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Six months or two years: ITW 2020 audience disagrees on Covid

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More than half of telecoms executives at this year’s virtual ITW think that the Covid-19 crisis will be over in six months.

Slightly more than half of telecoms executives at this year’s virtual ITW think that the Covid-19 crisis will be over in six months – but 46% think it will go on for a year or much longer.

Those were the figures in yesterday’s poll held for the keynote panel session of the first-ever virtual International Telecoms Week.

The hour-long session was attended by 560 people, noted the moderator, Marc Halbfinger, CEO of PCCW Global. “In all the ITWs I’ve attended I don’t think we’ve had this number,” he said. “And we didn’t have to squeeze into an elevator – but also we didn’t bump into anyone.”

A total of 3,200 people had registered to take part in ITW by the start of yesterday’s session. The conference includes a number of sessions and access to virtual meeting rooms, the electronic equivalent of last year’s booths and hotel rooms.  

The opening session discussed the future of connectivity after Covid-19 – so the question of how long the disease will go on was vital to the topic.

But Covid-19 will change some things for ever, the panellists agreed. “Working more remotely has become a reality, said Najam Ahmad, VP of network engineering at Facebook. “We at Facebook have said everyone should be able to work at home for the rest of the year.”

Keri Gilder, the new CEO at Colt, said: “This is a black swan, but on a global scale. We will see permanent change.”

John Nolan, VP of global connections at AT&T, said things will only get back to normal “when a proven vaccine is there”, but he added: “We will learn to manage it. What we do will be engraved in business.”

Move to the cloud

The pandemic has been accompanied by “major shifts” in traffic, said Gilder. “The bandwidth has moved from the tall shiny building in the network to the ISP. Now we’re seeing a move to the cloud, and that will continue to happen.”

Colt saw a 30% rise in traffic in March, “and 1.8 billion minutes of voice” through its network. “As an industry we were able to deliver a massive upgrade, sometimes within minutes or days.”

Demand will be different, agreed Ahmad. “The spikes we saw were also in the 30%+ range, especially in March and April.” Facebook’s measure of people “active in the last minute” also went up by 30%.

The internet’s original specification of a “best efforts” service is “not true any more”, he added. “We have kept the world running. The internet didn’t shut down. We need to think how to change to be more of an essential service.”

Mario di Mauro, CEO of Sparkle, said that the pandemic “has changed priorities for entire countries”, and he noted that the infection means “Italy has paid an enormous price”. The Italian prime minister is prioritising digital infrastructure, he said.

Sparkle was able to implement a fully remote network operations centre within three days, he said. “We reacted well. We passed from resilience – staying where we are – to accelerating new priorities. We are hiring more than before, and investing more,” said di Mauro.

Will ITW 2021 be virtual? “I hope we are not virtual any more,” said Emmanuel Rochas, CEO of Orange International Carriers. He hoped for a return to a real ITW in 2021. “Of course we need physical meetings, to shake hands. But what we have learned is the need to accelerate on the digital path.”

Infrastructure acceleration

Halbfinger asked whether Covid-19 was accelerating infrastructure projects such as Facebook’s 2Africa cable, due to stretch 37,000km round Africa. “This is a once-in-10-years project,” said Ahmad. Facebook is “looking at the globe holistically, at where connectivity doesn’t exist. If you look at submarine capacity going into the continent, in three to five years that won’t be there. We needed to get something going.”

Gilder added: “What we need to do now is take one step further, to create infrastructure for wherever we are serving underserved communities.”

That means working with governments and others “to get critical infrastructure. This will not be the last time we have this type of event,” she warned.

Di Mauro said: “Our industry, our people, have proved they work for something that’s essential for our society.” But it’s important “to rewrite a kind of agreement”, he said: how we shape the new balance between private life and working life, given that people are working from home. “It’s time to evolve a new way of trust.”

Rochas pointed out: “We have managed to work like this for almost three months.” Many managers in the past had been doubtful about working from home. Now, “the way we look at home working will change drastically”. However, he said, home working from more than three months “is not sustainable”, because people are losing engagement, and “people feel alone”.

Nolan said: “Flexibility is the key. There are some segments of the employee body who can’t wait to get back. You can’t generalise.”

“At Colt 30% said we want to permanently work from home,” said Gilder. “Another 30% said ‘Please take me back’.”  

Facebook’s Ahmad added: “Human beings are resilient. We have seen productivity go up – not down. But you start seeing the pressures as well.”

He cited the case of an employee who has been separated from his family – on opposite sides of the Atlantic – by the three-month lockdown. “Companies will have to find new ways of doing things. It might take the next six months to sort out,” he mused, wondering if it were legal for someone employed by Facebook in the US to work for such an extended period in the UK. “We’ll have to figure that out.”

Di Mauro answered a question from an audience member on infrastructure. Sparkle has just opened a Lost Angeles to Valparaiso cable, he said. “We are building a new photonic European network,” and Sparkle is building a Mediterranean network. “We are wanting to stay here for 20-25 years.”

Enabling remote learning

Two panellists answered questions about the most important thing their companies had done for customers during the pandemic. “We provided the bandwidth in order to enable remote learning,” said Colt’s Gilder. Facebook “started a Covid information channel with verified information”, said Ahmad.

Networks have been recognised as essential services, but Ahmad grumbled about the difficulty getting permits and licences for infrastructure, including getting rights of way and allowing landing stations.

Di Mauro condemned fake news about 5G. “This is something unbelievable. Ten per cent of municipalities [in Italy] are preventing 5G because of fake news.”

And what about the future of travel and conferences, asked Halbfinger. “Travel will come back,” said Nolan. “It will be a slow recovery, but it will return. I don’t think there’s a substitute for in-person, face-to-face connections.

Halbfinger pointed to the effect of the lack of travel on the roaming business. “The impact is massive,” agreed Rochas. “There are almost no revenues from roaming and there is nothing compensating for that. We all expect and hope that travel will start again.”

Nolan repeated that “it will recover slowly”, but he suggested it might not regain its previous market size.

Connectivity matters

What positive has come out of the pandemic for the industry, asked Halbfinger. People have recognised that “connectivity matters”, said Gilder. “As [the pandemic] moved us further apart it brought us closer together” – families, customers and communities.

That might make the telecoms industry an exciting place to work, she added, citing the example of her own 17-year-old son, who was not enthused about the telecoms industry, which could advance “a lot of the co-working” between different companies that was being done before the pandemic. “There is value in collaboration, not just for companies but for the good of the world.”

Nolan said: “In times of challenge, innovation is born. I’m optimistic we’ll deliver, coming out of this.”

But Rochas warned people to be alert to security and resilience, saying the pandemic has illustrated “the value of securing our networks”.

“We’ve proved digitisation is a priority,” said di Mauro. “We should not waste the enormous heritage that this crisis has brought.”

And what about the collaboration between carriers and content companies, Halbfinger asked Ahmad. “No one network can cover the globe,” he said. “You have to have partnerships. We pretty much work with everyone on this call.” The global network “is pretty much one of the largest distributed systems in the world. There is a lot of opportunity for us to build technology that is necessary for the world.”

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