Coronavirus: how are mobile networks helping?
Written by: Charlotte Hathway | Published:

Mobile network operators are playing a vital role in managing the coronavirus crisis, including updating citizens and enabling employees to work remotely.

With the sudden growth in home working, mobile networks have had to adjust to different usage patterns. Scott Petty, Vodafone UK’s CTO, explained that reports that its network will not cope with the increase in voice and data traffic is “categorically untrue”. He said, “We’ve been adding more capacity and changing the way we manage voice and data traffic across our complex network of fibre optic cables, copper wires, base stations, exchanges, masts and antennae.”

On Tuesday, mobile networks – including Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three – sent advice to their customers on behalf of the UK government. The UK trialled a citizen emergency alert system seven years ago, but it was never put into practice.

The message contained details of the new shutdown measures. It read: “GOV.UK CORONAVIRUS ALERT. New rules in force now: you must stay at home. More info and exemptions at gov.uk/coronavirus Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.”

Mobile network operators have also said customers will not be charged for accessing for online NHS coronavirus advice so that everyone can get free access to reliable health information. This is in addition to 111 calls, which are already free to access, and is designed to take some pressure off the 111 voice service.

Yesterday, O2 became the first network to zero-rate websites that provide financial, health, and emotional advice and support. This means customers can access vital services from 22 organisations without using any data allowance. Those 22 organisations include Citizens Advice, Samaritans, Mind, and ChildLine.

Similarly, Vodafone has said it is introducing 30-days free access to unlimited mobile data for half a million ‘pay monthly’ customers. Customers eligible for the upgrade can apply using the company’s reward scheme and pay monthly customers who are flagged as vulnerable in its systems will be proactively upgraded by the company. Vodafone hopes to expand the offer to more customers if network capacity allows.

Telecom engineers have been included on a list of ‘key workers’, which means their children can attend school so they can work without worrying about childcare. This is a sign of the vital role mobile network operators are playing in managing this pandemic.

There are also reports that mobile network operators are discussing the possibility of anonymised phone location data being used to help the UK coronavirus effort, with further reports suggesting the broader mobile phone industry is exploring a global data-sharing system that could track individuals around the world.

As efforts to contain the virus step up, the UK's mobile network operators look set to continue to provide assistance to customers and the government alike.


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