It’s going to be near impossible to talk about trends in the telecommunications industry in recent times without mentioning the pandemic. 

In any other year, perhaps it would be the often-ailing call center that would be the main story when talking about changes to the telco industry. Not so in 2021.

We’re going to have to touch upon the impact of COVID-19, albeit on a more positive note than we would be able to 12 months ago.

Telecommunications brands can be proud of the role they’ve played keeping people together and connected in 2020. It’s safe to say things would have been a lot different if it wasn’t for high-speed internet, fast and affordable mobile data and the incredible technology built into our lives.

So, what kind of stage is set for 2021? We’re going to look at some of the key trends for the telco industry specifically over the next few months.

A quick look back at the telecommunications industry in 2020

We live in an increasingly globalized world. Uber trips, cross-country journeys and even long-haul flights can be arranged with just a few clicks of a button. Many of us had perhaps taken for granted that we could see people face to face whenever we wanted. 

But lockdowns and travel restrictions prevented huge numbers of us from meeting up with loved ones and colleagues in 2020 – at least in the physical world.

Virtually, the telecommunications industry played a pivotal role in keeping people connected during difficult times.

Arguably the biggest telecoms story of 2020 was the massive rise in the use of video conferencing platforms and messaging apps when the pandemic first struck. 

Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts and other business and social networking services saw record-breaking downloads as employers introduced wide-scale work-from-home policies and governments enforced social distancing measures and lockdowns. 

People rallied around technology to do family quizzes, socially isolated birthdays and even remote weddings. Some of the brightest spots in a bleak year were enabled by tech.

Between March 14th and March 21st last year, iOS and Google Play recorded 62 million downloads of business apps, according to an App Annie report – the highest number ever recorded in a single week.

It’s a testament to the telco and technology industries that these bright spots exist. Behind the scenes, the sector has been forced to adapt like never before. 

Retail stores closed, contact centers inundated, and websites and other digital channels forced to replicate some of the human touch people would usually get from brands in person. 

This is the scene we entered the year with, and which we transition from as we go deeper into 2021. So, what’s next?

Connecting people: Top telco trends for 2021

Connecting people in conversation is what makes the telecommunications industry what it is today. The brands that have best enabled these conversations through technology have become the leading telcos in the world.

So, it’s unsurprising that the many ways telcos can connect people (and connect with people) will continue to be a driving force throughout 2021.

1. 5G and next-level interactions

Many people have emerged from 2020 more digitally savvy, and with higher expectations from their mobile and broadband networks. 

A recent Capgemini study showed that, since the pandemic, 63% of people feel mobile and broadband connectivity is an essential service that must be both available and affordable to everyone. Yet only 48% believe they currently receive an adequate service.

This means the stage is set for 5G in 2021. The technology should bring lower latency, more reliability, increased availability and greater capacity to networks. In other words, 5G will herald a new era in keeping people better connected.

According to Deloitte, 86% of networking executives believe it will transform their business by 2023. Almost all respondents had either already begun adopting 5G or Wi-Fi 6 (57%) or had plans to begin doing so by January 2021 (37%). 

Gartner estimates worldwide 5G infrastructure spend will “recover” in 2021, despite having already doubled last year to $8.1 billion (21% of all spend). The GSMA also predicts that mobile operators will spend more than $1 trillion globally over the next five years on serving customers and enterprises, with 5G investment making up 80% of this total.

Metaphorically and literally, we don’t expect 5G innovations to slow down any time soon.

2. AI takes off in telco

So, 5G will improve network performance. Great, but what does this mean in practice? At a basic level, people will enjoy better connectivity. But we can also expect far more from emerging technologies such as AI and IoT (the Internet of Things).  

Explaining how 5G enhances AI would require an article all of its own. A simple answer is that high speeds and low latency enables devices, software and platforms to share data, process information and make complex decisions in real-time. It’s not hard to see how this will be transformative. 

For example, if you ask a virtual assistant a question now, it’ll usually take a few seconds to respond because it needs to access information from the cloud. With 5G, these conversational AIs can offer answers in milliseconds, providing on-the-go, real-time customer communications. It’s an interesting prospect, and one that will further build the commercial use case for virtual assistants in the business world.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Conversational AI can revolutionize the telecommunications industry, and many other sectors, shape immersive extended reality and gaming environments, and bring smart homes (and cities) to life through IoT devices and technologies.

