When the pandemic arrived to the region’s shores, the overnight adaption that BPOs forced to make underlined the reality of power and internet infrastructure for millions in Latin America: it is badly lacking.
Agents that lived outside of cities – and sometimes those that lived within them – were at the mercy of outdated or inadequate power grids and internet services for their work from home availability.
“I was working from home from March to June and there were lots of power outage problems. It was hard to last one full shift without experience an outage,” said Lourdes Soto, a team leader at Acquire BPO in the Dominican Republic told Nearshore Americas recently.
An Insufficient Network
The work from home model has quickly become a fundamental part of the future hybrid office-and-home future that industry experts forecast, despite
For the BPO industry, worries over meeting security concerns and the rigours of standards like the PCI Level 1 certification were, in the main, were quickly overcome.
But insufficient capacity of a territory’s power grid and internet network are problems not easily fixed.
Latin America’s internet connection ranked behind both Asia and Africa in 2019. According to the World Bank, around 66% of the region’s 642 million inhabitants are online and use the internet. However, only 14.113 people per 100 have fixed broadband connections.
Taken by itself, Jamaica’s coverage is even lower. Just 55% of Jamaicans had access to the internet while only 1 in 10 had fixed broadband subscriptions in 2019.
The country does not offer direct residential internet access, said Yoni Epstein, founding and CEO of Montego Bay-based BPO, itelbpo: “In Jamaica we don’t have fiber direct to the home. The fiber is brought to a node in the community and then through coaxial it’s taken to a main point to the home, usually where the cable and internet can be delivered to a wireless router.”
The shared central node means internet speeds to individual homes are slowed. itelbpo, like most others, requires a 20mbps download speed and a 10mpbs upload. Though 80% of itelbpo’s 600+ workforce returned home at the start of the pandemic, many agents did not have the internet speeds that the job required.
“We learned over the first few months that even agents who told us they had sufficient internet coverage usually did not. We saw a lot of instances of outages where the telco wasn’t out but the agent wasn’t getting enough bandwidth for whatever reason,” said Epstein. “They might be sharing with other people in the same house, other households, or simply that the entire community is drawing on the one node. We had to find where those issues where and we brought those people back into the office.”
itelbpo’s experience was far from unique. Across the island and across the industry, internet strength and scale meant that adapting to the new working situation was and remains a challenge.
“It was rocky to transition to work from home,” said Anand Biradar, Director of the Board of Directors at the Business Processing Industry Association of Jamaica. “We got a few weeks head start because the pandemic hit other countries first and so we could plan. On April 2, Jamaica’s BPO industry was operating at 80% WFH. But the infrastructure didn’t support fully-fledged work from home.”
In rural areas, internet infrastructure was even more strained. Some agents were forced to use mobile connections, a method that would have been unthinkable in the normal office environment.
“There are some people who do not have internet at home and they ended up using mobile internet,” said Biradar. “It won’t have made much difference if the infrastructure is compressed and there is end-to-end QoS service providing clearer, measurable, trackable data. In that scenario the demand is very light – LTE could effectively do the job.”
Biradar insists that LTE was used “more often than not for training” rather than client services, and that with additional security measures used by BPOS – like VPNs or desktop management systems – LTE poses no additional security concerns. “People aren’t used to using a mobile devise because LTE is not meant for continuous online traffic. But technology-wise, LTE is the same as broadband,” he said.
Not everyone agrees. In Trinidad, Jameel Lewis, Operational Assistant Manager at iQor, said that his company had outright banned the use of mobile connection. “We have strictly said that we will use broadband connection. We are definitely not going to connect anything through wireless,” he said.
iQor’s 600-strong workforce is split 50/50 between home and work and supports a combination of outbound and customer support via social media. In Trinidad and Tobago, where around a quarter of the population has fixed broadband subscriptions, many of the problems with internet connection strength have been resolved, though the company continues to “see drops in heavily populated areas.”
iQor’s IT team can carry out speed tests on individual agent’s connections to see where the issue lies. But agents in rural areas only have one ISP option, says Jameel. If the connection isn’t strong enough, there is little to be done.
