Almost eight months into the pandemic, we are more or less reconciled with a few aspects of ‘Covid life’. Economies with tighter social distancing are likely to experience more negative shocks in their domestic sector. Demand, as opposed to supply, is becoming a bigger concern, especially for sectors associated with discretionary activities. MSMEs and sub-prime consumers have a bigger exposure to weakened demand.
We need to get people back to work before we can start to discuss the sustained increase in consumption. Post-Covid ‘normal’ will be inflationary while building safer workplaces for people returning to work. Digital play (access, content, services, devices, storage, security and analytics) will be a quintessential part of the post-Covid scenario. Work from anywhere (WFA) is very likely to become more prevalent. Internet access may seem a challenge today. But public pressure will force some level of minimum access to enable WFA.
Virtual collaboration applications like Zoom and Microsoft Teams have witnessed unprecedented growth in demand and valuations since Covid-19. Streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime have seen a big upsurge in demand, not to mention an 82.63% increase in time spent by consumers.
Online and ecommerce retail have accelerated, while sectors such as edtech, digital health and online gaming have seen increase in demand. Investment attractiveness of Jio Platforms, Happiest Minds, etc, is a testimony to the sparkle of Indian digital assets.
So, does this post-Covid landscape suggest that digital companies in India are on the path of displacing their global peers? Before jumping to any conclusion, it may be prudent to understand that voice is linear and data is non-linear. 80% of voice consumption is outdoors and 80% of data consumption is indoors — and may further move indoors with the advent of 5G.
We should also be cognisant that India’s dependence on digital access is heavily skewed towards wireless, due to paucity of fibre-to-the-home (FTTH), and that wireless capacity is a shared resource and experience, with huge dependence on spectrum. It may also be pertinent to note that wireless networks were essentially built prior to Covid-19, and are not necessarily oriented for WFA.
Despite this, our digital infrastructure and services have played a pivotal role in our fight against the pandemic, keeping us productive, entertained, educated, safe, informed and sane. However, sustaining and thriving in the ‘new normal’ will need shifting gears by the digital ecosystem. The shift from measuring capacity and coverage to measuring ‘customer experience’ is fundamental.
Measuring ‘customer experience’ — as opposed to ‘capacity, usage and coverage’ —is the trait of market leaders in every facet of the digital canvas. With overdependence on technology for post-Covid survival for individuals, businesses and nations, not being competitive on ‘customer experience’ may be no longer be an option but a necessity
Collaboration is an important ingredient to improve experience in a non-linear and interoperable world of data, where a single winner no longer can ‘take it all’. Needless to say, we will need capacities and coverage to move indoors to sustain WFA, and wireless growth will need to be supported by FTTH. The need for denser in-building coverage and FTTH will only accentuate with 5G deployment. This means price of access going up substantially.
At current average revenue per user (ARPU) of about $2 a month, a globally competitive customer experience sounds utopian. Customers will have to think about connectivity as a ‘horizontal’ that cuts across businesses’ verticals and ‘use’ cases, around to live lives. We will have to recalibrate our spends for digital connectivity services upwards — that many say have climbed down in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to just above food, clothing and shelter
Government and regulators will need reorientation in their approach to focus on — and celebrate — ‘customer experience,’ in-building in particular, as an output measure. They need to speed up the agenda for intra-city fibre roll-out for the mid and last mile. Policy to actively encourage sharing of scarce national resources like spectrum and unbundling fibre will go a long way. This means conducting groundbreaking cross investments and collaborations in the digital ecosystem.
Finally, investments behind enhancing customer experience must be succoured by bringing down sector-specific taxation such as adjusted gross revenue (AGR), spectrum usage charge (SUC), and goods and services tax, as well as capital cost (essentially spectrum) for an industry where obsolescence is on without pause.
Waves of disruptions are deepening and coming faster than ever before. It’s not too late, but soon it will be, to start acting now. ‘Customer experience’ may well be the next competitive battleground to determine who are the winners and who the also-rans.
(The writer is a technology, media, telecom (TMT) adviser. Views expressed are personal.)