This is the first post in a blog series highlighting the efforts that GSMA Humanitarian Connectivity Charter signatories have taken to help tackle the COVID-19 pandemic in their respective markets.
As one of the leading private sector companies in many of their markets, Millicom has been supporting governments and health officials in many ways during the COVID-19 pandemic. They have made their telecom technology and media capabilities available to governments and communities wherever possible to keep citizens informed about the virus and its prevention, and to keep everyone connected.
In this interview with Rachel Samrén, EVP Chief External Affairs Officer at Millicom, we learn more about how Millicom has adapted their operations and activities in the wake of the pandemic, their biggest challenges, lessons learned so far, and their future response plans.
GSMA: How have you adapted your operations and activities in response to COVID-19?
Rachel Samrén: Phase 1 of our response was protective—to keep our employees safe so that we could keep our communities connected. In late February, we activated our Crisis Management Committees. In every jurisdiction, our action plans were aligned with local health ministries and the WHO. Travel restrictions, work from home arrangements, and a prioritized workforce management plan was put in place early on. All meetings with vendors, partners, and clients shifted to digital-first.
Critical functions required to ensure service continuity—such as call centers, network maintenance, and data centers—were secured by instituting separate shifts, deploying enhanced safety protocols, and issuing sanitary and protective gear. Our network, installation, and service crews, as well as our customer service teams, have stayed “in the streets” and remained “on the front line” to ensure continuous connectivity and service. Additional equipment and safety protocols are giving them enhanced protection.
We have made our telecom technology and media capabilities available to governments and communities wherever possible: supporting them in their efforts to keep the public informed and the virus contained. By sending messages on hygiene and social distancing practices; hosting information sites; providing Wi-Fi to critical premises like shelters, quarantine centers, and hospitals; supporting aid distribution to those most affected through our mobile money platforms; and evolving our corporate responsibility flagship programs to enhanced online platforms so that children can continue to learn in a safe online environment, women can continue to be digitally included, and teachers can be provided with the digital skills they need to keep on educating.
In Phase 2, we have focused on three main areas:
- Protecting our Customer Relationships and User Base for the long term: We have pledged to keep all our users connected throughout the crisis. We are providing a minimum lifeline broadband product to those of our customers who are facing financial difficulties.
- Protecting our Operating Cash Flow: In anticipation of what could be a severe global recession, we have suspended all non-essential investment and we have implemented an ambitious cost-savings plan. These measures will preserve our solid cash flow generation and protect our balance sheet strength.
- Protecting our Employee Base and Critical Small Business Relationships: At a time when many families worry about their future, we have prioritized supporting employment in both our own workforce and accelerated our usual payment terms for small local businesses. Because we can play our part in keeping the local economy going. But also because we want our teams—construction, service, and sales crews, as well as critical small business partners—to be “there and ready” for when the time to go back to growth comes.
GSMA: What are the top three challenges Millicom has experienced while responding to COVID-19?
Rachel Samrén: The top three challenges have been related to network, mobility restrictions and macro-economic aspects:
- Network: The surge in network traffic has been significant. Since February, mobile Internet traffic has grown 25% and fixed Internet 40% in our countries. Additional capacity has been added to the network and internet bandwidth to cover this new demand.
- Mobility restrictions: As countries went into lockdown and limiting mobility, we have been encouraging customers to use digital channels to access our services—whether it is to make digital payment via Tigo Money in Latam, or Tigo Pesa in Tanzania, or to use digital channels such as our call centers, WhatsApp, or Facebook.
- Macro-economic aspects: Given the economic recession, coupled with increased currency volatility in some of our markets, we have put in place a comprehensive cash management plan to maintain our liquidity and protect our cash flow.
GSMA: What have been the biggest lessons that you have learned? What are you most proud of?
Rachel Samrén: Overall, the global pandemic has reinforced our sense of purpose: to build the digital highways that connect people, improve lives and develop communities. More than ever, our purpose is alive and relevant. It has also demonstrated our responsible leadership in action in everything we have been doing. And, we have learned that our customers in Latin America are rapidly adopting digital tools that enable them to better do their work. Our business digital transactions have grown exponentially.
We are proud of our employees’ commitment, dedication, and proactivity to keep our customers and communities connected. Besides our crisis management and business continuity plans and the resilience of networks, the strength and determination of our people has enabled us to ensure our services continue uninterrupted, while supporting governments and our communities. Our campaigns have run a simple message: Our tech and service crews are out in the streets so our TIGO customers can stay safe and connected at home.
GSMA: What future plans does Millicom have as a result of your experience responding to COVID-19?
Rachel Samrén: We do not yet know what that the new normal will be. But we have begun thinking and preparing for it. We do know, for now, that it will:
- Bring a New and Strong Digital Wave: With more e-commerce and e-payments; more e-learning and online schooling; more remote working and home offices. All with accelerated needs for our connectivity.
- Require even Stronger Business Continuity Plans: With more prescient needs for secure and guaranteed connectivity; more cloud-based solutions and data center storage and resilience. All with larger demands for our services.
- Rely heavily on robust Next Generation Networks: With high speeds, throughput, and capacity. Needs that our large state of the art networks are uniquely positioned to meet.
- Demand stronger, better capitalized, infrastructure-based MNOs: Because the possibility of disruptions to the physical economy has only highlighted the reliance of the growing digital economies on strong, infrastructure-based telecom operators; and the need for the digital highways that are the core of our business strategy.
In forthcoming posts, we will share responses from other Humanitarian Connectivity Charter signatories to help tackle the COVID-19 pandemic in their respective markets.