A Distributed Workforce
For a country like Jamaica, where the BPO market provides over 36,000 jobs from a workforce of around 1.5 million, deficient internet access is a national economic concern. New initiatives aimed at improving connections for education reasons are intended to bolster residential internet networks.
To meet the needs of businesses in the region while employees work from home, telecommunications company, Flow, which belongs to Cable & Wireless Telecommunications, recently rolled out its Distributed Workforce initiative. The initiative aims to provide organisations with a complete internet use package for at home employees, including a direct broadband line and installation, extra security measures, and round-the-clock help from technicians. In future iterations, the Distributed Workforce package will have LTE backup built into the direct connection. LTE connections are perfectly secure as long as measures like a private API for each customer and ciphering is used, says the company.
“The initiative was created last year during the pandemic. We wanted to respond in an agile way to our customer needs, as so many clients’ employees were working from home,” explained Berlitz Maldonado, Director on Product, Networking & Security at C&W Business.
The package is offered in several regional markets. In Jamaica, demand is growing. “In Jamaica we have around 380 connections and are growing by the day. I am assessing 100 extra orders right now,” said Maldonado.
Though the company has covered 80% of the orders it has taken in Jamaica, it cannot provide a service to every area client’s want, Maldonado explains. Flow remains dependent on the infrastructure that is already in place.
This fact means Distributed Workforce connections may still congested and the internet speed may still suffer, says Epstein. He points out that because many connections are run through copper rather than with fiberoptic cable, bandwidth can still become a problem.
“It works because they are bringing in a separate cable with a separate WiFi that is dedicated to the agent. But it’s still drawing from that central node in the community. You will likely get some quality of service priority over other people but there will still be congestion,” he said.
The Power Problem
Instability is the electric power grid is another element that some BPO agents have been battling as they work from home. In the Dominican Republic, power outages plagued the first few months of the pandemic, says Lourdes Soto.
“When the pandemic started, there were more electricity issues,” she said. “Now with kids being homeschooled, authorities are scheduling outages for maintenance so that people know when there’ll be no power.”
Soto has now returned to the office full time. But the workforce of the campaign she works on grew from 300 – 1000 during the past year, and the company’s site may need to be extended to fit the new recruits. It looks as though work from home will remain.
“Santa Domingo has multiple ISPs. But there are internet outages that can last a whole day” — Lourdes Soto
The company has upgraded employees’ Uninterruptible Power Supply – an additional battery that provides power should an outage occurs – from one to four hours.
But internet remains a problem here too. The government has recently moved to improve access to the web in a country where 95% of the territory doesn’t have fixed broadband coverage or its capacity is inadequate. Mobile broadband reaches only 61% of the country.
“Santa Domingo has multiple ISPs. But there are internet outages that can last a whole day,” said Soto. She points out that connection drops can sometimes be fixed swiftly if an agent reports a problem to their ISP right away. But any inability to connect has a direct consequence on an agent’s pocket.
“We had two colleagues recently return to the office that had suffered outages that took one to two days to resolve, so they were losing their hours. They’re being paid an hourly rate. When you are not connected to the phone, you are not paid for those hours,” she said.
“The message from me to the policy makers and the regulatory bodies is to increase the speed, increase the spread and increase the reliability of the internet” — Anand Biradar
In Jamaica, outrages in rural areas are “fairly common and people might not have backup generators”, says Epstein. And power outages can lead to internet problems. If there are power outages in the area where generators driving residential internet are based, this can hit agents across the island. “Even if an agent’s home has power, if wherever the location for the telco is is out of power, they will still lose internet,” Epstein said.
After the Pandemic
Access to a reliable power supply and strong internet is fundamental for markets engaged in a digital economy, as well as for citizens still working from home. In Dominican Republic, the IDB believes that low internet access over the past year will have a negative impact on young people’s education.
In Jamaica, Biradar is unequivocal in what needs to be done: “The message from me to the policy makers and the regulatory bodies is to increase the speed, increase the spread and increase the reliability of the internet. That will change, fundamentally, the economics of the country,” he said.