Chapter 4: Emerging into the new normal

Emerging into the new normal

1. Emerging longer-term consequences of the pandemic

It has often been observed that the pandemic has seen an enormous acceleration in the shift to the digital economy. Levels of WFH previously anticipated to be decades away were achieved in a matter of weeks. The changes may be rapid, but the extent to which they will prove to be permanent is unknown – although many analysts argue that they will remain in the new normal[1]. The future trajectory of WFH, to take just one example, is highly uncertain. Will widespread vaccination be sufficient for organizations and workers to consider central offices and traditional work patterns to be safe again? Will businesses and employees conclude that the advantages of WFH are sufficient to make it a larger feature of work in the future? All of these unanswered questions underscore the degree of uncertainty surrounding this one pandemic-related issue. This uncertainty is multiplied across many different issues and questions about the future.

Given these considerations, it is clear that ICTs have an enormous role to play in helping society adapt to the dislocations of the pandemic – a role, it must be emphasized, that comes in addition to the already central part that digital technologies have assumed in driving innovation, digital disruption and economic growth and development, particularly in emerging economies. This makes it critical for national governments, regional cooperative organizations and NGOs to collaborate with industry stakeholders to ensure that digital technologies are used as effectively as possible. It is critical that these technologies be used in the best possible way to soften the economic burden caused by the pandemic and ease, to the maximum extent possible, the social dislocations associated with it.

More specifically, the digital responses to the pandemic can usefully be classified into the four categories described below (see Figure 9 and Section 4.2 for more details).

Figure 9. Digital responses to COVID-19

Source: ITU-WPC, March 2021

2. Addressing the digital divide

The digital divide was a big social and economic problem pre-COVID, but post-COVID it has become a bigger one. The shift to online working, the delivery of education and other government services online and the new emphasis on e-commerce all mean that the socio-economic penalty of not being connected has risen significantly.

Efforts by governments, operators, aid groups and NGOs are now hampered by the additional pressure on telecommunication services and operators caused by COVID-19. Responding to digital divide problems typically entails emphasizing geographic and population coverage of areas either not serviced or serviced inadequately. While the pandemic creates additional pressures and challenges, it also fosters a sense of urgency during which rapid changes can be made, such as allocating spectrum for emergency use in underserviced areas. 

The challenges in emerging markets are highlighted in an Internet Society report[2] on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Internet performance in three South Asian emerging markets (see Figures 10 | The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Internet performance in Afghanistan, Republic of Nepal and Sri Lanka, detailed p. 28 of the full report, and 11). A number of the case studies presented in section 6 of this report focus on this issue.

Figure 11. Percentage of respondents facing regular Internet performance issues during the pandemic

Source: Internet Society, note 65.

3. Driving digital deepening

The concept of “digital deepening” is driven primarily by economic considerations, the aim being to increase the efficiency, productivity and competitiveness of key economic regions, primarily the urban and suburban areas that typically drive most nations’ economic development.

In relation to mobile services, as noted recently by the GSA, 5G continues to be one of the fastest adopted mobile technologies ever. In December 2020, 135 operators in 58 countries/territories had launched one or more 3GPP-compliant 5G services.[3] In the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic and the economic disruption that it has wrought, more spectrum has been made available for 5G, more 5G networks have been deployed by MNOs, and more compliant devices have been released. This momentum has been mirrored by the growth in 5G subscriptions globally. A short summary of initial 5G deployments in China, Japan and the Republic of Korea is provided in Figure 12.

Less heralded but arguably more important globally are the 806 operators running 4G/LTE networks providing mobile and/or fixed wireless access services in 237 countries/territories worldwide.[4]

It is mainly these 4G/LTE networks that have permitted safe social interaction and online connectivity globally.[5] The deployment and operation of quality high-speed 4G/LTE services ensured that learning and working could take place from home and that the wheels of commerce continued to turn in 2020.

