital and well-connected India, empowering us to remain competitive on the global stage.
The author is EY emerging markets technology, media & entertainment and telecommunications (TMT) sector leader