Written by Harry Menear
Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the telecommunications sector was already in a state of unease. 4G hadn’t worked out especially well ‒ with OTT digital players, apps, and streaming companies swooping in to reap the rewards of a technological foundation that the telcos shelled out to build ‒ and 5G was looking like it was going to be an even bigger investment, yet again with no guarantee of how telcos were going to secure their piece of the pie.
At the same time, rising competition from the hyperscale data centre sector, alt-nets, and MVNOs continued to push telcos further and further into a corner where the margins were slim and the potential opportunities were slimmer.
The industry’s response has been one of necessity, of survival. And the COVID-19 crisis has had a profound impact upon the speed and scope of that response.
“In the wake of years of sluggish growth in traditional services, telecommunication operators are trying to reinvent themselves as digital services providers,” wrote an EY report from the first year of the pandemic, which added that telcos’ investment in new breeds of technology “represents immense opportunities to move up the value chain and find new streams of revenues”.
It should come as no great revelation to anyone that the pandemic itself has played a huge part in driving the opportunities behind “the new breed” of telecommunications tech. The rise of remote work, the need for greater automation, and record spikes in e-commerce adoption by new demographics suddenly trapped inside by lockdown orders are just the half of it. Consulting firm McKinsey found in October of 2020 that “the COVID-19 crisis has brought about years of change in the way companies in all sectors and regions do business” ‒ all in a matter of mere months.
Digital transformation, fueled by exponential growth in data consumption and a paramount need for digital communication, could potentially put telecoms back in a very powerful position as the decade wears on.
However, the pandemic increased more than just opportunities to support digital transformation. Worldwide, enterprises embracing digital technology and remote work have had to contend with an increasingly dangerous, chimeric threat: cybercrime.
“If we've learned one thing from the last 2 years, it’s that cybersecurity trends can change in the blink of an eye,” says Bechara Kaddoum, Head of Cybersecurity Services EMEA & APAC for Spanish multinational telecom operator Telefonica. “Just as it has affected all industries worldwide, the COVID-19 crisis has impacted the cybersecurity situation everywhere. The huge rise in demand for digital communications, due to the shift to remote work, was accompanied by a similar rise in threats and sophisticated attacks against organisations that were moving to the cloud as a way to cope with the pandemic.”
Globally, the number of cyberattacks ‒ especially ransomware and phishing ‒ skyrocketed almost in lockstep with the number of COVID-19 cases. The main difference these days is that, as cases have started to fall around the world, the number of cyberattacks have just kept on rising.
As a result of their role as key infrastructure operators, telcos have found themselves one of the prime targets of cybercrime in the past two years, standing in between malicious attackers and their customers’ precious data.
“I believe the telecommunications sector is at the core of fighting cybercriminals and protecting its clients’ data,” says Kaddoum. Telefonica itself has, he explains, been working hard over the past two years to pool industry resources and share critical information that may help prevent future attacks.
“At Telefonica, we've been part of several initiatives, both in Europe and globally, trying to combat cybercrime,” he adds. “We believe sharing intelligence and collaborating between different players in the industry will help in fighting threats and cybercriminals. For that, we've formed the Telco Security Alliance, which aims to share intelligence among Telco participants in different regions around the world.”
Interestingly, this newly expanded threat vector could also be a key part of the telecom industry’s attempt to reinvent itself as a digital services provider. “Having a long history of providing secure and reliable network access both within their own organisation or to businesses, this experience puts Telcos in a strong position to meet organisations' need for security as they look to incorporate more cloud-based solutions and services,” Kaddoum adds. “During the first wave of COVID19, Telcos all over the world had to meet the rising need for connectivity, with most companies shifting to remote work.”
As Kaddoum sees it, the industry did a tremendous job to secure and provide the necessary services to customers, businesses or individuals in short periods of time. He reflects: “Why can’t the Telcos that have protected a huge amount of customer data for decades also provide their expertise to the B2B market?”