COVID-19 has irreversibly and indiscriminately impacted all of us and forever changed the world we live in. Social distancing has placed many of us in a position with much greater dependence on technology, and new health techniques have shone a light on the power of 5G, Cloud and artificial intelligence.

ICT technology has played an important role in the fight against the pandemic, and it will definitely be a continuing factor in economic recovery with a new normal that better understands the value of ubiquitous digital connectivity.

In some cases, proactive and cooperative initiatives have enabled governments and operators to aggressively build out telecom infrastructure before and during COVID-19, and by doing so, easily absorb this increase in demand on infrastructure. Elsewhere, complex decision processes have paralysed digital infrastructure investment, leaving countries in a pinch during the pandemic.

Coping with digital demand

According to OpenVault’s Broadband Insights Report for the first quarter of 2020, as a result of social distancing practices, average broadband consumption has increased by 47 per cent to 402.5GB, from 273.5GB during the same time last year. Most of this is attributable to an increase in online video consumption; however, the pandemic has given rise to new consumer behavior that includes increased use of delivery apps, more frequent and immersive video conferencing, and a greater dependence on e-education and work-from-home solutions. While these systems have existed for years, the uptick in usage in the last few months has brought them to the forefront and even post-pandemic, usage levels are expected to remain high.

Globally, several countries have moved forward with very aggressive policies to address critical voice and data communication during the pandemic. Ireland, for instance, has released temporary extra radio spectrum to provide additional capacity, and allowed free upgrades to unlimited bandwidth, eliminated fair usage policies, and applied zero-rating to healthcare and education resource websites. In Italy, all communication operators must strive for the immediate increase in fixed network average bandwidth per customer of at least 30%, and encourage users at home to use fixed network services so as to not congest mobile networks.

Speeding up 5G

In our region, the Cambodian government offered temporary 5G licenses for crucial services. Specifically, 5G enables healthcare professionals to conduct remote treatment of patients and consultation with experts around the world. This type of agile policymaking has a direct impact on Cambodia’s ability to handle a major crisis while also protecting human lives and minimising economic damage.

Thailand, which is striving to become the region’s digital technology leader, has also taken a very aggressive approach on both mobile and fixed broadband development. In order to stimulate the 5G development and alleviate some of the investment required for operators, the Thai government has introduced flexible payment terms that allow 700 MHz and 2600 MHz licenses to be paid over a ten year period.

While long-term planning is well underway, Thailand has also been proactive during the pandemic to accommodate the needs of users dealing with social distancing and financial uncertainty with additional support for users that includes upgrades of FTTH services to 100Mbps and xDSL services to maximum capacity. Driven by its strong digital vision, policies like this have allowed the country to easily accommodate the change in digital dynamics brought on by COVID-19 and these early investments will also better position the economy for faster recovery post-pandemic.

Outlook on ASEAN

From a wider perspective, ASEAN is expected to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, economic entities in Asia. Many countries are vying for the pole position in digital transformation, and while the title is still up for grabs, 5G will help all nations in ASEAN move from predominantly B2C focused mobile broadband business models to B2B.

This will be paramount for digital transformation in many vertical industries including healthcare, hospitality, manufacturing, logistics and more. Proactive policies that accelerate deployment and adoption of digital services are key to moving the economy ahead and ensuring continued reliable operation even in the face of adversity.

Like electricity 100 years ago, ICT is extending to every industry on a large scale and becoming a key enabler of social development. The digital infrastructure of the future needs to be agile enough to accommodate new applications and behaviors while being robust enough to serve as a reliable digital platform for the economy even when unpredictable situations arise.

A strong ICT vision, guided by strategic planning and practical collaboration, can help us in the immediate fight against COVID-19, but more importantly it will open the doorway to our digital future as businesses look to rebuild in the face of a new normal.

Mr. Dennis Xiao is the President of Carrier Business Group, Asia Pacific region of Huawei Technologies. In his current capacity, he is responsible for the overall carrier business and strategic management of the company in the Asia Pacific Region. Mr. Xiao has more than 20 years of experience in the telecommunications industry. Since joining Huawei in 1999, Mr. Xiao has served various managerial positions including the company’s Belarus Country General Manager and President of Southeast Asia Carrier Business Group.