In order to make additional spectrum available for wireless services, a number of countries have fully or partly adopted the United States Federal Communications Commission decision of April 2020 to open up the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use by Wi-Fi 6 technology.[6]  As at January 2021, spectrum allocations for Wi-Fi 6E had been approved in Brazil, Chile, the Republic of Korea, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and the United Kingdom (partly).[7]

Figure 12. Examples of initial 5G deployments: China, Japan and the Republic of Korea

Source: HyoungJIn Choi, GSA, Conference in Indonesia 5G Roadmap and Digital Transformation, 10 December 2020, slide 20

Similarly, there have been significant increases in traffic on fixed, satellite and submarine cable networks. Globally, Internet bandwidth rose in 2020 by 35 per cent, a substantial increase over 2019’s “modest” 26 per cent.[8] Driven largely by the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, this represents the largest one-year increase since 2013. Total international bandwidth now stands at 618 Tbit/s.[9]

In general terms, network traffic loads had to be reconfigured because changing work patterns resulted in a dramatic increase in submarine network demand.  As summarized by a key industry player at Ciena:

What we have seen with COVID-19 is that network operators are running their networks hotter, meaning they are running them closer to full capacity. They always have some spare capacity in case of spikes, this year was obviously an unplanned one, but most networks, terrestrial as well, were able to cope in the first few months of the pandemic with the networks they already had. They just ran them closer to full capacity.  … That is why the Internet in many areas was bending, but never broke. There were no major outages due to too many people using the networks. There were some cases, where providers were asked to scale down their capacity – such as Netflix and YouTube in Europe – to help cope with surging demands.[10]

The key measures taken by operators in response to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a TeleGeography survey, are detailed in Figure 13.

Figure 13. Key measures taken by operators in response to COVID-19

Source: TeleGeography, 2021

4. Effecting digital transformation

Digital ID

Developing a digital economy and society requires more than simply technology, access and digital literacy. Comprehensive digital transformation also requires changes in laws, regulations, the nature of service delivery and a broad range of business and organizational processes. Adaptations are required in all these areas for the benefits of digitization to be realized. In December 2020, The Economist provided this example (discussed in greater detail below):

When millions of migrant workers were required by India’s sudden COVID lockdown to return to their villages from the cities where they worked, many feared  the situation. But Aadhaar, the country’s pioneering biometric ID system, came to the rescue. Under an income scheme for farmers launched in 2014 that would have been impossible without Aadhaar, USD 1.5 billion was transferred digitally and at speed into the bank accounts of 30 million people, with little waste or fraud and almost no distribution cost. Because 1 billion  accounts are linked to people’s Aadhaar identity numbers, India has been able to channel help to where it has been most needed with remarkable efficiency .[11]

Figure 14 (Electronic payment cards/ID cards, p. 33 of the full report) shows how transformative digital ID,[12] a key enabler for a broad range of services, can be. Furthermore, digital ID technologies can be deployed rapidly and cheaply even in emerging economies. In addition to ID and payment services, they can be used for vaccine credentialing.

It is important to emphasize that not only does digital ID provide enhanced access to a range of government services, it can also significantly improve economic participation through access to digital financial services. Figure 15 illustrates the sources of the benefits arising from interactions between different groups in the economy that are enabled by digital IDs. Governments have many roles to play and much work to do in adapting laws, regulations and processes so that they can be executed in the digital domain. As emphasized above, these changes generate significant social and economic benefits.

Figure 15. How individuals use digital ID to interact with institutions and create shared value

Source: Olivia White et al. (see note 79)

Read examples of digital ID experiences in India, Indonesia, Estonia, Morocco, Philippines, Guinea, the European Union, and China p. 34-37 of the full report.

Digital transformation of legacy legal, administrative and health processes

From banking and health care to education, court hearings, administrative processes, and corporate management and governance, the global trend is to move things online.  Figure 17 provides examples of the digital transformation of legacy processes as a result of the pandemic.

Figure 17. Examples of digital transformation of legacy processes as a result of the pandemic

Source:  Various industry sources, 2020

5. Building digital resilience

Building digital resilience encapsulates the idea of building digital systems and processes designed to accommodate higher ongoing levels of uncertainty. As stated earlier, one of the fundamental impacts of COVID-19 has been to raise the overall level of uncertainty. In terms of technology and telecommunication systems, future end-user demand patterns and behaviours can be anticipated with less confidence because they have become inherently less predictable. It is therefore sensible to build excess capacity or “headroom” into digital systems as they are extended and developed.

Specifically, there is a need for redundant equipment and diverse network routes at the core of operator networks, and for data centre infrastructure. There is also a need proactively to monitor network sites and have out-of-band management access to devices so that staff can access them remotely from home. These types of issue and access needs have to be factored in when network infrastructure is deployed.

