Hard lessons learned from the pandemic

With a surge in demand for online services, telecommunications companies are faced with huge challenges and opportunities brought about by the ongoing crisis.

Angelo Sandig is a field engineer for PLDT’s North Luzon Fixed Access and Transport Operations. His job is to maintain and install fiber line connections in his area — in good weather and bad. Aside from the usual hazards of the job, he now has to deal with the risks of COVID-19 infection.

He wears protective gear, keeps himself and his equipment clean and maintains proper distance from people he meets in the field. Sticking to this strict protocol is taxing, Sandig says. But he adds that he and his team need to do this. They know many people now rely heavily on the internet services that PLDT’s fixed line network provides.

Sandig’s new pandemic routine provides a ground-level view of how COVID-19 has impacted the telecommunications industry in general, and PLDT and Smart in particular. It points to both the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

The big, immediate test has been how to meet the increased demand for internet services with, in a manner of speaking, one hand tied behind our back.

With quarantine restrictions in place, the internet traffic on our fixed and mobile networks surged 25 percent as people have been forced to stay at home — and to work, study, buy food and other essentials online, do web consultations with their doctors, watch online movies and keep connected with family and friends here and abroad.

The good news was that the nearly P260 billion of investments in our fixed and mobile networks over the past five years had providentially prepared us for the pandemic. Despite the spike in data traffic, PLDT could still afford to provide a free speed boost for its Fibr customers and Smart could increase the data allocations for its mobile phone subscribers.

That experience highlights the opportunities that the pandemic has brought to the fore. COVID has become the midwife of digital innovation.

The bad news was that our ability to maintain and expand our network services was suddenly constricted. For safety reasons, we had to control the dispatch of our field service teams as we learned how to deal with the risks of COVID infection. Though the government authorized telecoms personnel to move around, our field crews still faced roadblocks because many communities would not let them enter their areas.

Over the past three months, we have fine tuned our operations and, as a result, our field operations are back to pre-COVID levels. We have also learned new skills — like how to combine physical installations with virtual network expansion tools. In April 2020, for example, Smart converted about 3,800 2G base stations in its mobile network into 4G/LTE base stations, thus boosting its internet capacity. This conversion was done in just a few weeks through software changes done remotely over the air. 

That experience highlights the opportunities that the pandemic has brought to the fore. COVID has become the midwife of digital innovation. 

PLDT and Smart are gradually shifting gears — not only helping people cope with the pandemic, but also enabling them to redesign the way they work and live using digital tools and solutions — with or without COVID-19.

Here’s another example: PLDT chief financial officer Anabelle Chua had little sleep during the two busy weeks that she and her team spent preparing for PLDT’s bond offering in the international financial market on June 17. But it was worth all the effort. The company raised $600 million through its 10-year and 30-year bonds — and set records along the way. The notes were priced at very attractive rates and the offering was oversubscribed 17 times. The 30-year bonds were the longest ever for a Philippine bond offer. And the entire deal was done online — through a virtual investment roadshow.

“Before, doing the roadshow was very taxing. We had to fly to several cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, London, and New York, to meet with various fund managers, moving from hotel to hotel, one meeting after another. This time, we did everything right here in Manila, via video conferencing, in one day,” Chua explained.

Three months after quarantine restrictions were first imposed, PLDT and Smart are gradually shifting gears — not only helping people cope with the pandemic, but also enabling them to redesign the way they work and live using digital tools and solutions — with or without COVID-19.

Work from home (WFH), for example, looks like it will become a permanent part of the working scene for many companies. A case in point are BPOs, which are moving towards putting a part of their workforce under WFH because they’ve found this arrangement to be efficient and effective.

Education is going through a massive overhaul as schools grapple with the challenge of reopening classes in a safe way.  The Department of Education (DepEd) and many private schools are adopting a blended learning strategy that includes a hefty dose of online learning. A growing number of schools are making e-learning a permanent part of their suite of services.

E-commerce surged during life under lockdown. The experience demonstrated to companies that, whatever their business, they needed to provide their customers a way to do business with them online.

With people unable to visit their doctors at hospitals, online health consultations have quickly become a safe and effective alternative way to “see” your physician.

Government itself is also going more and more digital. At the start of the pandemic, PLDT and Smart focused on providing extensive communications support to government frontline agencies like the departments of health and local government, the police and armed forces. Moving forward, agencies like the social welfare and development department are now using digital payments solutions like PayMaya to distribute social assistance funds to families in need — a faster, safer and more transparent distribution channel for aid.

We are developing and deploying more and more products and services that enable people to create their ”new normal.” For example, Smart launched Giga Work, the first mobile phone data pack in the Philippines that gives customers access to a wide range of collaboration and productivity apps like Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Cisco WebEx, Microsoft Office 365 and G Suite.

PLDT Enterprise has launched a new service package called BEYOND FIBER that bundles a set of curated digital tools ranging from productivity and collaboration apps to e-payments and e-commerce solutions, all running on enterprise-grade Wi-Fi powered by premium fiber service. This is designed to enable small and mid-size enterprises to fearlessly make the digital shift towards long-term growth.

Like they say, going digital begins at home. So, we are also using more digital tools to serve and interact with our customers more effectively. For example, PLDT and Smart customers can now order Home Wi-Fi and Smart Bro units online and have Grab deliver these products to their doorsteps on the same day. They can also check and settle their bills online. And we are enhancing our MyPLDTSmart mobile app so that customers can check on their accounts and handle more transactions via their mobile phones.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a terrible crisis for the country and, indeed, the world. But, like they say, we should never waste a good crisis.  


Edited by Janvic Mateo

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