In this interview with CHIMA AKWAJA, the Chief Operating Officer of Infravision, a telecommunications service provider, Arinze Chukwudile opens up on how his organization is dealing with the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic challenges in the telecom industry and what support they need to cope with the current situation.
As a Nigerian business enterprise operating in the ICT industry, how has your organization been able to cope up during this COVID-19 pandemic?
Our organization provides Managed Services to Telecom Operators (that is supporting the telecom operators to manage their network infrastructure). Our staff are widely distributed across many states in Nigeria, providing field operations support that requires moving across several sites to resolve network issues.
In addition, we have some dedicated employees at our headquarters to provide back end support to the field team. In view of the nature of our business, we started making some preparations in advance, like purchase of material stock required for operations, Purchase of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for regional field staff. The back-end staff supporting the field operations team were accommodated in hotels close to their working facilities.
In all, our planned forecast was just for few a weeks, but since the COVID-19 Pandemic is now extending for long time, we still need government support as our stocks will run out soon, which means the telecom network quality will be impacted soon. As at today, we have sent a letter to the Hon Minister of Communication and Digital Economy, duly signed off by 16 managing directors of telecom service providers to make our appeal officially known.
What are key challenges being encountered by your organization while providing services to the Telecoms/ICT Industry in Nigeria during this COVID-19 Pandemic?
The main issue is that telecom operators planned telecom investment is being cut. This is affecting service providers like us due to decrease in the network rollout. This impacts our gross revenue and decline in business opportunities. Despite this decline, the operational costs keep on rising because of an increase in material costs, service purchase costs and other unanticipated costs. Under such circumstances, it is most likely that service providers like us will go in high debt and might go into a state of bankruptcy as well. We are therefore appealing that the appropriate authorities in the government to provide us some kind of relief to sustain our businesses and keep the jobs for our people, then we can continue providing quality of service for the ICT industry.
There has been fears among employees of many organizations in the private sector of possible job loss should the COVID-19 persist. This can dampen the morale of such employees. How does your organization continue to motivate its employees during this period?
Although there has been news circulating around of some organizations firing their staff, our organization has ensured that all our employees so far still keep their jobs and salaries have been paid up till date in time.
Considering that we have our staff widely distributed across different states of the federation, we have tried to stay in touch with our employees through regular emails/video/audio conferences including myself and other management team members to continuously keep them in touch about the situation and enquire of their well-being.
Honestly speaking, the situation is bleak at the moment as we don’t know how long we can sustain this. However, we hope that with the anticipated intervention of the government in the telecoms/IT sector, we can jointly create an enabling environment for the ICT industry investment, which will ultimately protect the employment of our staff.
What are the likely impact on the national economy due to the risks posed by these challenges?
The obvious impact is reduction in staff overhead which will lead to job losses in order for businesses to stay afloat. This would result to slower response times thus causing poor network quality and increase in customer complaints. Other sectors that rely on telecoms/ICT network to provide internet services to them such as banks, insurance companies, hospitals etc will also be affected.
As you can see, this would have an overall negative impact on the Nigerian economy and bad user experience. It is widely believed that the COVID-19 pandemic will plunge the world economy into recession. Many countries including South Africa, South Korea, and the Middle East have made investing in the Telecommunications/ICT sector as a top priority and part of their strategy towards ensuring that they speedily recover from recession. This is because Telecommunications/ICT has the potential of helping the Nigerian economy to speedily recover from the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our plea to the government and private sectors is for them to consider more investments in the Telecommunications/ICT industry. In addition, the telecommunications/ICT sector should be considered by the government as a part of critical national infrastructure investment in order to ensure speedy economic recovery/growth.
Since the institution of the lockdown, there have been reports of increased crime rates in many parts of Lagos, Ogun and Abuja. What measures is your organization taking to protect your field staff?
A: This is a big challenge we are facing as an organization operating during this period because we have many field operations staff who are at risk while going to site to resolve network issues. We had to make special budget for security of our staff this period which has greatly increased our operational cost. Although we have good collaboration with law enforcement agencies and the local community, we still encounter this problem.
For example, recently one of our engineers was attacked by hoodlums one his way to site. Fortunately, he did not sustain serious injuries. However, his phone and wallet containing money and ATM cards were stolen. The underlying reason for this is because, many people who earn a daily living cannot go out as a result of the pandemic. Many people are hungry. We are asking the federal and state governments to put in place adequate security measures to protect lives and property during this pandemic period.
How do you think the Nigerian government can be of help in resolving these challenges?
The government can help by making available loan/intervention packages to support struggling businesses or other supportive policy as the incentive for investment. This will motivate the telecom operators to carry out new investments which would in turn provide new revenue stream opportunities for other providers like our organization in this sector. Like I said earlier, we have already written to the Hon Minister of Communication and Digital Economy to make our appeal officially known.
What are the challenges encountered by your team while carrying out field maintenance work during this lockdown?
The first challenge is that many of the engineers are afraid of contracting COVID-19 despite wearing PPE to site. This fear has made some of them delay in responding to and resolving network issues at their sites.
The second problem is difficulty to move around. In view of the movement restriction imposed by the federal and state governments, there are many check points manned by security operatives who will always stop them to make enquiries and check if they have authorized pass or not. These cause lots of delays at the check points, making it difficult for the engineer to arrive to site within the Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA)
The third issue is difficulty of the engineers to access sites located in residential homes, offices and estates. Many homes, offices and estates have placed strict access restriction in place for non-residents or non-employees. As such, the engineers find it difficult to access these locations to resolve network faults.
This causes long fault resolution time (MTTR) and results to poor network service and bad user experience in the affected areas. We therefore call on the government, organizations, residential estates, office organizations and individuals, having network equipment installed at their premises to give special consideration to telecoms/ICT Managed service engineers to enable them resolve issues timely.
What are the major challenges encountered while carrying out telecoms network rollout/expansion work during this Covid-19 period?
The first problem is non-availability of new network roll out jobs. Even some of the previously awarded contract jobs were stopped and withdrawn by the telecom operators. As a result many of installation engineers who work on contracts are without jobs. Many of them have been placing calls to me and lamenting about the situation. How they find it difficult to feed themselves and their families.
The second challenge has to do with difficulty to move around during this period. Some of the few engineers still having jobs to do have complained bitterly as to how difficult it is to get public transportation and how they have been subjected to endless checks by law enforcement agents at the checkpoints. These have resulted in delay to arrive to site within the estimated time of arrival (ETA).
The third issue is difficulty of the engineers to access sites located in residential homes, offices and estates. Many homes, offices and estates have placed strict access restriction in place for non-residents or non-employees. As such, the engineers find it difficult to access these locations to carry out new installations/upgrades that would help to improve telecoms network quality.