The evolution of telecoms during the COVID-19 lockdown

Author, Gordon Moir, Partner, Shepherd and Wedderburn

As the world shuttered businesses and confined people to their homes in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, our private and professional lives moved online – and we are unlikely to see a full return to “normality” anytime soon.

Telecommunications operators (including the new generation of over-the-top (OTT) players, like Zoom), governments and regulators are being forced to adapt quickly in the face of enormously increased demand. And as they do so, telecommunications rules across Europe, largely drafted for more stable times, have had to be adapted to meet the growing reliance on the telecoms sector to keep our economies and societies functioning. While we have not seen fundamental change, we have witnessed the acceleration of existing trends.

We have finally seen expanded subsidy schemes to support the roll-out of full fibre broadband, including the UK Government’s £5 billion pledge. Complex consumer rules on end-of-contract notice and switching have been scaled back temporarily to allow operators to focus their scarce call centre resource on major issues of availability and faults. And the impact of fake news has been palpable as pressure grows for platforms to do more to combat deliberate disinformation surrounding COVID-19 and 5G. It is unlikely we will see fundamentally new rules but those that were already being considered in this space will be driven forward and likely found wanting.   

We will definitely see an ongoing focus on the protection of vulnerable customers; contract termination protections for inability to pay (as well as more regulation to deliver “affordable” broadband, as has happened with services in the energy sector); and pressure on rural roll-outs. This can be expected to take the traditional carrot and stick approach of regulatory threat and subsidies/regulatory breaks being offered to the marketplace, and particularly incumbent operators.

What the longer term may bring is far less clear. It remains to be seen which measures are to be retained in a post-COVID world and which are not, though much will still have to do with countries’ relative preparedness in terms of infrastructure and effective regulatory agencies before the crisis, as well as their response during it. Similarly, we will see material divergences in response across different countries.

What will undoubtedly change, however, is the use of telecoms and technology companies for the tracing of cases and monitoring of movement, with significant material efforts currently being devoted to warning systems and contact tracing.  This is where the rules will most diverge by country given the varying levels of sensitivity around personal data, and where careful ongoing monitoring will be required as the situation develops and evolves.    

Shepherd and Wedderburn is involved in monitoring regulatory developments globally in the telecoms space and partner Gordon Moir acts for many of the world’s largest carriers and tech companies in this sector.