Technology & telecommunications keep us sane, safe & human
Months have passed and the pandemic still has no clear end in sight; it continues to trigger an unprecedented demand and adoption of tech and telco tools, including innovative solutions. As we look into the role of how these brands are navigating the situation, we examine how they are helping people and businesses to adapt to the new reality, building equity and business in the process, as well as potential drawbacks that are starting to emerge.
Enabling Social Connectivity & Bridging The Physical Divide
As people around the world are facing restrictions on movements, the importance of being connected through technology and using telecommunications services has grown. We are seeing an increase in internet traffic of 25% to 30%, which points to substantial opportunities for these brands.
Tech and telco have important roles because they can fulfil one of the most basic needs being affected by the pandemic: socialisation. By quickly ramping up product development and removing service/product caps these companies ensure physical distancing does not truly become social disconnection.
The number of downloads on apps like Zoom surpassed 26.9M in March 2020, Houseparty has 10 million+ downloads, while Microsoft increased its Teams capacity by 60 times in seven weeks. In the meantime, Comcast is lifting data caps, while AT&T is waiving fees for late payments, and some service providers are offering unlimited data for certain mobile plans.
These initiatives are surely welcome, but they also become a torture test that have implications on the brand: networks are experiencing heavier loads and slow down in broadband speeds. In Singapore, a day-long service outage occurred in its second largest internet provider: Starhub, leading to widespread user frustration, need for discount rebates and official apology thereafter. There is a very strong emotional component that can not be underestimated, in case service fails.
The emotional aspects associated with the lack of socialisation are so relevant that some brands are choosing to address it directly, by spreading positivity. Virgin Media’s new film focuses on the ingenious ways people are staying connected, highlighting ‘good deeds’ and feel-good moments documented across social media. Apple also released a film on how “Creativity Goes On”, showcasing its role in inspiring people to keep their creativity going even at home.
Communication tools and services are the most visible facet of the tech and telco companies’ response to the pandemic, but they are only the beginning. Their response is truly far-reaching.
The ‘Class of Covid-19’
School closures have made tech and telco particularly valuable in the education sector as learning, exams and classes transition into digital. Technology tools have enabled and placed more emphasis on self-directed learning on students. At the same time, home-based online lessons have also sparked a series of viral memes, dubbing this era of students as ‘The Class of Covid-19’. These teens who have grown up with technology and the internet are also showing their ingenuity of beating the ‘remote teaching’ system. For instance, the kids of Wuhan managed to outwit their homework app by giving it bad ratings, and hence took it off the app store.
While we are seeing how technology-based learning solutions are helping to transform educational systems, it also highlights inequalities and disparities in our communities. Access to digital tools and the internet, including differences in (home) study environments can impact how students benefit and make the most out of the current online learning approach. Adtech start-up, Varsity Tutors, who typically functions as an online marketplace that connects students with screened tutors, are now offering Virtual School Day and launching free live classes to provide more access to homeschooling. While they are helping to fill this gap, it also helps to expose their platform services and its benefits to the masses, which may convert into paid users in the future.
Teachers and parents-turned-homeschoolers are now forced into an online learning regime that employs collaborative tools to keep teaching possible. We saw how professors are crowdsourcing cross-disciplinary resources like the #CoronavirusSyllabus for research papers, articles, books, podcasts, films, and etc. Google also launched a #TeachFromHome resource hub for teachers to prepare teaching materials and stay connected with their students using their suite of tools.
The Race In Implementing Tech for Business
Remaining productive while working from home has become a priority for companies and employees alike. Google searches for “work from home” exploded and now appear to be settling at a much higher level than pre-COVID.
The demand for collaboration and remote working has skyrocketed. Microsoft has seen an increase of over 700% in demand for cloud computing; driven by increased usage of Teams across different sectors, virtual desktop, Office 365. The same has been observed by AWS, Google among others, with free trials often being used as the key message.
This demand is also leading to new product development. Facebook, for example has just released Room, which aims to compete with Zoom and other business chats providers, showing how companies are getting a better understanding of the multiple ways they might increase productivity.
The same movement can be seen at Samsung. #StayApartStayTogether campaign touches upon ways of enabling meaningful connections through their mobile technology and devices – covering topics around work productivity and beyond: online learning, finding entertainment from home, to being in tune with one’s mental health and physical wellness.
In addition to directly addressing business and work needs, many companies are taking direct action to support their ecosystem. Facebook created a $100M grant programme to help small businesses/startups get through this time. Vodafone using its DreamLab app to power up its Covid-19 research project, as part of its ongoing strategy aimed at #KeepingtheUKConnected. T-Mobile, on the other hand, showed a great reason to why they are skipping April Fool’s given the state of the situation by donating $1 for every tweet that #GiveThanksNotPranks; in Italy, some mobile operators are offering unlimited mobile data.
