Of the 170 mobile operators in the 48 markets that we cover, 80 offered additional data or speed boosts to its users in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Seventy-seven operators also offered additional value-added services, mostly through free or discounted access to video streaming apps.
Most operators worldwide announced coronavirus-related promos in March after the World Health Organization announced the COVID-19 outbreak was officially a pandemic. The week of March 16 was the busiest as operators responded to announcements of varying degrees of lockdowns by several governments worldwide. The exceptions were operators that announced measures as early as January and February in the earliest-hit markets: mainland China, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand and Italy.
Operators in the U.S. announced coronavirus-related measures as early as March 13. AT&T Inc., Sprint Corp., T-Mobile US Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. all agreed to not terminate any subscriber due to their inability to pay bills while also waiving all late payment fees. The carriers also waived caps on data packages, essentially offering unlimited data for two months on top of generous entertainment value-added services offerings.
Free data, video keep people at home
Most expanded data promotions of operators were done to support several governments' calls for its citizens to stay at home. The majority of promos, therefore, focused on entertainment, such as providing free or discounted access to video streaming, live TV, music streaming, mobile gaming and e-books.
This ultimately caused a sudden spike in data traffic that put considerable strain on mobile networks worldwide. Video streaming providers Netflix Inc. and Alphabet Inc.'s YouTube scaled back all their videos to standard definition in Europe to ease the stress on data networks.
Operators in Pakistan and Peru offered ways for users to share data allocations. Some operators in Africa opted to reduce or waive mobile money transaction fees. For instance, Safaricom PLC in Kenya waived M-Pesa fees to promote non-contact cashless payments and help curb the transmission of the virus.
To further encourage people to stay home, some operators changed their display names on users' devices, such as Claro Perú in Peru to "YoMeQuedoEnCasa," Telkom Indonesia in Indonesia to "DiRumahAja," Turkcell Iletisim Hizmetleri A.S. in Turkey to "EvdeHayatVar," and Vodafone Kabel Deutschland GmbH in Germany to "StayHome." Operators Bharti Airtel Ltd., BSNL, Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd and Vodafone Idea Ltd. also changed voice call ringing tones to coronavirus advisories for all subscribers in India.
Not all operators, however, offered additional data. Some ARPU-rich operators in advanced economies in Asia-Pacific, Europe and the Middle East did not see a need to provide relief packages to their subscribers. On the other hand, some operators in emerging economies considered offering generous promotions simply infeasible, given their low average revenues per user and thin margins.
Voice services fail in several markets
While operators expected uptakes in data traffic, they did not expect the surge in voice calls during the pandemic, causing voice services to fail in New Zealand, Spain and the United Kingdom.
Spanish telcos Grupo Euskatel, Grupo Másmovil, Orange Espagne SAU, Telefónica SA and Vodafone España SAU released a joint statement March 15 saying that while mobile data traffic increased by 25% in the first full week of mandatory remote working in Spain, mobile voice volume surged by 50%.
U.K. carriers EE Limited, Hutchison 3G UK Ltd., O2 and Vodafone Group PLC reported mass voice jitters March 17, followed by nationwide voice outages of New Zealand telcos Chorus Ltd., Spark New Zealand Ltd., Vodafone New Zealand Ltd. and 2degrees Ltd. on March 23. Operators in these three markets urged the public to offload voice volume to fixed landline or voice over IP platforms such as Facetime and Skype.
SMS volume also surged, with Telenor ASA reporting March 17 a 33% increase in SMS traffic in its network. Only 12 operators in our coverage offered unlimited or discounted SMS packages versus 24 operators that waived domestic voice call fees and 18 that waived international voice roaming fees.
Telcos cooperate with governments for research, surveillance
We noted at least 33 operators collaborating with public and private organizations on various studies related to the virus outbreak.
Several Asia-Pacific markets utilized mobile technologies to collect data for research. Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan used app-based smartphone tracking systems while Hong Kong used RFID and Bluetooth bracelets for people under mandatory quarantine.
State-owned operators in mainland China and Vietnam have long used big data to analyze mobile location information of individual users even before the coronavirus crisis. This, together with other surveillance measures, has been helpful in monitoring people's compliance with government restrictions on people's movement to curb transmission of the disease.
Click here to see our report on China's 5G responses to the coronavirus outbreak.
Israel adopted a similar measure March 17 when it passed an emergency law that required Israeli telcos to give the government access to their subscribers' mobile location. France tried to pass a similar law March 19 but failed.
Such invasive measures opened up the debate on individual privacy and state surveillance, particularly in Europe and the U.S. Deutsche Telekom AG in Germany, Telecom Italia SpA, Vodafone Italia SpA and Wind Tre SpA in Italy and Telenor in Norway have been sharing aggregated mobile location data with the government and private organizations to track the spread of the virus. On March 25, major European telcos agreed to share anonymized mobile location data with the European Commission while complying with the region's strict privacy rulebook, the General Data Protection Regulation.
Click here (only for clients) to see our database of mobile operators’ responses to the coronavirus crisis in Excel format.
Wireless Investor is a regular feature from Kagan, a media market research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence's TMT offering, providing exclusive research and commentary.
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