The use of telecommunications networks has increased significantly since quarantine and social isolation were prescribed as key measures to curb the expansion of Covid-19. Different governments and regulators are adopting policies to ensure the provision of communication services to the population to enable teleworking, distance education and online entertainment.
European networks are supporting an increase in traffic on IP networks of nearly 40%, a 50% rise in voice usage and a 25% growth in data exchange. Despite this exceptional circumstance, the European Commission reports that there has been no major disruption or congestion since the outbreak of the wave of contagion. However, governments and regulators have reacted in different ways to try to provide the best service to the population and avoid any possible contingencies.
Network neutrality and traffic management in emergency situations
The European Commission and national regulators are cooperating closely to monitor the volume of Internet traffic in Member States, the Commission explained in a statement issued with BEREC, the European regulator for electronic communications. This statement recalled the ability of network operators to implement exceptional traffic management measures to "prevent imminent network congestion" and mitigate its effects, as stated in Article 3.3 of the Network Neutrality Regulation (EU 2015/2120). This implies that any traffic management measures that might be taken should be reasonable, i.e. transparent, non-discriminatory, proportionate and based on objective technical differences in traffic and should ensure that equivalent categories of traffic are treated equally.
Within the European Union, the clarity and flexibility of the exceptional measures adopted by decree law in Portugal is noteworthy. The text groups services into several categories, identifies an order of priority between them, allows the limitation or blocking of non-linear audiovisual services (video clubs), gaming and P2P downloads, as well as the reservation of mobile network capacity for voice and SMS. Finally, it points out that the measures adopted must be exhaustively recorded for a subsequent audit. In this sesnse, Portugal sets a best practice precedent within the European Union that could be replicated by the other Member States.
Outside of the European scope, the measures adopted by Peru are noteworthy, urging operators to take the necessary traffic management measures to give priority to applications and content for work, health and distance education in accordance with the network neutrality regulations for emergency situations.
As part of these exceptional measures, and following the direct request of Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for the Internal Market, Video on Demand platforms have reduced the quality of transmission of their content in Europe to avoid the collapse of networks.
Beyond these decisions, operators and governments have called for the responsibility of end users in the use of networks to ensure the operation of essential activities such as education or teleworking.
Flexibility in payment for services
In order to ensure the connection of the population, several national authorities asked the operators for flexibility in the payment of services, as is the case in Italy, Romania and Spain.
In Italy, telecoms companies will propose new measures for paying late bills until 30 June 2020 and simplified procedures for recharging SIM cards.
In Romania, ANCOM asked operators to refrain from disconnecting service for non-payment of bills during the state of emergency (30 days from 16 March).
In Spain, Royal Decree-Law 8/2020 of 17 March contains more restrictive measures and obliges operators to maintain the services contracted by customers, without the possibility of suspending or interrupting them, for the duration of the state of emergency. In addition, fixed or mobile number portability is cancelled and operators are prohibited from launching "extraordinary" commercial campaigns to acquire new customers.
The flexibility in the non-payment of services or the total cancellation of fees is generating great controversy, especially in the case of Latin America. Several countries in this region are enacting laws that prohibit, among other things, charging for traffic consumed that exceeds the volume of data contracted, or the suspension of services in the event of non-payment, whichever the case may be, thus opening up an expedient avenue for fraud. In order to ensure the sustainability of operations, it is necessary to review these general prohibitions and establish more selective measures, aimed at protecting the most vulnerable customer segments by adapting their service payment schedule. This will also be important to allow, in the event of non-payment, services to be suspended or migrated to a basic service plan. Otherwise, this situation can generate serious liquidity problems and deal a severe blow to national economies that will hinder early recovery. Additionally, network stability may be threatened by the exponential growth of traffic in the face of the perception of free service, which could generate situations of congestion that affect the quality received.
It is not enough
The above decisions are the consequence of a rapid and concise response to an emergency situation that is unprecedented in history and it means a recognition of the importance of telecommunication networks. However, other temporary measures are needed to help ensure the stability and reliability of the network, enabling operators to manage the available resources more effectively in order to focus on priority needs:
- Ensuring mobility for own and third-party technicians (mobility restrictions for citizens should not apply to technicians who need to repair or install network equipment)
- Suspension of the obligations of attending to customers in person or delivering physical documents; permission must be granted for all procedures with customers to be carried out through digital service channels
- Exemption from compliance with the quality indicators for face-to-face or telephone service and from the time limits for dealing with complaints
- Accelerate bureaucratic procedures or eliminate permit requirements for certain critical network installation work
- Temporary suspension of reporting obligations
- Freezing of filing deadlines and regulatory applications
- Non-compliance with quality of service obligations
- Authorise all communications between operators and regulatory authorities to be carried out by telematic means.