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18 May, 2020

OPINION: Work from home connectivity options in South Africa

The last few months have seen many companies in South Africa scrambling to get their employees set up to work from home. While tech, software and sales-based companies typically have some experience in work from home setups, many other companies don’t.

Especially administrative teams like accounts, customer support and specifically call centre employees are not typically roles that are geared for work from home setups. Besides the scramble for new policies, meeting schedules, performance management and culture change, one of the most important aspects for IT managers is to get employees connected fast and reliably.

After getting the necessary hardware in place, the next important aspect to focus on is connectivity.

Having advised many companies on mobile connectivity options over the last 10 years, these are some of the important factors that need to be considered.

Fibre / Fixed Line

If employees are of the minority that already have fibre connections in place, this should be an easy option. Fibre connections are generally reliable and fast. Since most fibre connections these days are uncapped, the sudden increase in data usage should not come at additional cost.

New fibre installations (if available in the area) can take a few weeks to initiate. Temporary and flexible mobile data connectivity may be needed while fibre installations are arranged.

Mobile Data

For many employees, this is the quickest and best way to get connected from home fast.

South Africa is lucky to have a very mature mobile network infrastructure with very good 4G/LTE coverage nationally.

The big benefit of mobile data is that you can get connected immediately, and don’t have to worry about where exactly the employee will be based. Mobile networks globally have seen a 40% - 60% increase in overall data usage on their networks due to COVID-19 related work from home policies have been introduced.

Luckily mobile networks can ramp up capacity fairly quickly in most areas, unless they are constrained by backhaul limitations.

Mobile Network Choice

Choosing which network(s) to use is typically a factor of quality vs. cost. Depending on your requirements, you may be more flexible with regards to quality, reliability and speed.

In mobile data world, the adage “you get what you pay for” usually holds true. The more critical the connectivity becomes, the better the quality of the provider needs to be. “Cheap and cheerful” consumer focused APN’s provided by wholesale ISP’s does not always deliver enterprise grade connectivity, both in terms of speed and uptime.

Critical employees can also be issued with SIMs from multiple providers, allowing for network redundancy. Having the flexibility to choose between 2 or 3 networks is a big advantage - this ensures that each location can use the best network available in that area.

Load shedding adds another dimension to this equation, with some networks investing far more in backup power systems than others. Some providers offering noticeably cheap data will typically not deliver the same level of service that you will get on core mobile networks.

Choosing between providers and networks therefore becomes a factor of coverage, network quality and data cost. Finding the “sweet spot” is the trick.

Contract Commitments and Bill Shock

Scaling up work from home connectivity might not be a permanent arrangement. Flexibility during uncertain times is key.

It is important to ensure that this connectivity can be scaled down just as easily when no longer needed or used less frequently. Be careful of long-term contracts and commitments that locks in fixed monthly spend over time as this may become a big unnecessary cost in future.

Traditional corporate APN’s are often not suited to work from home connectivity due to high data rates and no real-time SIM level control. Be careful of any data plan that does not have SIM-level locks or caps. Bill shock on post-billed accounts remains a big financial risk that must be avoided.

If more flexibility is needed, Business Prepaid data provides the flexibility to scale up fast, and then scale down fast when needed without any long-term commitments or costs.

Hybrid or “Top-Up” contracts does avoid most bill shock risks, but then managing the SIMs at scale becomes an operational headache.

Using a service such as SIMcontrol to automatically manage prepaid or top-up SIM cards takes the hassle out of manually monitoring and recharging data SIMs. Data costs on larger prepaid bundles have also become very competitive over the last few years, with further price reductions recently implemented by most mobile networks.

Refunding Employee Airtime & Data

Another approach followed by some companies is to let employees use their existing (own) mobile data connectivity, and then simply recharging those SIM cards remotely with data or airtime as needed according to their specific roles.

This is also handy when employees need to use their phones for making calls and where installing a VoIP phone is not feasible. Using a bulk remote recharging service such as SIMcontrol allows companies to set up automated or manual recharges of data bundles or airtime - all from one central account.

The company can choose a specific data or airtime “allocation” that is reasonable for that specific role. The employee then still has the option to buy additional data or airtime independently for personal use should they wish.

Setting up reliable connectivity for employees is a crucial part of work from home planning. By focusing on flexibility, quality and cost management the right balance for productive employees can be reached.

Hein Koen is Director at Flickswitch, a network agnostic African mobile connectivity provider.