After way too long a period of hearing how the telcos (okay, Communication Service Providers) are obsolete dinosaurs gasping their remaining respirations, we are gratified to hear societal agreement that telcos are more relevant and important than ever — this contributor has a soft-spot for telcos, once thinking that he would grow up to own one. Here are some of the ways they are helping in the battle against COVID-19 and its consequences.
Bandwidth to the home
With much of the world either working from home or “not working” from home, suddenly bandwidth has emerged as a lifeline, and we’re tugging hard on it. Major carriers in the U.S. report that internet traffic is up as much as 35% and even voice networks are becoming saturated, carrying twice as many calls per day as they usually do on Mother’s Day. Apparently, it’s not the small bandwidth voice consumes compared to video that’s the problem; it’s that the call-control points are overloaded. What’s really remarkable here is that people are actually making phone calls again. Who would have thought?
Then there is the growth of videoconferencing. Just like Google and Xerox before it, Zoom has become a verb. “Let’s Zoom at 7 o’clock” has become the new “let’s meet for drinks after work.” Those who work from home meet their colleagues by two-way videoconference at least as often as they would have met in a physical office, often more so, as they seek to keep team bonds in place. This AvidThink contributor has four family members working in separate rooms and the competition for videoconference bandwidth renders some of the conferences rather choppy. Some friends have already increased access bandwidth from their local provider to enable effective Zooming while working remotely.
For those with children at home, not only are the kids taking their lessons online but when they finish, you can’t send them out to play and romp with other kids. So what do they do? Online games. This is the rage in Japan and my friends tell me it doesn’t come cheap; both the games and the bandwidth rack up the charges. Check out this traffic record from Japanese internet exchange JPIX last week.
Bandwidth to new medical facilities
We have all seen images of hastily constructed hospital expansions in fields, parking lots, warehouses, hotels, ships, and other surprise locations. Both fixed and mobile operators have moved with remarkable speed to provide the reliable connectivity so urgently needed. Because these services usually require new equipment in the field, operators cannot provision them from a control console or even a home computer, so crews must venture out and expose themselves to risk. Once again, our heroes are not the suits but the coveralls (and the scrubs).
In many countries the telcos have been helpful and forthcoming in sharing our location data with government authorities. This not only helps determine which areas are observing the mandates to shelter in place but also helps regions prepare when longer-distance migrations are detected. For example, a contact whose work includes analyzing mobile-phone tracking records recently focused on students celebrating Spring Break in Florida. First, he determined that there was widespread flouting of the social-distancing protocols on the beach, portending a rapid spread of the virus among the students. Then he tracked where the students went when their holidays ended. Frighteningly, they dispersed to every state east of the Mississippi River, and some to the west, becoming risky vectors of disease spread.
Colleagues in Beijing are happy to report that they are mostly back to work in their offices, albeit wearing masks and maintaining social distance. But they cannot leave Beijing because if they return, they are again subject to 14-day quarantine. How do the authorities enforce this? Perhaps a Great Pandemic Wall of China around the city? Of course not. They track residents’ whereabouts via mobile phone. If they detect that a resident left and returned, they pay that person a cordial visit and read them the riot act.
Other companies also “help” with tracking, notably Google and Facebook. The social media giant includes users’ relationships in addition to their whereabouts in what they call colocation maps as part of their Data for Good program. Perhaps oddly, as it enjoys its surge in popularity, Zoom has been exposed for transferring customer data to Facebook, even if you don’t have a Facebook account, says Motherboard.
Just about everything in the news these days makes me uncomfortable, and this data collection practice does too. What information of ours are these companies collecting and what are they doing with it? How are they monetizing it? Who owns it now? GDPR forces companies to ask your permission to collect your data, but then what? GDPR compliance provides little assurance that a company gives you a fair shake in the data-monetization market and is only enforceable for EU citizens. The regulation does result in a lot of data being anonymized, but this only reduces the data’s value not eliminate it. And clicking on “Accept the conditions” offers no granularity regarding the myriad elements of our data.
People in most countries have tacitly accepted the temporary violation of their rights, particularly, as set out in the U.S. Constitution, the “right of the people to peaceably assemble.” Our rights regarding our data are less explicit but no less open to violation. I for one am willing to have my rights violated temporarily, but only temporarily. I do not want this New Abnormal to stay Ab for very long.