Vandalism, defaults on bills crippling service delivery

STATE-OWNED telecommunications concern TelOne has been on an aggressive drive to collect more than ZW$500 million it is owed by clients. The recovery of the money is expected to help improve the company’s operations. Business reporter Kudzai Kuwaza (KK) caught up with TelOne managing director Chipo Mtasa (CM, pictured) to discuss several issues, including an update on the debt collection, the impact of vandalism of its property and the steps the state entity has taken to contain the Covid-19 pandemic which has infected more than eight million people with more than 440 000 fatalities globally.

KK: How much is TelOne owed and what are you doing to recover the money?

CM: We are currently owed just over ZW$500 million from outstanding telephone bills by our clients, mostly government, parastatals, corporates and individuals. We have intensified efforts to collect all outstanding debt owed by clients and have been forced to take drastic measures such as introducing litigation and blacklisting bad debtors where necessary.

We are pleased that these efforts and engagements, especially with government, have made some impact with government having already made a payment plan toward which they have made a ZW$30 million payment recently.

Furthermore, we have also been migrating defaulting clients, mostly residential and small and medium enterprises, to pre-paid in order to limit the company’s exposure to credit risk and the resultant adverse impact on cash flows. To date, 90% of the total residential market has been migrated to pre-paid.
Delayed settlement by debtors continues to have a negative impact on the company’s ability to settle critical statutory and contractual obligations. While mindful of economic challenges being experienced by the country and our clients mainly due to lockdown and Covid-19, we continue to implore on all clients to settle their debts to allow TelOne to provide the quality services that our valued clientele expect and deserve.

KK: What measures have you put in place to reduce vandalism and theft of your property? Do you have statistics on the number of arrests that you can share?
CM: Network vandalism remains one of the biggest threats to the quality of experience for our clients. In 2019, we had a total of 303 live network incidents and 114 arrests, while as at May 2020 we have had 139 incidents and 60 arrests.

While efforts are being made to improve our client experience, the business continues to suffer setbacks resulting from network vandalism. In the short-term, we have alarmed our network and increased manning levels by physical security guards.

While this brings some relief, on the whole the network thieves continue to advance their own tactics hence our strategic focus in the medium to long-term is to gradually replace copper with fibre which is less prone to vandalism. This is a process that we have already started.

The process, however, will take longer as it requires a huge capital investment, all of it in foreign currency. We are also working in partnership with the police for joint operations countrywide, which have greatly assisted in increasing arrests. We are also working with the judiciary in coming up with stiffer penalties to discourage perpetrators.

KK: How has your Digital Entertainment On Demand (DEOD) product been performing, revenue wise, since launch?
CM: The objective of our Digital Entertainment On Demand as a value-added service is to strengthen our home broadband value proposition. Dividends of the growth in the DEOD subscription, which is largely made up of TelOne broadband subscribers, have accrued to the overall stickiness of our home broadband offering and the consequent broadband revenue growth.

Currently, we are offering the product for free to our unlimited-package subscribers as a way to encourage our clients to take up the higher packages.
Overall growth of 20% in our broadband subscribers was registered in 2019 as a result of this and several other initiatives we continue to do for the overall improvement in the experience of our clients.

We continue to call on our clients to take advantage of the zero-rated service to enjoy a bouquet of cost-effective entertainment. Since its launch in October 2018, DEOD has expanded its offering to the Zimbabwean market through the addition of local content channel Zollywood and a host of other new free TV channels which include some news channels like Al Jazeera, Africa News, TRT World, France 24 and Russia Today. TelOne will continue to be innovative on its platform in order to make quality content available through a mix of low-cost video-on-demand subscription packages.

KK: Students have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and have therefore missed out on classes. Tell us about your product for students.
CM: Over the past few years, TelOne has strategically positioned itself as a fully-fledged technology, media and telecommunications (TMT) organisation. As part of our technology innovation drive, TelOne developed an e-learning platform, iMPACT Learning, in 2019 that is already used by 2 500 students and over 50 educators at the TelOne Centre for Learning and is available for use by our primary and secondary education institutions. The Centre has also recently partnered with UNICAF, a leading global education platform provider, to digitise learning in Zimbabwe for tertiary Institutions.

