The coronavirus has already deeply affected daily life and traditional mobility patterns. New developments are occurring seemingly hourly, with individuals, workers, and businesses confronted with situations few had ever contemplated. Broadband and mobile service providers have moved quickly over the past few days. Service providers are for the most part adopting the ‘Keep America Connected’ pledge, which has a particular focus on Lifeline and underserved subscribers, by not terminating service contracts, eliminating late fees, and opening up public hotspots to all. Mobile operators have moved quickly to remove data caps on metered service plans and to shore up capacity. Impressively, T-Mobile has worked with several 600 MHz spectrum holders to tap into their unused spectrum, on a short-term basis. These are all important, and commendable steps.
Here are some additional thoughts and recommendations on what service providers should consider. The guiding principal should be governed by three priorities: ensuring the ability to communicate, since so much mobility and travel will be restricted; enabling the ability to work from home; and prioritizing public safety.
The broadband pipe is going to be more important than ever, given that it’s going to be the lifeline to the outside world and the enabler for many to be able to work remotely. A few things here. First, every effort should be made to ensure those who are un-served or under-served can get connected. Those who normally go to libraries or other public spaces won’t be able to do so. Some service providers are already taking steps to get Lifeline type services into homes, and ease restrictions on contracts and late payments. This could be an opportunity for T-Mobile to fast-track its promised Home Broadband initiative, even if on a temporary, experimental basis.
Another priority will be managing capacity. Most U.S. broadband networks are in fairly good shape, although there are going to be significant pattern changes. Many more people working from home, and students needing to access online learning coming from their schools and colleges. This will certainly increase traffic (and especially video) demand from home during the day, as opposed to the traditional nighttime ‘streaming peak’ which has governed network capacity management over the past couple of years. Broadband service providers will have to take steps to ensure they deliver sufficient capacity spread much more evenly through the day. This might require throttling ‘luxuries’ such as 4k video. Another possibility might include moves to prioritize work-type usage over entertainment-type usage. Sorry, kiddos, but online classes and Mom’s Zoom conference takes priority over multi-player games.
Another action I’d like to see Broadband providers take is to grant a temporary speed boost to customers who need it. There will be more people and devices contending for a piece of the household pipe over the coming weeks. To the extent SPs can do so, I’d recommend guaranteeing any household who needs it a minimum 50 MB connection, which should suffice for most purposes. This might require reallocating some capacity from high-end plans (where most of the capacity is typically not used).
In many ways, these next many weeks might stress broadband networks more than mobile networks. But maintaining reliable connectivity is going to be key, and we must bear in mind that a significant number of households no longer have a landline phone.
The key priority for mobile is ensuring adequate network capacity. For the most part, it should be there, since a higher percent of overall communications over the next few weeks will come from broadband (and Wi-Fi) than is typically the balance. But, MNOs might have to reallocate some of their network capacity, for example from downtowns/dense public spaces to households and suburban neighborhoods. If mobile network capacity does get stressed, I’d recommend reallocating some resources to shoring up 4G LTE, since 5G is still in the "nice to have" rather than "need to have" category.
Wireless 4G coverage will also be key. Again, there could be households that currently don’t have good wireless coverage, but for whom it might be more of a necessity. One idea here could be shipping out free femtocells, on a temporary basis, to those who need it.
Wireless could also play a role in helping some households with their need for better broadband service. For those lacking adequate broadband or who can’t afford it, MNOs could offer a temporary 25 MB broadband service, where they can. And, as I mentioned above, this could be an opportunity for T-Mobile to fast track, and try out, the planned Home Broadband service it has pledged as part of the Sprint deal. This could be temporary, and on a case-by-case basis.
Another area that has been a bit under-discussed in recent days is the pre-paid world. Many prepaid subscribers are on a month-to-month plan, and have metered data plans and relatively slow connection speeds. A higher percentage of pre-paid subscribers are financially challenged, are older, or fall into other groups that will be especially vulnerable during these challenging times. Prepaid operators and brands might have to step up even more here than those in the postpaid world. We should recognize that 2/3 of prepaid services in the U.S. are just sub-brands of postpaid operators (Metro, Cricket, etc.), so their ‘host’ operators could certainly pull some levers.
Finally, amidst the news of numerous retail store closings, service providers and Apple will have to make some adjustments. Most have already announced free shipping for new devices. But if the closures, and general restrictions on mobility become protracted, they might have to adopt some novel strategies for customers whose phones are broken or need repair. This might entail providing an easier way for a customer to send in a broken phone and to get a replacement. Operators and other key retailers should also consider reallocating resources to staff up call centers, since there will be much less ability to go to stores, Genius Bars, and the like, for help.
These are just some initial thoughts, in what is a hugely fluid situation. We should also all acknowledge the leadership and forethought that has already been shown, and thank all of the employees on the front lines, who are doing their best to keep things ticking, which increasingly entails some sacrifice and degree of personal risk.
Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is managing director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.
Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.