How TSTT responded to Covid-19

Above: TSTT CEO Dr Ronald Walcott answers questions during his presentation.

BitDepth#1248 for April 29, 2020

“I said to one of my teams, we should not let this opportunity go to waste,” said TSTT’s CEO, Dr Ronald Walcott.

“We have to go forward. I don’t see any other conversation making sense.”

Walcott was speaking at an online presentation on Tuesday. The weekly presentations are hosted by CANTO weekly. Tuesdays topic was “The CEO’s perspective on Covid-19.”

But Walcott isn’t just a business manager, he represents the state’s stake in local telecommunications in what has become a competitive market of three players. The other two, Digicel and Flow/Liberty are branches of international companies.

In the face of stiff commercial competition, TSTT has recast itself as the provider with a compassionate understanding of the TT character and needs.

That shows up in the company’s language too, as Walcott spoke of adjustments to its “dunning” or disconnection policy, something that Walcott noted, “our CFO is always unhappy about.”

The company has put aside a budget of between $20-$25 million for customer support initiatives to play its part in helping the nation to manage its challenges during isolation and economic recovery.

The company has, through its network of fibre connections, its old copper network, a mobile 4G LTE network and a fixed wireless (WTTX) network recently upgraded to 5G, managed to cover 95 per cent of the country.

One of the questions the company is now asking internally is, according to Walcott, “If we were to supply TT with 100 per cent broadband, what would happen?”

Bridging that gap is, the TSTT CEO explained, a challenge of physical infrastructure, but it’s one that needs to be met if the country is ever to cross the last major digital divide imposed by geography.

To create a universal network, the company would, Walcott said, “have to work with the regulator on the edge of the network, which has financial constraints.”

Where the coverage network tends to become spotty in Trinidad and Tobago is in sparsely populated areas of the country with widely scattered customers.

But it is these customers who most need to be connected to the wider Internet and to have their capacities lubricated by a technological advantage.

Bridging that gap is, the TSTT CEO explained, a challenge of physical infrastructure, but it’s one that needs to be met if the country is ever to cross the last major digital divide imposed by geography.

What these weeks of isolation have given TSTT is a window into what a more fully digital Trinidad and Tobago might look like.

The company is seeing new patterns emerging in its customer base across the range of connection services it offers.

Peaks that would normally happen during business hours are now shifting to homes in the afternoon.

Instant messaging and other communication apps have increased by multipliers of between 2X and 5X.

Teens have begun using more SMS text messaging, a service that was previously in decline.

Voice traffic remains flat, as more users make use of voice apps.

Walcott reported a 40 per cent drop in data traffic on mobile devices and a significant increase in use of its new WTTX fixed wireless 5G service, which has surged to deliver two million gigabytes of data per week.

With an increase in interactive use of the Internet, there has also been a significant growth in upload traffic.

The company used the 30MHZ spectrum temporarily allocated by TATT for its WTTX network, increasing deployment to 304 of 308 sites. The company is considering the possibility of deploying broadband to former copper connected customers who are only using voice calls on the service.

The 10 MHZ spectrum allotment has been used to improve speeds on its 4G LTE mobile broadband service in a demand swath ranging in an arc from Siparia and La Brea up to the East-West Corridor and curving through Sangre Grande to Manzanilla.

The company’s caching service, which holds frequently used data on local servers jumped from 20 to 45GB, driven by a surge in the use of search engines and viewing of YouTube videos. And possibly Tik Tok, which surged 43 per cent in popularity within a week of the lockdown.

“We have had to dimension the network differently,” he said.

“You have to look at the network from the user all the way back to the Internet backbone.”

CANTO’s branding for its Covid-19 response

In-house adjustments

TSTT established an in-house Covid-19 taskforce and included the union in its creation of new policies, including work-from-home guidelines, inclusive of policies for staff using their own devices, cybersecurity reviews and new rules of engagement for installation and repair crews.

By the second week of isolation, TSTT has successfully transitioned 82 per cent of its staff to working from home.

That internal transition experience may provide the company with another asset emerging from the Covid-19 lockdown, a playbook to inform companies too small to have significant IT support on how to make work-from-home more of a norm and less of an enforced lifestyle.

“Business leaders are seeing that it can work,” Walcott said.

“How can we accelerate digital transformation,” he has asked his teams, hoping to make this a leveraging point for diversification fuelled by technology.

“There isn’t a better opportunity to do this.”

Covid-19 and 5G

Having spent significant sums to claim first mover rights on the title 5G provider for its fixed wireless access service, it wasn’t surprising to hear the note of exasperation in his description of the spurious link between 5G deployment and the rise of Covid-19 as, “misinformation.”

“I had to author a position paper for the Government and the board,” Walcott said with a frisson of annoyance, noting that TATT, the local regulator had published a notice debunking the claims.

“We operate within all the required regulations.”

Found facts

TSTT’s monitoring of mobile broadband use notes that the top five apps or websites used by mobile users are, respectively, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Netflix and Tik Tok. The next three are, YouTube Go and