Network performance during the pandemic year of 2020

Further, as highlighted recently by Opensignal based on their analysis of global traffic data, flexibility will be required of MNOs. According to Opensignal, “As lockdowns ease, operators will look at how to manage capacity more dynamically, for example between downtown areas and residential suburbs, and be more nimble to future changes in the pattern of mobile usage. We will see greater thought on where to build mobile base stations.”[13]

In February 2021, Opensignal undertook an analysis for the ITU of global mobile network experience data during the COVID-19 pandemic for the entire calendar year 2020. The findings are summarized in Figures 18 and 19.

Figure 18. Mobile network experience during the COVID-19 pandemic: Analysing download speed percentage variations

Source:  Opensignal, February 2021
4G download speed percentage variation

Overall, mobile speeds had gradually but consistently increased for all countries by December 2020, following a drop in March 2020. Compared to pre-pandemic levels, most countries had greater increases in broadband speeds by the end of 2020.

The most negative impact on mobile download speeds was experienced during the first lockdowns in March 2020. By May 2020, many countries had stabilized or returned to pre-lockdown levels. From June 2020 onwards, mobile speeds steadily increased. The exception was North America, which experienced no global drop in speeds in March 2020.

By the last quarter of the year, there were stable mobile speed increases across almost all countries. 4G download speeds were highly resilient globally, having successfully bounced back and experiencing overall improvement by the end of 2020.

Time on Wi-Fi

Despite the pandemic continuing, time on Wi-Fi has continued to decrease across nearly all countries, compared to peak times at the beginning of the year. Similar to analyses from earlier in 2020, this occurred as governments started easing restrictions.

For most countries globally, time on Wi-Fi has returned to or dropped below pre-crisis levels, indicating that at the end of 2020 people were spending more time outside their homes than before the pandemic.

Given that Australia has for the most part successfully eliminated the coronavirus in the country, the Australian Government has already taken steps to analyse and assess the impact of the pandemic on Australian infrastructure, including telecommunication and broadband services. On 16 December 2020, Infrastructure Australia released a report (see Figure 20 | Infrastructure beyond COVID-19: A national study of the impact of the pandemic on Australia, detailed p. 43 of the full report) highlighting the lessons learned and how to improve the resilience of telecommunication/ICT infrastructure.

Figure 19. Mobile network experience during the COVID-19 pandemic: Analysing time spent on Wi-Fi

Source:  Opensignal, February 2021

Continue reading on the need for enhanced cybersecurity, the need for ongoing sector reform – including the example of the ASEAN Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and an alternative approach “COVID-19 responses and trade-offs – an economist’s view”, including a case study of the World Bank on The value of data in response to the COVID-19 pandemic (p. 44-50) .


[1] See S. Flannery et al., Mapping the new normal for telecom services & communications infrastructure (Morgan Stanley, 2020).

[2] Internet Society, The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Internet Performance in Afghanistan, Republic of Nepal and Sri Lanka (December 2020).

[3] GSA, Webinar, End of 2020, December 2020.

[4] GSA, Evolution from LTE to 5G, November 2020

[5] ITU, op. cit., note 3.

[6] FCC Opens 6 GHz Band to Wi-Fi and Other Unlicensed Uses, Federal Communications Commission, 23 April 2020.

[7] Catherine Sbeglia, What is the status of global Wi-Fi 6E efforts? RCR Wireless News, 20 January 2021, and Brazil becomes unlicensed spectrum leader in LatAm – why it matters, bnamericas, 5 March 2020.

[8] TeleGeography, The State of the Network 2021, p. 12.

[9] Ibid.

[10] COVID-19 Surge: “The Internet Was Bending, but Never Broke”, interview with Ciena’s Brian Lavallée, SubCable World, 18 January 2021.

[11] Questions of Identity: Covid-19 Spurs National Plans to Give Citizens Digital Identities, The Economist, 8 December 2020.

[12] The principles of digital ID comprise three pillars established globally in 2017. Pillar 1. Inclusion: (i) Ensure individual access for individuals, free from discrimination; (ii) Remove barriers to access and use; Pillar 2. Design: (iii) Establish a trusted – unique, secure and accurate – identity; (iv) Create a response and interoperable platform; (v) Use open standards and prevent vendor and technology lock-in; (vi) Protect privacy and agency through system design; Pillar 3. Governance:  (viii) Protect personal data, maintain cyber security and safeguard people’s rights through a comprehensive legal and regulatory framework; (ix) Establish clear institutional mandates and accountability; and (x) Enforce legal and trust frameworks through independent oversight and adjudication of grievances. For more information, see

[13] Ian Fogg et al., op. cit., note 19.

This interactive report provides you with key insights from our research, to read the full text, click on the download button below.