Big thank you to @StephenFry who joined the #DreamTeam and downloaded the Vodafone Foundation DreamLab app to help fight COVID-19 whilst he sleeps 😴
Join him ⬇️https://t.co/FIOvoSg52K#KeepingTheUKConnected https://t.co/eiT97XxZeN
— Vodafone UK (@VodafoneUK) April 27, 2020
Today we’re giving thanks, not pranks! Let’s recognize the people that have given us smiles, comfort, & strength during this tough time. Tell us who you’re thanking & tag @TMobile + #GiveThanksNotPranks.
We will donate $1 to @BGCA_Clubs for every tweet w/ #GiveThanksNotPranks 🙌 pic.twitter.com/u5BXyJHXmk
— T-Mobile (@TMobile) April 1, 2020
The range of initiatives shown by tech and telco brands shows not only the dynamism of the sector. It shows how crucially important they are to our way of life. Hence, it is inevitable for this sector to get directly involved with the fight to stop the virus.
Combating Spread of The Pandemic and Misinformation
Real-time information and news updates is a direct outcome of developments in tech and telco. Hence, the spread of misinformation is a concern to those industries. From fake cures to conspiracy theories, the surge in fake news has left many with a sense of panic – 74% of people have concerns over fake news. This puts a heavier responsibility on social networks to clamp down on fake news and prevent the sharing of misinformation.
Authoritative sources like the World Health Organization are ramping up on its efforts to provide important Covid-19 updates. They have employed various tools like WhatsApp chatbot, data dashboard, and organising a COVID-19 streaming concert to help us navigate through the crisis.
Other technology brands are also rushing in their development of features and product initiatives. Apple has updated Siri to help worried users with Covid-19 information like walking them through the possible symptoms. Alipay launched a blockchain-powered platform that helps the government and social enterprises to collaborate and track relief supplies and medical equipment more transparently.
Telehealth services are also having a moment by providing remote consultation of potential Covid-19 patients, mobile medical assessments, and creating “digital call centres”. In Singapore, digital healthcare provider MyDoc launched a “Cure Your Fear” campaign aimed at positioning the company services as a solution to the fear of infection. In most parts of the world, it is quickly becoming a race to implement virtual health-care technologies and prevent public healthcare services from toppling.
This race to improve treatment and stop the virus, often results in enormous data banks of very sensitive and private information. This raises the concern: is our data being handled safely and transparently?
The Trade-Off Between Digital Contact Tracing & Data Privacy
As part of the pandemic response methods, many countries are implementing contact tracing to contain and reduce the spread of the virus. It is playing a huge role in tracking and monitoring citizens, helping in identifying groups of potentially infected communities.
Government bodies are rapidly harnessing the use of technology to gain access to valuable data about its citizens. From Bluetooth that power contact tracing, wearing electric wristbands, telecom providers enabling cellular signals, and even digital payment data: all of which creates a log of individuals, possible encounters and their movements around the country.
Numerous websites and smartphone apps like https://coronamap.site/ have also emerged to provide real-time data of potential clusters, mapping data to what is being shared and provided.Technology giants are also teaming up to better help public health officials with its data collection. Google and Apple are working to enable bluetooth contact tracing on their mobile device systems, while Facebook and Google could be working with health authorities in making location data collected from their apps available.
Beyond contact tracing, there are apps that verifies health status that warrants access to certain public spaces. In China, movements around the cities are ruled by a smartphone ‘Health Code’ system. People have to scan mandatory QR codes to attain green pases before being allowed to enter subways or malls.
Important medical details and personal information (locations, movements and etc.) are being made readily available to government bodies, as well as other citizens. While data is proving to be incredibly essential in tracking the virus spread, it is important to provide and maintain data privacy. The availability and specificity of these data is raising concerns for how data will be kept and can be used in the future.
The Path Towards the ‘New Normal’
Nobody truly knows how we’ll get out of the COVID-19 crisis, but the response from tech and telco brands has slowly shifted from showing social responsibility to bridging physical divides and building a sense of normality.
The technology being created in the areas of healthcare, learning, productivity has immense potential, and may well be a positive legacy of this pandemic. Beyond the potential to open new markets and create new wealth, the digital distribution of these tools can trickle down to places where logistics are difficult and enhance quality of life in more remote parts of the world. These developments may shape the perception of tech and telecom brands as positive forces.
The pervasive uneasy feelings towards Big Tech may become more moderate, but concerns about how our personal data is used by governments and corporations are likely to remain. We are now giving access to an unprecedented amount of private data in the name of pandemic containment. It definitely requires our attention and that of policy makers, so that data privacy does not become a long-term casualty of Covid-19.
For now, however, it is refreshing to see a few positive impacts of the pandemic, when looking at this sector. Technological advances are not only keeping companies running and people employed, they are helping to keep us sane and safe, but more important than that, they are keeping us human.