Will mobile operators provide the key to rebuilding the travel industry?

In this guest post, Rebecca Walsh looks at the future of the travel industry and the role that CSPs will play in it.

We’re all becoming familiar with some new phrases these days: the new normal, armchair tourism, corona travel corridors, and travel bubbles.  And we all have a lot of questions.

  • What will the new normal be for travelling?
  • When will people go back to travelling?
  • How will it even work?

The fact is the current global pandemic will change the way we travel; but we will travel again. 9/11 happened. The rules changed. We adapted, and we travelled again.  With some countries already easing restrictions, we could expect high-value business travel to start picking up from Q3 2020.

Companies will look to ensure that employees are equipped with high-quality, reliable data access for work, health and safety reasons when they travel.

The new normal will see social distancing continuing for the foreseeable future, immediate access to information being vital, and governments changing travel restrictions regularly.

Travellers will need immediate access to travel advice, government information, contact tracing, and health advice. Waiting to get to the hotel or coffee shop Wi-Fi, or even utilising a local SIM, will no longer be sufficient. In uncertain times, no-one wants to be out of contact even for a few hours.

With the emergence of travel bubbles, corona corridors, and possibly digital health passports, tourist travel could also resume from Q3 2020. Road travel between countries is likely to begin first, with air travel recommencing some time later. Some tourist destinations are already seeking to gain a competitive advantage from being COVID-19 free, where competing destinations are slower to ease travel restrictions or have a higher infection rate.  Fluctuating infection rates and travel restrictions will change where tourists go, which will have a knock-on effect for telecoms operators in those regions.

The airline and the travel industry have some challenges ahead in rebuilding consumer confidence. But where there are challenges, there are always opportunities. Mobile operators have a crucial role in bolstering this confidence by ensuring the highest quality of data access to their subscribers while roaming.

As social distancing continues, many tourists may opt for self-catering style accommodation in rural areas, where they can remove themselves from crowds and where they have more control over hygiene levels. In such rural areas, mobile data roaming might be the only option for data connectivity. As well as needing always-on data to access important information, they will also opt to stay in at night rather than mingling in crowded areas. This will increase demand for streaming services while roaming, such as Netflix and Disney+, which will require high-quality, low latency bandwidth.

Some countries are likely to make contact tracing mandatory – requiring travellers to download and run a contact tracing app.  This means travellers to such countries will need a smartphone with always-on data to gain entry.  Obligatory contact tracing via a mobile app is likely to become ubiquitous over time, as it is both cost-efficient and effective.

Mobile IoT roaming is also likely to see an increase in demand. Recent examples of such a requirement include wearables for construction workers, which help with contract tracing and also have built-in proximity alerts.  These would be ideal for supply chain and other essential workers who travel across countries, such as truck drivers, airline staff, and so on.

But what does this mean for service providers?

  1. Plan for access to data while roaming to become mandatory
    A lot of work has been done in recent years to try and switch on the elusive ‘Silent Roamer’.  While legislation has worked in Europe, the high cost and sometimes poor quality of data access while roaming is still prohibitive in many parts of the world. The untapped revenue potential for operators is huge, but both the operator’s and the silent roamer’s behaviour has been slow to change. Roaming data access is set to become essential, either driven by roamers’ need to stay switched on or by roaming destinations’ need to enforce contact tracing.
  2. Plan for increased demand from roamers
    Operators should consider implementing local breakout (LBO) and keeping the data traffic on the visited network to ensure the best available quality for roamers, perhaps using regional breakout as a stepping stone. Local breakout implementation ensures the increased data speeds and the improved quality of service needed to keep roamers connected. In the case of contact tracing, for instance, there remains the question of who carries the cost of the data access: the roamer, the home operator or the visited operator?  If the roamer is paying, then the operators in the destination countries offering LBO will be at a competitive advantage and could generate new business from incoming tourists.
  3. Plan for 5G acceleration
    Now is not the time to row back on 5G.  Both on the domestic and roaming fronts, smart operators are pushing ahead with 5G and moving towards delivering on its promise of a vastly improved subscriber experience, and borderless mobile connectivity. Operators are rolling out 5G radio on legacy 4G networks, which gives the subscriber faster data access, but does not cover the advanced 5G use cases and does not include LBO. A visited network that combined 5G radio and LBO would have a competitive advantage:  group networks could use LBO to keep their subscribers within the group and visited networks could entice roamers with cheaper rates and better service.
  4. Plan for automation
    As retail outlets close and social distancing puts pressure on customer service and sales teams, operators need to plan to automate many of their subscriber interactions – from selling devices to promoting best value plans. Operators should strive to make their subscriber interactions as touchless as possible. We are living in a time where one-to-one interaction is no longer the ideal. Looking beyond their services, operators can partner with retailers, financial services providers, and others. These providers need access to a secure real-time way of interacting with their end customers, and operators can benefit from another revenue stream.

In conclusion, service providers will see continuing high demand for mobile data when their subscribers are roaming. The provision of reliable data while roaming will be vital to keeping customer confidence high when traveling. There are opportunities here for operators who are ready to seize them. As restrictions are easing and we are emerging from lockdowns, our data access – especially when we are travelling – could become our virtual safety blanket.

Rebecca Walsh is the Marketing and Communications Manager at Tango Telecom.