Due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, around 20 percent of the global population is in a lock down. Workers performing non-essential services are being advised to work from home in order to curtail the spread of the virus. Schools and Universities have been shut and educational activities are being transferred online, where possible. Social distancing has become the order of the day; as such families and friends are being advised to stay in touch virtually, over the phone etc. rather than in person. This is particularly necessary to protect the elderly, who are less immune to the virus as well as reduce the huge strain on health care facilities globally.
The lock down has led to a spike in the use of internet and communication services. In Europe, Youtube, Netflix, amazon etc. have been advised to reduce the bitrate of videos in order to meet the spike in demand for their services, during this pandemic. Communication and information technologies have inadvertently turned into utilities and telecommunication infrastructures have become critical infrastructures. Telecommunication companies (otherwise known as telcos) have been advised to step up to the plate in these trying times by supporting health care and prioritising their communication, sending information and updates on the pandemic nationally, reducing the costs of their services, suspending data cap enforcement, free calls for the elderly, waiving roaming charges etc.
Aside from financially pledges and donations and suspending mobile money transfer fees (which is very commendable), telcos within developing countries can do more, especially given the huge costs of communication services within these regions (#data must fall)
So far, the communication industry has done remarkably well in providing the much needed services, to the public, whilst in lock down. They have been able to get us communicating and working during these trying periods. Telcos have been able to achieve this feat as well as ensure the protection of their workers by performing some/most of their operations remotely whilst keeping some essential workers within their offices for limited working periods (both within developed and developing countries).
It was as if the telcos had been preparing for an eventuality, as the one we are witnessing globally today. This is obviously due to investments in the core of the networks, deploying Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) tools etc., which have greatly reduced the dependence of the networks on human presence, a vital step towards fully virtualized 5G networks. Equally, traffic that would be otherwise directed towards companies and business districts are being redirected to residential homes. The service is obviously not perfect as down times have been experienced in certain parts of the globe; in fact there is panic in some quarters that the communication networks may crash due to the surge in demand.
With the advent of 5G, the core will be fully virtualized and softwarised, agile, flexible and able to meet demand on the fly. The 5G core will be able to react and adapt to network demands, such as the one being witnessed today. The higher frequencies, recommended for use in 5G networks, would equally ensure that the world has access to a large amount of bandwidth, which would no doubt help us communicate seamlessly, work remotely, entertain ourselves and families, educate our young ones, complete business transactions seamlessly, without any hitch on communication infrastructures or panic about crash etc.
More importantly, we have seen factories shut down and the global supply chain has been greatly affected, in these trying times. With the advent of 5G, factories can be operated remotely using robots and machines, communicating via communication networks. Manufacturing operations can be performed whilst reducing dependence on humans, as long as connectivity is seamless. This would reduce the number of humans involved, which is particularly important, during this global pandemic.
I cannot overemphasize the huge gratitude the world owes health care workers, who have been at the front line of this pandemic, even at great risks to themselves and their families. Perhaps, we could reduce these risks further by transferring certain functions to robots and machines e.g. deliver food, medical supplies, and care to patients etc. This may help reduce the exposure risks to our health care workers. Of course, such machines would require connectivity services, which could be provided by 4G/5G networks.
Of course, when this is all over, the world needs to deal with the economic consequences of the global lock down. The head of the IMF recently suggested that the world has slipped into global recession. As with other sectors, the telecoms sector would be severely affected; 5G requires huge investments from operators to develop the fully virtualized core networks. The global shut down would inadvertently lead to significant delay in the development and deployment of 5G networks globally.
The world has a lot of lessons to learn, when this is all over.
Please let’s stay safe and practise social distancing to help curtail the spread of this virus.