Telecoms operators face challenges at the time of COVID-19

By Pauline Van Sande, Maria Aholainen, Willy Mikalef, Dr. Simon Assion, Piotr Dynowski, Feyo Sickinghe, Katarina Ondrovicova, Anthony Rosen

04-2020

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, telecoms operators are faced with significant challenges, including: traffic growth, congestion, network continuity & security issues. On 31 March, the industry association GSMA, which represents the interests of mobile network operators worldwide, called for a relaxation of spectrum licensing and management rules in view of the sudden and significant increase in traffic demand. The European Telecommunications Network Operator’s Association (ETNO) has also issued FAQs on COVID-19, telecoms and network data.

Across the EU, governments and national regulatory authorities are issuing guidance and additional regulations that are updated on a regular basis. A country-by-country overview of some notable national developments is provided below. Further information will be published on the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) In Focus page.

Belgium

The Belgian Institute for Postal services and Telecommunications (BIPT) has published two notices for telecoms operators and has extended the deadline for submitting applications to obtain additional 4G spectrum (see here for an overview).

The main guidelines of the BIPT are that operators should:

  • Review, update and adapt existing "Business Continuity Plans" and evaluate the measures included in them to address the risks arising COVID-19 virus on the organisation;

  • Carry out a thorough risk analysis for major planned upgrades or changes to the networks or services up to 5 April 2020, in particular for the risks that could lead to the unavailability of networks or services; where possible, operators should postpone them;

  • Ensure that the necessary measures have been taken to safeguard continuity of service; in particular:

    o For personnel with critical functions, repair teams as well as for subcontractors ensuring critical tasks.

    o Determine the priority and speed with which the various repairs must be carried out. Alert their employees, in particular those with a critical task for the operation of the network or services, to the hygienic precautions they can apply;

  • Take the necessary measures to cope with a sudden increase in traffic. If these measures have not yet been activated, ensure that they can be put into effect quickly and easily.

For further information on Belgium, please contact Pauline van Sande

Finland

The Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications has provided an information pack concerning COVID-19. The impact and consequences for the transport and communication systems are being closely monitored by the Ministry of Transport and Communications, and measures are planned in accordance with the instructions of the Finnish Institute of Health and Welfare.

With reference to many companies switching to remote working and concerns about the capacity of communications connections, the Ministry states that the main objective is that the transport and communication system would function as normally as possible. In Finland, telecommunications networks have good capacity and resilience. The National Cyber Security Centre is observing the situation and when necessary, it will issue further instructions.

The National Cyber Security Centre has also provided guidance for safe remote work (in Finnish).

For further information on Finland, please contact Maria Aholainen.

France

In parallel of President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement to put France under lockdown effort on 16 March, the French government used its power to request operators to transmit end-users messages to alert them of an imminent threat, pursuant to article L33-1 f bis) of the French post and electronic communications code. French mobile operators complied with their obligation by sending SMS to their subscribers explaining the safety instructions to be strictly followed during the lockdown.

Many workers across the country have been forced to work remotely amidst the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, so the demand being placed on networks has significantly increased. In this regard, French authorities took action to prevent network congestion:

  • On 20 March 2020, the French telecom regulatory authority (ARCEP) published a French translation of the joint statement of the BEREC and the European Commission on how to cope with the increased traffic load due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The French authority did not provide additional recommendation;

  • On 16 March and 21 March, ARCEP published guidance regarding the proper use of internet when working from home aimed at consumers and ECS end-users. The ARCEP’s Chairman, Sebastien Soriano, has also given interviews calling for responsible use of internet, notably insisting on using fixed connection rather than mobile;

  • Anticipating potential network congestion, the French Government asked Disney to postpone the launch of its VOD service “Disney+”, initially scheduled on 24 March;

  • Although French network operators have been able to cope well with this additional traffic load, ARCEP has been constantly monitoring the situation.

On 25 March, the French Government also adopted an order to adapt procedures concerning the rolling out or modification of electronic communications installations to ensure the effective functioning of electronic communications services and networks

For further information on France, please contact Willy Mikalef.

Germany

On 25 March 2020, the German regulator Bundesnetzagentur (BNetzA) published two documents:

  • A “Report on the capacity use of the telecommunications networks”;

  • Guidelines on traffic management measures / other measures in case of network overloads”.

In its Report on capacity use, BNetzA says that it has not learned of any network overload. According to the information provided by the internet providers and their associations, networks are stable and measures are taken to ensure their ongoing functioning. BNetzA also mentions that many issues that users currently experience are not due to network congestion, but due to other issues (for example, insufficient service capacity in companies).

Additionally, BNetzA mentions that the Ministry of Economics has asked (and is still asking) providers of video streaming services to reduce the quality of their video streams, to reduce the usage of the networks. So far, Netflix, Amazon, Google/YouTube and Facebook have complied on a voluntary basis.

In its guidelines, BNetzA states:

  • Telephony and other services requiring “high performance” can be prioritized over other services;

  • If traffic management is used, all services of a certain category (e.g. video streaming) have to be throttled equally. Impeding measures that affect only single content or application providers are not permissible;

  • Access providers are free to take measures that affect their internet access services as a whole, e.g. by limiting the max data rate or suspending a zero-rating offer.

