May 19th, 2020
TSTT POISED TO LEAD IN POST-COVID RECOVERY
Port-of-Spain, Trinidad – May 18, 2020
As Trinidad and Tobago transitions out of its lockdown from the COVID-19 pandemic on a phased basis, it is clear that that the old rules by which we lived and worked are going to change, probably for good.
TSTT’s Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Ronald Walcott, noted during a recent Canto Conversations episode titled “A CEO’s perspective during COVID- 19”, our work lives are going to be defined more and more by physical distancing and remote working, using technology. Social distancing is here to stay, even if it is applied less aggressively than at the height of the lockdown. According to TSTT’s CEO, tech companies need to accelerate technological transformation to help societies to deal with the new demands of the age.
“Digital transformation in and of itself allows for physical distancing; it allows for ease of processes; it allows for remote work”, Dr. Walcott said. “What COVID has done is make this process imperative for us to move forward”.
CANTO Secretary General, Teresa Wankin, agrees. “I see a lot of change because of COVID”, Ms. Wankin says. “Every single business, no matter how large, no matter how small, will have a digitalization agenda, post COVID”.
“For years we have had companies promoting work from home”, Ms. Wankin says. “What COVID did was to accelerate the work from home agenda and highlight that you can work from home and meet all your deliverables using technology.”
TSTT had embarked on a programme of wider coverage, faster data speeds and improved public access. Then came the pandemic, and extra, extended pressure on home networks and mobile data, caused by working from home. The pandemic may have been unpredictable, but the Company was prepared.
“If you look at what has been happening, we’re seeing one consistent theme, which is that the amount of data consumption has grown exponentially, throughout networks around the world” notes Dr. Walcott. He said that tech that’s been known in technology circles for some time – such as Zoom and WebEx – have become commonplace through wide use from people working at home.
For Dr. Walcott, the new, post-COVID-19 normal poses bigger questions… how can TSTT help to restart, rebuild and diversify T&T?
The Caribbean and the digital divide that exists
Dr. Walcott pointed out that these digital transformation conversations have been going on long before COVID-19 transformed the world in the first quarter of 2020. TSTT unveiled its transformation plan – to move from a legacy telecoms company to an agile broadband provider – in 2016.
However, for the Caribbean, a significant digital divide remains. Throughout the region, home and remote schooling efforts have been stymied by the realization that many students possess neither the internet connection, nor the devices on which to receive it. In many cases, long lines at banks and other essential services companies have made social distancing hard to practice.
CANTO believes that governments will be forced to change the regulations to give incentives to digital companies to innovate.
“This COVID-19 crisis has made all governments see the importance of having a digitalized economy”, Teresa Wankin says. There is a lot of scope, because “regionally, there is no cohesive plan for advancing these things”. She singled out the Trinidad and Tobago regulator as being instrumental in giving both mobile network operators more spectrum to ensure that the networks stay up and running for all citizens to be connected.
“All stakeholders would have to work together – industry, tech, governments, as well as regulators” she notes. Jamaica has seen a sharp spike in COVID-19 cases, with a single call centre accounting for a significant percentage of all cases. “Certainly, that kind of business (business process outsourcing, or BPO) has to change, and that brings with it opportunities for even smaller and medium-sized businesses. So instead of having a call center with 300 people in one location, you may have smaller clusters. You might develop software that requires you to sit in your home and participate in call center activities”.
The importance of building and investing in infrastructure
TSTT has 90% of T&T covered by broadband internet and had invested significantly in developing and rolling out new infrastructure. In mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and lockdown, technology has been the bedrock.
It is hard to imagine a world without connectivity during the pandemic, or not having a phone or communication coverage to communicate remotely with loved ones we are unable to visit. The government, through the Ministry of Health, has leveraged its public health emergency powers to communicate directly with citizens by text messaging and social media. That has ranged from public health advisories on how to avoid contracting the Coronavirus, to alerts about the daily Ministry of Health press conferences. “So, connectivity is the cornerstone of (managing) any pandemic going forward’, reasons Ms. Wankin, “it has shown us that telecommunications are an essential service.”
After the pandemic is over, what will TSTT focus on?
After the pandemic is over, TSTT will focus on accelerating its already rapid pace of connectivity. That has been the company’ strategy for years, but according to Dr. Walcott, COVID-19 has created a new imperative. A new urgency.
“That is something that we would aggressively press on, because there isn’t a better opportunity (than now)”.
TSTT’s approach has four pillars, according to the CEO:
- The first is Investment – how to fund planned transformation on the epic scale that it envisages
- Secondly, ecosystems – the digital product and playgrounds themselves, and how the public interacts with and within them – literally, how we live with them. They include digital wallets, a product that facilitates virtual payments between parties; e-government, which allows citizens to access services of the state – passport renewals, marriage and driver’s licenses; and digital banking
- Thirdly, the policies and regulations that need to change for accelerated digital transformation
- Last, the question of how it is going to impact TSTT’s stakeholders.
Ms. Wankin and CANTO share a similar vision. She sees as inevitable the ecosystems that TSTT is planning to develop. “I think the fintech industry might see phenomenal growth”, Ms. Wankin says, “Simply because people would now be reluctant to touch (banknotes) so much again. Mobile wallets and digitalized payment systems… those things will develop at a faster rate.”
“The economic fallout from essentially shutting the world down will be significant”, Dr. Walcott said. “We are keen to explore how telecommunications can help to restart economies and facilitate diversification.”