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Reimagining telecoms: Four ways businesses can be bolder in 2021

In 2020, telcos rose to the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic as a force for societal good, providing a secure platform for human connection. This was well-received, with 66% of US consumers indicating that mobile phone providers served customers better than adjacent sectors, such as social media platforms (53%). But with revenues unlikely to reach pre-pandemic levels for some years, telcos need to look beyond their traditional role to ready themselves for the "new normal." Here's how.

Expand commercial offerings

With 78% of telcos rethinking digital transformation plans amid the pandemic, now is the time to embrace new frontiers. For the consumer segment, this means all-in-one packages that offer reliable connectivity, collaboration apps and security to support remote working. It also means moving into cloud gaming, home Internet of things (IoT) solutions, e-learning, smart health and even financial services solutions potentially all delivered through a single "Super App" ecosystem.

Turning to the enterprise segment, the immediate opportunity is around accelerating the uptake of cloud and security services to small and midsized enterprises, which through remote sales and delivery can now be rolled-out at much more attractive costs.

Reprioritize telcos' role in sharing data

Nearly 30% of consumers are willing to exchange data for tailored services, underlining the opportunity to monetize customer insights. Telcos' data has been used to support the pandemic response in many countries across Asia-Pacific, but it's been less prevalent in the West. By working more proactively with governments on urgent societal challenges, telcos can help shape protocols for sharing data, engendering trust around data usage and positioning themselves as data custodians.

Establishing new levels of trust in this way would enable telcos to go on to address other government and business challenges from optimizing road traffic, to helping improve emergency services response times and reducing emissions.

Realize the promise of 5G

The telecoms landscape is set to be transformed by the accelerated rollout of 5G in 2021. But obstacles remain: research conducted just prior to the pandemic found that while 69% of organizations planned to invest in 5G, only half were engaging with telcos on 5G-based IoT. The health crisis has shifted the dial, and to maximize the 5G opportunity service providers must be responsive to customers' changing prioritization of use cases.

Some use cases have started to emerge, including the adoption of ultra-HD video in sectors like remote health care, events and entertainment. Going further, 5G applications will help make a meaningful contribution to society: for example, 5G's low latency is already being used to save lives by enabling emergency vehicles to safely optimize road traffic in real-time.

Whatever the investment focus, telcos will need to look very critically at whether to own, share or divest these network-related assets to optimize currently declining return on investment (RoI).

Strengthen government collaboration

The pandemic has deepened telecoms' relationships with governments. Making the most of these shifts will require ongoing focus and engagement.

Recent months have thrown a spotlight on telecom technology as a lifeline for society during crises, and the digital divide has become an increasingly urgent challenge. This has heightened expectations for telcos to roll-out solutions quickly, and to make them accessible to all. In this landscape, the significant cost burden of spectrum auctions has become counterproductive and outdated. The industry should lobby for this investment to be redirected to rolling-out full coverage networks more quickly and at attractive prices in turn preventing further erosion of telcos' RoI.

It's time for telcos to reframe their future and create a positive legacy out of one of society's most challenging times through bold action.

Tom Loozen, Global Telecommunications Leader, EY

The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.

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