For further information on Germany, please contact Simon Assion.

Poland

The Polish government is currently working on a special legal act regulating a number of matters in relation to COVID-19. On 25 March, the President of the Office for Electronic Communications (UKE) sent a letter to all telco networks providers in Poland requesting them to take all the necessary steps to ensure continuity of data transfer and voice services and prevent network congestion as provided for under Article 3 (3) (b) and (c) of the Regulation 2015/2120 and also informed them of the joint statement of BEREC and the European Commission of 19 March.

The Anti-crisis Shield Act is currently passing in the Polish Parliament; there does not appear to contain anything specific for the telecommunications sector. However, once the Act enters into force civil law and administrative deadlines will be stayed or will not start to run until the emergency status of the epidemic threat is called off in Poland.

For further information on Poland, please contact Piotr Dynowski.

The Netherlands

The Dutch government has launched a COVID-19 website (available in English). ICT/Telecom is seen as a vital sector for the economy. Parents who work in these vital sectors or who are indispensable for vital processes can make use of the emergency childcare. At this time, there is no intention from the national government to proceed to area closures/lockdowns, and if this is the case, local and regional customization will be provided. Should the situation arise, the authorities will identify any bottlenecks in the digital infrastructure and telecommunications sectors.

The Dutch Authority for Consumers and Markets has published guidance with respect to COVID-19 and regulatory oversight including fair business practices. The Radiocommunications Agency (Agentschap Telecom) has launched a special COVID-19 webpage with information about digging activities, service delivery and the 5G multiband auction (in Dutch). An overview of recent developments in the Netherlands is available on Bird & Bird's Birdbuzz website.

For further information on the Netherlands, please contact Feyo Sickinghe.

Slovakia

The new government which was appointed in Slovakia on 21 March 2020, led by Mr Igor Matovič, has confirmed that all measures and restrictions implemented so far shall remain in force until further notice. This also applies to the “emergency situation” and the “state of urgency” in the health sector, which had been declared previously. In addition, the government continues to adopt further measures and restrictions in order to protect life and the health of the population and to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Among these measures is the new amendment of the Electronic Communication Act, which has raised questions and discussions among privacy experts and constitutional lawyers.

Amendment to the Electronic Communication Act

As part of the measures intended to protect the population, the Government proposed and the Parliament passed in fast track a new Act No. 62/2020 Coll. on certain emergency measures in relation to the spread of dangerous contagious human disease COVID-19 and in the judiciary (the “Act”).

This Act is effective as of 27 March 2020, and among other measures applicable in civil law, public procurement and judicial area, amended also the Electronic Communication Act No. 351/2011 Coll. Thus it introduces new obligations for the electronic communication service providers, which are applicable in case of a declared emergency situation or a state of urgency in the health sector, caused by a pandemic or spread of a dangerous contagious disease – both of which have been declared in Slovakia.

What are the new obligations?

The following kinds of data are subject to new obligations:

  • data of the communicating parties, such as the telephone number, business name and registered office of the legal person, or natural person - entrepreneur or personal data of the natural person, which comprise the name, surname, title and permanent address;

  • localisation data, i.e. data processed on a network or through a service that indicates the geographical location of a public service user's device.

The scope of data collection is not new since this kind of data was previously collected, but the new elements relate to the purposes of data processing and recipient of the data.

For further information about Slovakia, contact Katarína Ondrovičová.

UK

On March 24th, Ofcom published an update suspending all ongoing consultations and even said the implementation of the European Electronic Communications Code may be delayed given COVID-19 and that it will take a pragmatic approach to enforcement. They also flag investment in Fibre and 5G as priorities and that they will continue to engage with Government and stakeholders on this.

On April 1st, Ofcom welcomed the efforts of BT/EE, Openreach, Virgin Media, Sky, TalkTalk, O2, Vodafone, Three, Hyperoptic, Gigaclear, and KCOM who have committed to helping their customers deal with issues they might face as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Measures recently agreed with Ofcom and Government, effective immediately:

  • All providers have committed to working with customers who find it difficult to pay their bill as a result of COVID-19 to ensure that they are treated fairly and appropriately supported.

  • All providers will remove all data allowance caps on all current fixed broadband services.

  • All providers have agreed to offer some new, generous mobile and landline packages to ensure people are connected and the most vulnerable continue to be supported. For example, some of these packages include data boosts at low prices and free calls from their landline or mobile.

  • All providers will ensure that vulnerable customers or those self-isolating receive alternative methods of communication wherever possible if priority repairs to fixed broadband and landlines cannot be carried out.

As a result of the unprecedented challenges industry is dealing with, Ofcom has also provided advice about how broadband and mobile companies should comply with some of the rules at this time. This provides advice to providers about compliance with automatic compensation rules, end of contract notifications and the broadband speeds code of practice with an emphasis on consumer protection measures and keeping customers connected. Ofcom has also stated that it will take a pragmatic enforcement approach recognising the significant challenges providers face at this time and the steps they need to take to respond to COVID-19.

For further information, please contact Anthony Rosen.

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Last reviewed: 08 April 2020