The first Voice&Data TLF Dialogue with Airtel and Cisco saw the speakers deliberate on the role played by the telecom sector in crisis management

Telecom sector was better prepared for COVID crisis: Akhil Gupta

The first Voice&Data TLF Dialogue with Airtel and Cisco saw the speakers deliberate on the role played by the telecom sector in crisis management, the “new normal” trends, and India’s infrastructure needs for a digital economy.

The telecom sector was best prepared among the industries to face the COVID-19 crisis, said Bharti Enterprises Vice-Chairman and Bharti Infratel Executive Chairman Akhil Gupta. He was speaking at the TLF Dialogue, a Voice&Data webinar on the ‘Role of Telecom in Crisis’.

“Crisis management is not new to the telecom sector. It has always been on the ground to face the emergencies and exigencies of connectivity and the COVID-19 pandemic was as good as facing earthquake or flood in the country,” he said adding the during the initial days of the lockdown, the industry witnessed a superb coordination among telecom equipment and internet service providers who created their war rooms to handle the situation.

The department was proactive in enabling the movement of equipment and people in a timely manner, with the respective state governments also doing their part to help the industry provide seamless connectivity to end-users.

He, however, credited the Department of Telecommunication (DoT) for its commendable efforts in making this happen. “The department was proactive in enabling the movement of equipment and people in a timely manner, with the respective state governments also doing their part to help the industry provide seamless connectivity to end-users,” Gupta stated.

Highlighting that the lockdown that followed COVID-19 crisis led to a massive surge in demand for data, which broke several records and predictions on connectivity, Bharti Airtel Global Chief Information Officer Harmeen Mehta said, “What was predicted to happen in 10 years happened overnight, leaving the telecom industry at its edge on how to deliver services uninterrupted.”

Adding that over half the world is running virtually, unlocking barriers that were posed by the physical world, Mehta further said that the companies that were adopting fewer digital technologies, transformed overnight to adapt and adopt next-gen technologies.

“Earlier, negotiations with clients took weeks, but the demand for connectivity and large scale immediate consumption brought the deals to be closed at lightning speed,” she stated.

According to Bharti Airtel Chief Technology Officer Randeep Sekhon, the major surge in demand happened at the home front and the pipes grew fatter at the domestic end. “The data consumption pattern differed during the lockdown. The earlier peak hour for mobile data—from 7 to 9 pm—became a whole day affair. A huge shift in this demand has kept the telecom operators working round the clock.”

Sekhon also highlighted that the demand from rural areas saw a triple fold jump in voice and data consumption. “During this crisis, a well-established cloud infrastructure allowed Airtel’s network to scale at ease, with speed and also ensured that business continuity is maintained to a large extent with the field engineers doing a great job.”

Presenting the infrastructure provider’s perspective Cisco Systems’ Service Provider Business President for the Asia Pacific and Japan Sanjay Kaul said that the preparedness to deal with the crisis meant mere scaling up of the systems for the company.

Highlighting the telecom sector’s role, he said that it was possible to be connected because of the lag-free efficiency of the telecom operators and internet service providers.

“In April, when several COVID-19-affected countries were under lockdown, Cisco witnessed manifold increase in its user base. Clocking more than five million Webex meetings, we worked relentlessly to meet the surge in demand for collaborative web tools.”

He also pointed out that to support the industry deal with the situation, Cisco offered a six-month free package to its 3,500 new customers who were in need of collaborative tools, many of whom are likely to sign up for a long-term commitment.

“Even though we were aware that the lockdown will push demand, the company did not anticipate the huge surge for online meeting tools, and more importantly double authentication security products. Around the world, all our teams worked remotely to ensure that our customers can also enforce work from home arrangements in a seamless way,” Kaul said.

Even though we were aware that the lockdown will push demand, the company did not anticipate the huge surge for online meeting tools, and more importantly double authentication security products.

The new normal

The lockdown that led to a sudden shift to work-from-home and the contactless transaction also seems to have hastened the pace of digital adoption and transformation at the individual and organizational level.

Speaking on the new normal post-COVID-19 and the emerging business models for companies, Gupta stated that it was evident that henceforth a lot of work will happen from remote locations for many organizations.

“If this is the new normal then the telecom operators must take the onus to provide robust, deep capacity networks especially in tier 2-3 cities. Telcos need to double their optical fibre capacity and also ensure that the spectrum reaches remote locations,” he said, adding that this was the best time for India to consider auction of the 5G spectrum.

“The time is best for the Government of India, DoT, TRAI, telecom service providers, and other participants to collaborate and take necessary actions to firm up plans and policies for the 5G launch. The country should also step up its efforts to boost connectivity through wireless connections as wireline connectivity will take longer to scale the reach.”

“If India enhances its wireless capacity, it can meet the needs of several new business models that are going to unfold in the days to come, Gupta stated.

The time is best for the Government of India, DoT, TRAI, telecom service providers, and other participants to collaborate and take necessary actions to firm up plans and policies for the 5G launch.

Pointing out that the telcos were the bedrock for all the other industries Kaul said that it is vital that all points of connectivity match the new situation. “With the sudden surge in demand for video streaming, conferencing, multiplayer-gaming, and digital payments, networks need to scale up at different levels to meet the demand. The new business models will certainly require high-speed connectivity.”

He stressed that there was an urgent need for virtualization of networks combined with high data security. “Cisco is working with most telcos to offer end-to-end virtualization systems and also highly encrypted network security products,” Kaul said.

“With all this coming together, I believe that achieving 5G now looks closer than what was perceived. Across the world, the demand for high speed, low latency networks has prompted the telcos to progress with 5G trials and launch. India too has felt the need for an accelerated approach to partake in 5G. I am sure companies like Airtel already have the necessary radios for 5G in place. It will only require the spectrum to be opened up for deployment,” he said.

