How governments and mobile operators are easing network congestion during the COVID-19 crisis

covid-19 2020

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Mats Granryd, Director-General, GSMA


  • Global Internet traffic has increased by about 30% in the past month.
  • Mobile operators have been working closely with governments to help manage unprecedented traffic needs.

In the wake of the social restrictions in place to help manage the threat of COVID-19, mobile broadband, fixed wireless connections and mobile apps have become the main tools for billions to stay in contact with everyone from medical professionals to work colleagues, educators and loved ones. Changing user demands due to this extraordinary situation have led to surges across mobile voice, text and data services in both download and upload streams.

In the past month, global Internet traffic has increased by about 30%, according to Akamai, a tech company that monitors web defenses for companies. That means that we have seen an entire year’s worth of growth in Internet traffic in just a few weeks. That growth was accomplished all without live sports streaming, which set new records prior to COVID-19.

During this unprecedented situation, mobile operators have been working closely with governments to support the management of the crisis through the provision of mobile services to the public and government. Spectrum resources, or frequencies, can be made available by governments during times of crisis. These resources can help optimize mobile network infrastructure to better serve the needs of communities and public services.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

A new strain of Coronavirus, COVID 19, is spreading around the world, causing deaths and major disruption to the global economy.

Responding to this crisis requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

The Forum has created the COVID Action Platform, a global platform to convene the business community for collective action, protect people’s livelihoods and facilitate business continuity, and mobilize support for the COVID-19 response. The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Some mechanisms being implemented include:

  • Providing short-term/emergency spectrum licences to mobile network operators (MNOs) to access any portions of unallocated spectrum, renewable depending on national requirements
  • Expediting the issue of short-term/trial licences to MNOs where new technologies may enable operators to assist on delivering or augmenting connectivity and deploying services on an ad-hoc basis
  • Facilitating and expediting access to backhaul spectrum, which is used to connect base stations to the rest of the mobile network and the internet
  • Extending deadlines for any ongoing transitions or renewals for licensees providing high-speed broadband and other critical services
  • Removing red tape and restrictions on ways to immediately access more spectrum, including spectrum sharing

We have already seen some impressive examples of governments and mobile operators working together to help manage this unrivalled and rapidly changing situation, including:

  • United States. The United States Federal Communications Commission has granted short-term access to available mobile spectrum in important spectrum bands to provide additional mobile broadband capacity. These bands include both “coverage” bands (600 MHz) and “capacity” bands (1.7 -2.2 GHz). (Spectrum bands have different characteristics, making them suitable for different purposes. In general, frequencies below 1 GHz can travel greater distances and therefore they have better coverage. Higher-frequency transmissions carry more data, so they have greater capacity, without offering better coverage. Both types are needed to offer advanced mobile services to connect everyone and everything.)
  • Ireland. The Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg) in Ireland is temporarily releasing extra radio spectrum in the 700 MHz and 2.6 GHz bands to provide additional capacity for mobile phone and broadband provision and liberalizing the use of 2.1 GHz so that it can be used for 4G and other technologies, rather than just for 3G.
  • Jordan. Jordan is releasing available spectrum to MNOs in coverage and capacity bands.
  • Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is releasing available spectrum to MNOs in coverage and capacity bands on a short-term basis (700MHz band).
  • Tunisia. Tunisia is making all International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) spectrum tech-neutral on a short-term basis. [This means that, rather than being earmarked for a specific technology (e.g. 3G or 4G), MNOs have the flexibility to use the spectrum for the technology that has the biggest impact.]
  • Panama. In Panama, the Regulator (​Autoridad Nacional de los Servicios Públicos) will grant temporary spectrum licenses to MNOs for additional capacity upon request.
  • Brazil. An agreement between MNOs and regulator Anatel in Brazil confirms that the agency will take any regulatory action necessary, including with spectrum, to make sure all services remain intact.
  • South Africa. The regulator ICASA in South Africa is working with MNOs on “spectrum relief” (i.e. access to more spectrum) to increase capacity in the face of huge demand for data

“Changing user demands due to this extraordinary situation have led to surges across mobile voice, text and data services in both download and upload streams.”

—Mats Granryd

Currently, mobile operators are sustaining the sudden and significant increase in traffic demand. The Global System Mobile Association (GSMA) advocates for timely, affordable and fair access to a sufficient amount of spectrum for the mobile industry to continue to connect more people and meet rapidly rising data demand. In this unprecedented time, we call for governments to work with the mobile industry to find ways to support the enormous efforts to keep everyone and everything connected in this increasing time of need.

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