COVID-19 has impacted a large number of countries and is still impacting sectors. We all remember back in February 2020 when the world's largest mobile phone showcase, the Mobile World Congress (MWC), was cancelled over coronavirus concerns, tech giants announced financial results below market expectations, and businesses found the need to re-evaluate near-term and long-term supply chains, resource deployment, and liquidity in the face of what it looked like “a looming global recession,” according to international law firm Baker McKenzie.

Even though businesses are grappling with current losses, in the long run, the ICT industry might be one of the few still standing and, in many aspects, stronger than before due to the fact that this pandemic has accelerated the shift to digital.

While it brings its own challenges, broad-based digitalization has helped governments around the world to combat Covid-19, as well as created new growth opportunities for private companies. In fact, during the global pandemic, digital technologies have become a critical enabler of connectivity facilitating the continuity of our regular lives and connecting people more than ever before. As cities and countries have been asking the population to stay at home, and taking serious measures such as imposing lockdowns, international travel bans, and total or partial curfews, more people have turned to their computers and smartphones as a lifeline and tools to substitute their in-person activities online.

Some of the habits may continue, at least until a long-term solution to the current challenges, such as a vaccine, is found. Hence, the need to access a reliable digital infrastructure has become increasingly important, and certain aspects of ICTs are critical in a period of isolation, such as increased ICT opportunities from telework, telemedicine, food delivery and logistics, online and contactless payments, remote learning and entertainment. Let’s take a closer look at some of them.

Remote working/learning

With organizations promoting working remotely, an exponential rise in video calls/phone calls occurred. Digital media and Over the Top (OTT) content players are benefiting while Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), cybersecurity, and data security are other trends that will see a surge as most workforces are operating remotely.

The current circumstances may also accelerate the adoption of 5G to meet the demands of bandwidth, performance, and network slicing. There will be more focus on the sufficiency of networks to carry the significantly increased traffic as working from home continues to ramp up.

Many emerging economies suffer from underdeveloped ICT infrastructure. However, coronavirus-related disruptions in some cases stimulated efforts to address this issue. In April, a World Economic Forum report predicted that the pandemic would “catalyze sustained collaboration between the public and private sectors to increase internet access beyond the current crisis”. This prediction has been borne out in many quarters.

Emerging economies that have benefitted from responsive policies to address internet connectivity shortfalls include Tunisia, which saw mobile network operators allocate emergency spectrum in the early stages of the pandemic

Applications and digital platforms

With the pandemic, many ICT-oriented solutions were developed and continue expanding. In Morocco, for example, a wide range of processes from local government bureaucracy to Customs procedures shifted online, while ICT platforms were also used to provide government support to people without a social security number.

In March, meanwhile, the country’s Ministry of Health launched an app for doctors and medical staff to pool expertise. Parallel to this, engineers, entrepreneurs and technicians launched a digital platform called Ingénierie VS COVID19MAROC (Engineering versus Covid-19, Morocco), also designed to share expertise across their respective fields.

In medicine, Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) worked with the Ministry of Public Health in developing a series of new digital platforms. QCRI launched an online self-assessment application – in an effort to reduce pressure on the country’s health system – that educates users on the symptoms of Covid-19, and advises them when to seek medical help.

In particular, food and grocery delivery services generally capitalized on pandemic-related challenges, with demand increasing significantly as consumers sought to adhere to social distancing guidelines and avoid crowded markets and stores.

In South Africa, meanwhile, the University of Cape Town produced a tracking app – called Covi-ID – that has been specifically tailored to local contexts. The software produces a personalised QR code that enables users to be tracked and traced in case of infection. This code can also be printed out by those without a smartphone or internet coverage.

Banking and fintech

With purchases and transactions increasingly moving away from cash and towards digital channels during the coronavirus period, both central banks and private institutions around the world have continued to explore the potential of mobile banking and financial technology (fintech).

For example, in Kenya the central bank waived fees for financial transactions completed via mobile banking, while in Myanmar the government sought, where possible, to distribute one-off payments to vulnerable citizens through local digital platforms such as Wave Money and OnePay.

Back in July 2020, the ITU held a roundtable of ICT economic experts to exchange views on the latest research and analysis on the economic impact of COVID-19 on digital infrastructure and the contribution of the said infrastructure to building social and economic resilience in the context of the pandemic. Below a few of the results that came out:

  • Countries with the largest deployments of accessible ultra-broadband have exhibited less slowdown in latency and download speed;
  • Wi-Fi capacity has been stressed by an 80 per cent increase in PC uploads to cloud computing platforms with additional peaks from video conference calls, requiring additional spectrum to be assigned for unlicensed use;
  • The pandemic has had an almost immediate impact on the financial performance of digital infrastructure companies. The annual negative revenue impact on telecommunication operators could be up to 10 per cent, with some services requiring 18 to 24 months to return to pre-COVID-19 levels.
  • The increase in traffic has resulted in an acceleration of capital expenditure (CAPEX) related to the expansion of capacity (i.e. operations and maintenance CAPEX).

While numerous challenges remain, including poor connectivity and the increased risk of cybercrime, many are tentatively hailing expanded digitalization as one of the few positives to have emerged from the pandemic.

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