3. A renewed focus on customer experiences

Telcos seem to be slipping behind other industries when it comes to digital customer experiences. Capgemini’s research shows only 37% of customers used their providers’ online channels frequently to access help and support pre-COVID. This percentage is forecast to stay roughly the same in the first half of 2021.

These figures don’t stack up well against other industries, where engagement with digital channels has notably increased since the pandemic started (often rising from a higher base too). 

For instance, in banking and financial services, 47% of customers used their bank’s mobile app, and this was set to jump to 55% in the first half of 2021. Similar figures were seen across banking websites (49% usage rising to 57%). 

Customers say they’re finding telco digital channels frustrating for a number of reasons: 

  • A lack of personalized services (50%)
  • It’s easier to go in-store to quickly resolve issues (41%)
  • Buying devices or subscribing to plans is too time-consuming via online channels (32%)

The good news is that telcos recognize they’re playing catch-up and many are prioritizing more intuitive, interactive and humanized digital journeys in a post-COVID world. They’re looking to achieve this primarily through better online and mobile experiences (41%) and optimizing customer experiences with chatbots, virtual assistants and other AI-driven technologies such as digital humans (39%). 

Social distancing isn’t an excuse for inertia in customer experience – customers certainly don’t think so. They want change for the better, and innovative telecommunication brands are delivering it, despite a year that started off in truly difficult circumstances. Just look at what Singtel has done by using Stella as the face of their unmanned, 5G-enabled UNBOXED stores in Singapore.

4. Confronting call centers

Call centers are ripe for change. While it’s long been a staple for the telco industry, call centers have not been able to solve inherent issues with high cost, lower-than-desired productivity and poor scalability. 

But at least they offer a good experience, right? Well, only 17% can identify the friction points that are causing negative customer experiences, AGC Partners found.

There are so many reasons to overhaul the way contact centers work. From their large costs of operation to the stress on the workforce, which sees an annual turnover in excess of 20%, the same research shows.

Conversational AI is becoming sophisticated enough to take some burden off call centers. Creating customer service triage with AI solutions is part of the trend of building a digital workforce, which we’re tipping to grow substantially in 2021.

A digital workforce puts chatbot and virtual assistant automation in charge of the lowest-value interactions. It puts real people at the point of most value. And it enables digital humans to fill the significant gap in between, where people need speed of service but also want to be seen, heard, supported and valued.

You can read more in our free eBook below; or check out our blog, five essentials you’ll need in your digital workforce.

5. More omnichannel strategy – leading to big brand opportunities

Of course, call centers are just one ingredient in the banquet of customer service channels. So 2021 simply has to be the year the industry gets better acquainted with omnichannel customer experiences.

In a sector with huge consumer expectations, and plenty of competition, an omnichannel strategy means your brand offers consistent experiences across all channels, not just multiple channels.

That means from their first interaction to purchase and during periods of customer support, they need to experience the same high levels of service, the same attention to detail and feel the same excitement.

What’s great about refining your omnichannel strategy is it’s also a great opportunity to give your brand strategy a boost. Is your brand best served when a customer sees your ad on TV, excitedly goes to your website and ends up talking to a faceless chatbot? 

We don’t think so; consumers don’t think so; and many brands agree. In fact, 42% said their priority for their chatbot is now to offer a more human experience.

Imagine, customers getting the same engaging human interaction online, in-store and on your app. When that interaction lives and breathes your brand identity and values through conversational AI, we think that will be a major trend to watch for the telco industry in 2021.

What’s next: Forging the future of telecommunications

The telecoms industry was instrumental in keeping people and organizations connected in 2020. This year, they are well positioned to continue doing this and much more. 

Widespread adoption of 5G is likely to deliver next-level communication and drive conversational AI and other emerging technologies to new heights of innovation. 

Meanwhile, telcos must also focus attention on their own connections and interactions with consumers, ensuring customer experiences across digital channels are fit for purpose in a world where more people expect seamless omnichannel experiences.

After all, the leading telcos throughout history have known that great communication exists when people are brought together. The world and the sector is much more complicated, but that value stays the same. Nothing beats the human touch and a personal experience.

Digital humans eBook CT