The e-learning platforms ride on TelOne’s network infrastructure and systems for distribution to various education centres across the country. Further to this, TelOne has together with its sister company (NetOne), come up with student-focussed data packages to ensure that students have adapted and affordable internet connectivity as they access the platforms.

It is in this context that the Learner’s Tab, which is an e-learning solution designed for Advanced and Ordinary level students, has been developed as part of TelOne’s e-learning offering. It allows students to learn remotely through interactive videos with questions and answers, making revision easy and engaging. TelOne is offering a free trial of its online learning solutions to allow students to continue with their studies in light of Covid-19.

The Learner’s Tab offers the core subjects — Mathematics, English, Biology, Physics and Chemistry — covering the GCSE and iGCSE syllabus for Cambridge and Edexcel. On the Learner’s Tab, interactive tests are structured as mock examination tests and quizzes for each subject area to enable the user to gauge understanding of the content.

To request for a free trial of the online learning solution, clients have to go to https://covid19.learnerscloud.com and register or e-mail learnerstab@telone.co.zw with their details.

KK: What have you done as a company in response to Covid-19?

CM: TelOne has been proactive in response to the Covid-19 pandemic since it came about as early as February with initiatives targeting four areas, namely staff awareness, workplace prevention and support, communication and stakeholder engagement and corporate social investment. Working with a structured business continuity plan, we have been implementing various initiatives for each of the areas.

On staff awareness, training of all staff by medical professionals was done at the onset of the pandemic with special focus on unpacking the pandemic to help understanding amongst our staff complement and to also answer questions. This process helped a lot in diffusing fear and encouraging proactive prevention protocols adoption.

Further to the training, routine educational communication and updates are shared with staff weekly using our intranet platforms, posters in offices and public areas as well as via video.

On workplace prevention and support, we have decongested our workplaces through scaling down of teams reporting physically for duty. Priority has been given to service delivery with frontline teams reporting physically for duty while other teams are working remotely using online facilities. To ensure this arrangement works efficiently, we have provided data bundles for staff who are working off-site and are using online platforms to interact.

Business visitors to TelOne premises are restricted while personal visitors are strictly prohibited. Routine sanitisation of all our work spaces is mandatory as well as temperature checks and sanitisation of all staff and clients upon entry at any TelOne facility.

We have also ensured mandatory use of face masks by all staff and all clients in our premises. Provision of full personal protective equipment (PPE) for all frontline staff who interacts with clients within our premises, in public and at client premises, has also been put in place. We have also ensured mandatory testing of all staff along with the requisite counselling.

We provide transport for all staff commuting to work with use of public transport for all team members being prohibited.

On stakeholder communication and engagement, we have maintained strong communication lines with our clients to keep us engaged during this period with specific messages directed to our clients, suppliers and other stakeholders sharing on our service commitment and assuring them through unpacking our interventions
We have specifically requested all the companies doing business with us to share with us their own Covid-19 intervention so that we are assured that if ever there would be some interaction, the safety of our staff is guaranteed.

For suppliers delivering goods, this has to be done at designated times and designated areas at our premises while tender and supplier documents are being delivered at a designated area at our reception. Any bidder or supplier has to communicate with our teams using online channels. Entry into offices is strictly prohibited.

As to our corporate social investment initiatives, TelOne established a collaborative effort with NetOne where a total of ZW$10 million was put together. This amount has benefitted three public hospitals, namely Sally Mugabe (formerly Harare Hospital), Beatrice Infectious Diseases and Mpilo hospitals. The support was targeted at public hospitals as a way to further assist our staff members, most of who use these facilities, as well as to support the vulnerable in our community.

Further to the ZW$10 million dedicated to this project, the two institutions have also contributed immensely towards the successful setting up of the National Emergency Response Covid-19 Hotline (2019) and are bearing the cost of all calls from the public terminating on our networks. Under this initiative, the two entities donated 20 toll-free lines and the requisite equipment. We are also pursuing innovations that we expect to ease communication while supporting the Covid-19 fight.