Homes into offices. Homes into classrooms. Homes into entertainment centres.
It all happened in March 2020, when the T& Government’s stay-at-home directions came into effect to curb the spread of COVID-19.
But virtual living, essential to flatten the curve and combat COVID-19, are only possible with the bandwidth in place to facilitate it.
Around the world, telecoms operators are experiencing an exponential increase in internet traffic during this crisis.
Trinidad and Tobago is no different.
In an interview with Express Business, TSTT’s chief executive Ronald Walcott said his organisation has observed the following:
• There’s been a moderate increase in mobile data consumption but a significant increase in tethering;
• TSTT’s wireless Internet solution-WTTx usage- has increased significantly with consistent Top-Up sales;
He said month-over-month there is typically a one to two per cent increase in Internet traffic. However, the following increases have been observed in the last two to three weeks:
1. 15-20 per cent increase in traffic to Google
2. 30-40 per cent increase in traffic to Netflix
3. 40-50 per cent increase in traffic to Facebook
With regard to TSTT’s Enterprise clients, Walcott noticed the following:
1. Increased demand for additional mobile phones across all corporate plans;
2. Increased demand for its hosted Cloud Voice/Unified Communication service;
3. As more companies implement and streamline work-from-home policies, TSTT is servicing requests for new connectivity as well as increased bandwidth from existing customers.
“TSTT’s Audio Conference Bridge; a service that allows clients to seamlessly host large meetings, has also seen strong demand. Similarly, our customers have also been taking advantage of our Google Suite offering which provides email and a plethora of office collaboration tools that support effective communication and heightened productivity,” he said.
To access TSTT’s services, bills must be paid.
Walcott explained that it is a complex matter since TSTT’s financial commitments cannot be deferred.
“Additionally, the company has been incurring significant cost increases necessary to facilitate data traffic surges. Concurrently, we are sympathetic to some customer’s ability to make payments. We will continue to monitor this and accommodate where possible,” he said.
For the company’s prepaid customers, Walcott said TSTT offered several bonus features such as double data for bundled services, free international text messages, expansion of local calling bundles to include US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Hong Kong, India & China, a 20 per cent bonus on online Top-Up and a zero rating key websites for news and COVID-19 information which include the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Communications and local media.
Walcott noted that there has been an increase in demand for broadband service from its existing customers.
“Our top priority is managing this increase and ensuring reliability, capacity, coverage and service assurance as more people use the network.
“We have been providing services to new customers, however, the majority of the demand has been generated by existing clients. The focus of these companies is not only to facilitate employees working from home, but customer interaction. We are providing support to put infrastructure in place as they adjust their operations,” he said.
Walcott explained that as with networks around the world, the surge in online activity, including working and studying from home, has increased overall network throughput by an average of 35 per cent to 40 per cent.
“This level of activity is only expected to increase in the coming weeks and, as such, TSTT has implemented a series of network enhancements to ensure quality assurance. These enhancements will be even further improved given the recent decision by the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (TATT) to grant immediate approval to TSTT’s request for additional spectrum,” he said.
He noted that TSTT had requested the additional spectrum from TATT for which they acted swiftly.
“The additional spectrum will be used primarily to drive capacity. Overall there will be a circa 30 per cent increase in the mobile and wireless networks. We requested spectrum in the 1900 Mhz band which would help boost our 3G and 4G LTE networks, and spectrum in the 2500 Mhz band which would boost capacity in our 4G TDD LTE fixed network. The latter would allow for greater throughput capacity for customers at home. This translates to a better, more seamless experience which is particularly important since home has become our new office, school and entertainment hub,” he said.
In addition, he said, the company has been rigorously monitoring and optimising the network to continue providing optimal service to all customers.
“We have implemented a series of network assurance and capacity upgrades to manage the increase in traffic. It is also important to note that we’ve built our network to allow for seamless capacity increase. As part of our business continuity plans, we’ve developed our internet infrastructure, including the subsea capacity expansions to respond optimally in times of crisis.
Further to this, to ensure uninterrupted service, TSTT has increased reserve power in key areas such as Caura, Couva and Balandra, and a dedicated focus on health-care services in general,” he said.
For now, Walcott said, call volumes have remained consistent and, as such, TSTT has maintained its capacity.
“If the need arises, we are prepared to increase resources via our multi-skilled agent capability,” he said.
“The 45 per cent of contact centre staff who function at home are enabled via our teleworker module where we ensure complaints are resolved and customers are re-contacted on a routine basis to establish satisfaction levels regarding their restored entertainment or connectivity services,” he said.
Walcott said prior to the Government’s mandate, the organisation was making decisions to safeguard the health and wellbeing of its employees.
“As such, a TSTT COVID-19 Task Force was established. This Task Force is made up of Subject Matter experts and the entire executive,” he said.
“TSTT activated its Business Continuity Plan. We also implemented our work-from-home and social distancing strategies for all our employees. Notwithstanding this, the company had to ensure that all its services and solutions were available and optimised. As such, all call centre numbers, account managers, online support, etc are fully operational, albeit with essential employees only,” he said.
He said TSTT closed most of its bmobile stores, leaving open the ones it considered as essential.
“We encourage our customers to use the online platform, b-online, to pay bills and manage their accounts from the safety of their homes. Customers can also top-Up their prepaid accounts online through the app—bmobiletop-up or via the website bmobile.etopuponline.com or ding.com.
“As an essential service, there are employees with critical roles that require them to be on site or on the road. We are taking extra precautions to ensure the safety of these employees. Our technicians have received PPE and requisite supplies and cleaning agents to use on the field. We are also practising social distancing and each TSTT office has been outfitted with multiple hand sanitiser dispensers for employee use,” Walcott said.