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What's next for CSPs?

If consumers and businesses took communications for granted before the COVID-19 pandemic, they've since changed their attitudes dramatically. As a result of the vital connectivity that communications service providers (CSPs) deliver, they've kept the world communicating, working and entertained. And they have been rewarded for their efforts. Ninety-two percent of consumers say that their CSPs have met or exceeded their expectations during the pandemic, according to a study Accenture releasedin June.

Incredibly shrinking worlds

As lockdowns were imposed around the world, one place above all has become the center of many people's worlds: home. The merging of home and work has changed behavior, in many cases possibly for good. Even before the pandemic hit, 99% of people said they would like to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their careers in a 2019 survey of remote workers by social media firm Buffer that's cited by the World Economic Forum.

That reconfiguration of where work happens creates some real opportunities for CSPs. As their customers depend more and more on reliable connectivity, many say they would pay for services that would help them to work from home more effectively. Second, dedicated lines and VPNs are obvious offerings to make available. But more advanced solutions should also be on the table. Those might include, for example, hardware and software packages to boost productivity, heighten security and help remote workers connect securely to corporate networks.

Work hard, play smart

Of course, home has also become the center of people's lives in other ways. As they spend more time there, many are exploring how to make their home environment smarter, more convenient and more comfortable. More than two-thirds of consumers say they are thinking about smart home services and are willing to pay for them.

While initial experiences with smart home technology often failed to live up to the hype, this renewed interest could herald the "second wave" of the smart home. And CSPs are well placed to take advantage. They could sit at the heart of open ecosystems built around the consumer, orchestrating devices and services from multiple vendors. Consumers appear to agree: 43% said that communications providers, rather than others such as Internet giants, are their first-choice provider for smart home services, according to Accenture research.

Corporate reappraisal

The rediscovery of communications providers' relevance is not confined to consumers. As businesses and governments have responded to the pandemic, they too have appreciated the key role that CSPs play. From communicating critical health messages to enabling millions to work from home, connectivity and digital services have been central to business and government actions. Research by Accenture highlights that organizations that had progressed furthest with their digital initiatives pre-pandemic were better positioned than their less advanced peers to handle its impacts. Lessons have been learned, fast.

More than 50% of C-suite executives say that they are accelerating digital initiatives, including the shift to cloud and global spending on digital transformation is expected to rise by more than 10% in 2020 as organizations aim to improve their resilience. That need for greater resilience coincides with surging interest in the potential of next-generation networks, with CSPs right at the heart of those developments.

Next generation on the edge

The rollout of 5G and the edge computing that it can support will fundamentally reshape how many industries operate – and create entirely new business models. Telemedicine and remote education services are both expected to experience double-digit annual growth over the next few years. Throughout the pandemic, these have been areas of focus for CSPs. For instance, 245,000 Ghanaians have benefited from MTN's Free Education Websites. To capitalize, CSPs will have to enter new partnerships and create new ecosystems around which these new industries can take shape and grow.

Rebuilding smart

Just as critical for growth will be the engagement of CSPs with governments as they invest in building new infrastructure to stimulate the economy and meet their citizens' demands for services in a digital world. Accordingly, smart city spending is set to be 20% higher in 2020 than it was in 2019 and major funds have been earmarked for smart infrastructure and digitization, according to IDC.

Many countries and cities have already made a start. In June, for instance, Singapore announced a 30% increase in 2020 ICT spend to accelerate digitalization and help businesses recover from the COVID-19 impact. To cite another example, Copenhagen partnered with Ørsted, Mærsk and DSV, among others, in May to develop a facility to produce green fuels for road, maritime, and air transport in the Danish city.

The aim is to spread the benefits as widely as possible. COVID-19 has highlighted existing inequalities, and governments are anxious to ensure that the investments they make serve the whole of society and close the gap between digital haves and have-nots. For example, many small and medium-sized businesses have been hit hard by the pandemic. They will need help to re-invent themselves digitally, open new channels to customers and move their operations online.

CSPs can take a leading role in all these initiatives – and more. They'll have to do things differently and work with a wider range of public and private sector partners than they are accustomed to. But the experience of the pandemic has emphasized just how vital and central the services that CSPs provide are. If they can build on their revitalized status, they have an unparalleled opportunity to boost their influence and involvement in the post-pandemic world. It's a chance they have to take.

— Andrew Walker, Communications & Media Industry Lead, North America, Accenture

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