Hill’s tough climb

BitDepth#947 for July 29

TSTT’s George Hill (right), and Gerard Cooper, EVP Finance at the presentation to the media on the first year of the company’s strategic plan. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.
TSTT’s George Hill (right), and Gerard Cooper, EVP Finance at the presentation to the media on the first year of the company’s strategic plan. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

I’d met George Hill for the first time in 2012 when he was TSTT’s Chief Technology Officer. He was pleasant, though extremely careful with his words and maybe a little reticent at finding himself pushed to the forefront of the company’s PR campaign for its roll-out of its new 4G mobile broadband product.

Hill, now the acting CEO of the company, hosted a small gathering of journalists last week to present an update on the first year of TSTT’s new five-year strategic plan.

As CEO, George Hill remains a careful man, gently pushing away queries about stakeholder issues and working gently but firmly on keeping himself on message and on core business matters.

It’s the technologist as corporate denizen, and for a company that boasts far too little technology expertise at its governing board level, it’s also a welcome corrective at the top level of the state utility. I’d rather have a technology expert learn more about business than hope for the reverse.

Acting or not, the CEO faces some major challenges.

During the meeting, Hill acknowledged the robust competitiveness of Digicel, the prospect of another player entering the market, the burden of a half-billion dollar debt on last year’s balance sheet, an infrastructure that isn’t nearly as advanced as he would like and disruptive organisational transformation that it must manage effectively to meet those challenges.

In 2013, Hill said, it was clear that “business as usual was not sustainable.”

At the core of the new five-year plan is the acknowledgement that the company “can’t be everything to everybody.”

To that end it’s committed 75 per cent of every dollar it spends to mobile and broadband infrastructure and improvements.

“We won’t be on the bleeding edge,” Hill admitted, “but we will be in fast follow mode. It’s the best fit for the size of this organisation and the market.”

To that end TSTT is working on improving its fibre deployments, seeing the cable distribution technology as the most “futureproof” of all possible technologies.

It’s dubbed this pillar of its infrastructure development project “Fibre to the X,” with X becoming home, office, community or school depending on the specific deployment underway.

To do that, it’s going to have to progressively rip out the “last mile” copper installations that have served most T&T customers for decades.

For customers in remote, population thin areas, TSTT has announced two pilot LTE wireless broadband deployments in Sangre Chiquito in Rancho Quemado and in Golden Lane in Tobago.

Soon after installation, the company found that almost 70 percent of the available capacity had been taken up by customers.

The Telecommunications Authority (TATT) has a fund to encourage infrastructure build-out in underserved areas, and responding to a question on the matter, Hill acknowledged that the company had asked after it.

There may or may not be some profitability along with the pent-up demand in these distant communities, but TSTT is committed to expanding the programme.

That version of 4G LTE in the 2.5GHZ band which needs special receivers, but the company has an application before TATT for 4G LTE spectrum in the 700MHZ band, which works with mobile phones.

In pursuing its buildout of infrastructure, the company is putting access first and working to match infrastructure to need.

“Speed will come,” Hill promised.

Even as it expands and improves its network, the company is trimming staff through voluntary retirement and voluntary separation programmes.

In support of that, TSTT took a $500 million hit on its balance sheet last year and will spend some of a $1.5 billion debt financing bond being managed by ANSA Finance on that transformation.

TSTT targets a reduction of 25 per cent of its 2,750 members of staff, a process that is currently ongoing, with the first VSEP tranche leaving the company at the end of June.

Some staff will need to be retrained for a company that plans to embrace extensive automation of back office functions.

The company will also improve its offices and public spaces.

“If people are comfortable, they can concentrate on the customer,” Hill said, “and with 142 percent mobile penetration, retaining the customer is a critical function.”

Expect small but subtle changes along with the big projects, such as a long overdue single customer bill for all TSTT services as the customer moves to consolidate its operations into two profit platforms, mobile and broadband.

The company will also more aggressively target Tobago as a market.

“We have some catching up to do in Tobago,” Hill said, “It’s not Trinidad then Tobago; the technology allows for simultaneous deployments.”

Along with the fibre to the home project in Golden Lane, TSTT has introduced an extension of its IP based television product, Blink Entertainment to hotels in Tobago, offering HD quality transmission as a competitive edge. Other Tobago projects include the Tobago Fibre Ring, which circles the island with broadband coverage.

It’s here that the company faces its biggest challenge. If TSTT is to succeed, it must layer distinctive services on top of its network that distinguish it as a preferred solution.

By the end of its five-year plan, it will operate in a competitive market in which fast access will be a given.

The company’s fibre to the community projects, through agreements with its users, give it an important window into how customers use really fast broadband and how it might deliver services that make preferred use patterns more seamless.

“We’ll be looking for opportunities to leverage the way that customers use the system,” Hill said, “either through sourcing or partnerships.”

One such partnership with Samsung has introduced two Samsung Smart Schools in Penal Secondary and Presentation College Chaguanas. Eighteen more are planned.