According to Mehta, the COVID-19-induced sudden lockdown has reoriented peoples’ lives in many ways driving them to cut off the unnecessary. “The industry is more focussed on accomplishing goals at shorter deadlines. Airtel, in fact, reacted really fast to meet several pressing needs in terms of connectivity. Be it Airtel XLabs or Airtel engineers, everyone ensured that the deliverables were met at the most critical time with no downtime. We were very quick to partner with the government to enable the delivery of Aarogya Setu App. Airtel also partnered with Apollo hospitals at this critical time to enable the hospital to deliver its telemedicine solutions.”

Mehta further said that going forward, virtual patient consultations will be the new normal. Minimizing hospital visits and taking the doctor to the patient through virtual means will be the future and Airtel has ensured that the much-required equipment, gears and routers were all installed appropriately to enable the country to realize its telemedicine goals, she stated.

“This will be the most evolving business model in the healthcare industry and the telecom sector will lend shoulders to carry this in the years to come,” she said, adding that going forward education will be more online and e-learning solutions will be the game to be played.

“Teachings through multiple online platforms and social media will accelerate the consumption of data and telcos around the world have to reorient their strategies to this new normal,” Mehta stressed.

Echoing her points, Sekhon said that telemedicine and e-learning are going to be superimposed on our lives. “I see the demand for Fibre-to-Home and Fibre-to-Building needs growing at a fast pace. As the work environment and learning-from-home have shown a significant shift from the normal consumption pattern, telcos need to align themselves to meet newer demands.”

Airtel’s CTO also pointed out that wireless will be the mainstay technology of the future. “Although wired connections will exist, consumers will opt for wireless connections owing to its speed and convenience.”

Batting strongly for 4G, Sekhon stated that even if 5G comes to India and work along with Wi-Fi 6, it will not be the end of 4G. “We will see 4G and 5G co-exist for many years. 4G will power voice calls and 5G will be needed for high-speed data, for connected technologies and large scale manufacturing and new-age industrialization.”

Infrastructure for the digital era

As India adjusted to the new normal conditions, digital infrastructure, including telecommunication network and services, have emerged as the lifeline and backbone of the economy. This has also triggered the debate on what India should do to strengthen the digital infrastructure, its potential impacts on the telecom sector, including network usage and resiliency, the changes for the customer, and the overall financial impact.

While the country needs to improve on its own manufacturing abilities, there were several goals that the telecommunication sector needs to achieve on priority, which cannot be met without external support.

Talking about infrastructure needs, specifically in the backdrop of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for AtmaNirbhar Bharath, Gupta said that it certainly made sense for India to be self-reliant in a lot many ways. He, however, highlighted that while the country needs to improve on its own manufacturing abilities, there were several goals that the telecommunication sector needs to achieve on priority, which cannot be met without external support.

“Much before we think of self-reliance in the telecom sector the industry stakeholders need to take a big step forward on streamlining the mobile tariff plans. TRAI and DoT must work towards implementing common floor price for mobile tariffs. Injection of this floor price into the system will provide a tremendous boost to the industry. Both the government and the consulting bodies should ensure that each of India’s telecom operators are able to achieve revenue maximization,” he stressed.

Stressing on the need for all stakeholders to arrive at an understanding, Gupta said that besides investing in spectrum, the telcos also need to ensure that networks remain robust to deal with the new normal. “It is vital to move the money from just spectrum alone to superior networks and this in a way will pave the way for India to realize its 5G dreams.”

Pointing out that the new normal was already evident Kaul said that in terms of software defining the networks, telcos have to gear up to the fact that low-cost, agile systems need a big push. “SD-WAN and cloud technologies are shaping today’s networks and Indian network operators have to significantly invest in overhauling networks that presently lack speed and depth. The new normal is now demanding uberization of archaic OSS/BSS and CRM solutions. Consumer-centric approaches that deal with quick resolutions of queries are going to be new benchmarks for telcos,” he said.

AtmaNirbhar Bharat, is a long-term vision for India and a collaborative model with global tie-ups always moves the businesses forward.

He also pointed out that network security is a major area that operators need to work on to build the infrastructure for the future. “Call center agents are working from home and remote operations are now the new normal. All terminals and endpoints need to be secured and investing in security-based software will shape the digital infrastructure of the country,” he stated, adding that the AtmaNirbhar Bharat, is a long-term vision for India and a collaborative model with global tie-ups always moves the businesses forward.

Reiterating that remote operation, telemedicine, e-learning, and high definition videos have led to the spike during the COVID times, Airtel Global CIO said that the new normal has imposed certain need for scaling up of infrastructure. “Legacy systems are undergoing an overhaul and many domestic and foreign collaborations are bound to happen. We might plan for AtmaNirbhar Bharat, but the telecom industry works only on a collaborative model. We can achieve 5G sooner only with players collaborating across the seas,” she stressed.

Even with 5G coming into the picture, 4G will co-exist to deliver voice to remote hilly areas. It is not just about opening up of the spectrum for 5G but also involves investments in fibre, radios, and devices

For Sekhon, building a digital infrastructure for the new normal would require scaling up and modernizing networks. “Even with 5G coming into the picture, 4G will co-exist to deliver voice to remote hilly areas. It is not just about opening up of the spectrum for 5G but also involves investments in fiber, radios, and devices,”

“The success of 5G can be measured only when the country is able to give out affordable 5G supportive devices to consumers,” he concluded.

This was first of the three-part telecom service provider and industry interaction being conducted by the magazine and CyberMedia Group. The online panel discussion was moderated by CyberMedia Group CMD Pradeep Gupta.

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