Chris Burke, Sr. Director of Telco Sales at Shape Security (a part of F5)
We live in testing times. For telecoms operators, the COVID-19 pandemic is throwing up challenge after challenge.
These range from a major mismatch between network configuration and the new traffic patterns, to physical attacks on 5G infrastructure and elaborate forms of fraud devised by a new breed of bad actors. At the same time, under-employed customers are querying bills and questioning their tariff plans.
Perhaps the most significant of these challenges is the almost overnight shift in traffic from city centres and corporate campuses to suburbia, where white-collar staff now do almost all their work. Designed to cater for armies of commuters, mobile networks suddenly need to accommodate large numbers of daytime calls in residential districts.
Similarly, in the broadband market, all the traffic that once travelled through fibre-optic networks connecting office blocks in urban areas is now having to squeeze through DSL lines connecting suburban homes.
Those telcos that engineered their networks too close to the bone are being caught out. But most operators have, so far, managed to cope, helped by the throttling of video streaming and video conferencing services. But compromising on quality isn’t a long-term fix. Operators need to become more agile, so they can quickly adapt to further changes in traffic patterns.
They need to be ready, for example, for a permanent shift away from densely populated call centres. Some telcos and Internet companies have already indicated their own customer service staff will be able to work from home for the foreseeable future.
Newly proactive customers demand time and attention
Another symptom of the current crisis is an influx of calls to all kinds of service providers, including telcos. Consumers with time on their hands and/or under financial pressure are querying bills or looking to adjust their tariffs, increasing the workload for housebound customer care staff.
Those telcos who haven’t adequately digitised their customer service operations will be suffering right now. Frustrated customers are unlikely to give their operator a high net promoter score – a factor that could impact bonuses for telco executive teams who are increasingly evaluated on customer satisfaction, as well as hard financial measures.
Although digital channels are often the cheapest and most effective way to interact with customers, telcos shouldn’t see the crisis as a catalyst to mount a complete withdrawal from the high street or the shopping mall. A bricks and mortar retail presence is an important channel through which to sell new services and equipment to consumers. As they become increasingly interested in the Internet of Things, people will also want to touch and feel unfamiliar products, such as connected security cameras and wearable devices.
Indeed, most consumers need reassurance and advice before they will buy into something completely new. Some people know relatively little about science and technology, as the physical attacks on 5G infrastructure are demonstrating. The nonsensical notion that 5G networks are somehow fuelling the pandemic has managed to gain a surprising amount of traction among a frightened public.
In a similar vein, many people don’t realise that the safest place to use a mobile phone is right next to a base station. It may seem counter-intuitive, but this is where the lowest radio frequency emissions occur, and the mobile handset is also able to communicate at low power. Telcos need to double-down on their efforts to explain the science to people susceptible to conspiracy theories and fake news.
New bad actors mount new attacks
Consumers aren’t the only ones with more time on their hands. Telcos, banks, airlines and other service providers are having to contend with new kinds of cyber-attacks perpetrated by a new breed of fraudster.
At F5, we are seeing evidence that under-employed technology experts working in the public sector in some countries are dabbling in digital fraud. When the state doesn't have enough for you to do, you may get bored enough to join the bad actors just out of the intellectual challenge and to burnish your technological credentials.
Across the world, telcos and other service providers are being subjected to multi-faceted cyber-attacks in which bots are used to hack different services in parallel. This can, for example, entail leveraging an individual’s stolen account access credentials simultaneously across multiple websites. Those same credentials could also be used to implement a highly targeted instance of fraud, often featuring apparently legitimate and reassuring two-factor authentication.
Shape Security has been able to successfully counter this kind of attack because our algorithms can detect when a bot is trying to access an account. Rather than relying on traditional forms of authentication, Shape’s solutions can identify the behavioural patterns that are the hallmarks of the automated hacks these fraudsters rely on. Rather than blocking bots immediately, we tend to set “honey traps” to keep the bad actors busy and distract them from further attempts to hack the accounts of real people.
When cash is tight, consolidation looms
With so many challenges to contend with, the weaker and less well run telcos are going to find the COVID-19 crisis tough going. Those operators relying heavily on high margin roaming revenues (and the associated exchange-rate fees) will be taking a particularly big hit. As cash flows weaken, more consolidation among operators is inevitable: regulators are less likely to object to mergers that promise to strengthen businesses in such a weak economic climate.
Still, the more agile telcos will pass through the pandemic better than many other kinds of businesses. With in-person interactions so limited, most people are looking to make even greater use of connectivity. Once people can travel again, even roaming revenues should bounce back – people really value the ubiquity of mobile networks and friction-free access to connectivity.
As the novel nature of this pandemic makes the immediate future uncertain, further shifts in people’s behaviour could be sudden. As this crisis is demonstrating, for telcos, agility is everything.