Spark’s virus planning began in January

Spark began planning in January for how to handle a coronavirus pandemic and although there have been surprises such as a surge in voice calls, CEO Jolie Hodson tells Rod Oram the telco is confident it can handle a massive shift in demand

Spark expects to experience a 40 percent or so jump in data traffic over just a few weeks, which is equivalent to a year’s growth pre-virus. The ramp up started a couple of weeks ago as organisations began large trials of remote working; and it will accelerate quickly now the country is in lockdown.

Spark is confident that it and the rest of the telecommunications sector can handle this, says Jolie Hodson, the company’s chief executive. Positive factors include the telcos’ heavy investment in their networks in recent years, the quality of the networks, and the ability to manage and adapt them to ease congestion and meet new demands.

Another key to resilience is the extensive take up of fibre broadband around the country. Fibre now runs past some 80 percent of premises; and take up of the ultra high speed service is just under 60 percent.

With the dramatic growth in data uses comes a shift in its pattern. Pre-virus, evenings were the peak time for data use by households. Now Spark is expecting heavy demand throughout the day, particularly if distance learning becomes the norm if schools do not reopen next term.

To help with this big shift in demand, Spark and other telcos have announced they have taken data limits off capped accounts for 60 days. Likewise, they pledged no disconnections or late payment fees to help alleviate “the financial hardship out there”.

Given the rise of data, texts and other message services, one surprise was the three to four fold jump in voice calls on Monday. The surge began before but escalated sharply after the Government announced the nation would lock down Wednesday night. Overnight, telcos moved quickly to improve handover of calls between them and eased other bottlenecks, she says.

Spark began preparing in late January for the virus. “Because we’re a lifeline utility service, we need to operate at all four levels (of the Government’s Covid-19 status system). That puts a different onus on how we prepare. We need to be ahead so we can help support New Zealand businesses and our consumer customs as they get ready to move to remote working.”

By early February, “we realised Covid was moving fast.” Spark stopped staff travelling internationally or staff being involved in events of more than 100 people. Self-isolation rules were set for people who might have been at risk.

Activating its Business Continuity Plan in mid-February, it stepped up its preparations with its staff, systems, customers and industry colleagues. A big focus was to protect frontline staff who would have to keep working on site, such as those in network operations, data centres, exchanges and 111 operations.

Each of those teams was split into three or four to ensure if the virus affected staff in one team the other teams could carry on. At an early stage, it also stopped visits by other people to those critical sites.

“It’s also important to remember this is more a marathon not a sprint. Some of your key people need to be able to rest. We made sure who their backups were, and how to stand people down so they would be able to contribute again.”

This is very different from [crisis] events in the past.” With the exception of the Christchurch earthquakes, those were short term involving the likes of storms, a geographic area or a specific building or piece of network infrastructure.

An early impact was the lockdown in the Philippines which began two weeks before New Zealand’s. Spark’s call centre there closed, which accelerated a shift here of some staff from the likes of stores and product roles into customer support duties.

“We’ve shifted the business in quite a big way in the last few weeks. Anyone who is not essential to being in a building should work from home. We feel very prepared. But it’s a new frontier in terms of the scale of it.”

Thanks to all the challenges of the crisis, there are plenty of things Spark has learnt. It expects, for example, there will be a big step up in appetite and skills for remote working in businesses and remote provision of services in sectors such as education and health.

Among the key lessons so far for Hodson and her colleagues are:

- “We keep communicating every day with our people, particularly post new announcements” from the Government. It helps staff understand what those changes mean and how they should respond. It provides “certainty when there’s a lot of ambiguity.”

- Respond to the current situation but “be prepared for the next stage, the next level. Thinking ahead helps inform what you do now.”

- “As leaders, we need to be very focused on mental health and anxiety…so we can identify if there are any fears and put the right support in place.”

“Above all, we make sure we communicate that kindness and leaning in to our people so they can support our customers.

“It’s great to see generally how New Zealanders are leaning in to support each other.”

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