At a time when we are more connected than ever, Account Executive, James Bonner, examines how the telecommunications industry is rising to the challenge of coronavirus and considers what could be done to reposition the sector in the minds of concerned stakeholders.

When we made our collective move to working from home in March, the telecommunications industry shone in a new light for many consumers. As we’ve become accustomed to the ‘new normal’, telecoms engineers have continued their work to ensure networks remain resilient and we remain connected.

Overall, the sector appears to have been remarkably agile in overcoming the challenges of recent months. Despite initial concerns about the ability of networks to cope with changes in demand patterns, there have generally been few problems. Streaming services and social media platforms agreed to cap their speeds to reduce the weight of their traffic on some networks. In an unprecedented display of unity, rival network providers also came together to support Ofcom’s ‘Stay Connected’ campaign.

Yet this has not been a period of plain sailing for the industry. Against a backdrop of concerns about the visual impact of new mobile masts and political disquiet about Huawei’s involvement in Britain’s 5G networks, the midst of a global pandemic has not been the ideal time for widespread anxiety about the health implications of new mobile technology.

Unlike the apprehensiveness about previous network upgrades or the generally localised unease about base stations, this time agitations have boiled over. Mobile UK, the trade association for mobile network operators (MNOs), estimates that 90 masts have been attacked since the beginning of lockdown. Almost a third of these are used by Vodafone, including one that was serving the NHS Nightingale Hospital in Birmingham. There have also been instances of fibre engineers being abused and attacked, despite their work having little to do with 5G.

Coronavirus is by no means the only reason for these incidents. The roll-out of new technology in Holland has long been slowed as a result of safety concerns. Similarly, some councils in the UK have been blocking the installation of new telecoms infrastructure since at least last year. The anxiousness that naturally accompanies the presence of an invisible virus, however, has likely spurred the recent increase in civil disobedience.

The government, Ofcom and health bodies are emphatic that there is no link between 5G and COVID-19. Ofcom’s latest EMF measurements show that radiation from 5G mobile base stations is well within the internationally agreed guidelines. Dr Stephen Powis, the national medical director for NHS England, has gone so far as to dismiss the conspiracy theories perpetuating misinformation about 5G as “dangerous nonsense. Yet these interventions appear to be having little impact.

Of course, there is no excuse for the actions of a minority that feel the need to take matters into their own hands. The damage they have and continue to cause to our critical communications infrastructure must not be tolerated. But could more be done?

Alongside efforts to quash the false narratives about 5G, now is the time for the telecoms industry to reposition itself as a utility of vital importance. Be it through fixed-fibre or cellular networks, telecommunications is playing an increasingly critical role in our lives. It’s the technology that enables us to phone, FaceTime or Zoom our friends, family and colleagues across the globe. More than just allowing us to stream our favourite films in better quality, or play video games with less buffering, new telecoms infrastructure will have wide-ranging implications for how we live and work beyond the current pandemic.

Between 2020 and 2035, 5G is expected to spark a $3 trillion (£2.4 trillion) boost to global GDP. Products, services and industries that we have not yet begun to contemplate will become a reality. Our access to health care will change as appointments with GPs move online for those who want it too. In addition to helping keep our trains running on time, vehicles will be increasingly connected and automated with mobile technology playing a critical role in ensuring they communicate with one another. Our homes will become smarter, education will be available anywhere and the way we use the Internet of Things (IoT) will change in ways we can hardly fathom. The opportunities and positive benefits are truly immeasurable.

In highlighting these aspects, network providers and MNOs could be increasingly successful in demonstrating the importance of works their engineers continue to carry out. The use of engagement strategies that involve stakeholders in the opportunities and possibilities that new network infrastructure can bring could be effective in building local understanding. Overall, the effective use of communications to align telecommunications with other utilities could result in a deeper willingness among the public to tolerate ongoing and future works.