VIDEO: Flow celebrates fifth anniversary in Jamaica — Part I

VIDEO: Flow celebrates fifth anniversary in Jamaica — Part I

Investment now at over US$500 million


Friday, July 22, 2011

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THIS week, telecoms service provider Flow celebrates its fifth anniversary in Jamaica. During that time, Flow has managed to redefine the way Jamaicans employ digital broadband technology. The company has introduced high speed Internet and delivered cable television packages that to date can not be equalled.

Back in 2004, just after Hurricane Ivan, lead principals of Flow's parent company, Columbus Communications, Brendan Paddick and Michael Lee Chin flew into Jamaica to evaluate investing in the country. They were confronted by uprooted infrastructure, chaos and devastation. They made their way to Gordon House to inform then Minister of Commerce and Technology Philip Paulwell that they wanted to build a triple-play fibre optic network and the first objective was to lay a subsea link offshore Jamaica that would hook into a greater subsea network that services the Caribbean. They vowed that never again would Jamaica's telecommunications capabilities be incapacitated in such a manner.

They proceeded to put together an RFP that would have people bid on building that subsea network off the island. Two licenses were awarded and the network was delivered expeditiously, in fact, in less than 12 months and was in service in March 2006. In April of that year, Flow had its official launch.

Building a network

It started offering its services to just around 25 customers in the New Kingston area. When Michele English, who is now the President and Chief Operating Officer of Flow, arrived in Jamaica, in April 2006 she was the 92nd employee. By then, many construction professionals were engaged in building the network. Initially she was the general manager and was mandated to build a new business with less than a hundred employees. Today Flow has 550 employees comprising specialised expertise.

English points to the number of returning residents who have joined Flow, lending it their considerable expertise garnered from First World telecoms companies like Comcast, Time Warner and Rogers. She adds that many of these overseas professionals were impressed with what Flow was attempting to accomplish and got on board.

Carlton Baxter returned to Jamaica to visit his mother back in 2006. He recognised the infrastructure going up around Kingston and was curious. He went to visit Flow's offices, knocked on Michele English's door and told her he was an engineer with Comcast and was impressed with what he saw in Jamaica. He expressed an interest in returning home and started with Flow as a design manager. Today he is VP of Engineering at Flow responsible for its infrastructure roll out across the island.

Great efforts were made to train the local contractors. Today, English proudly proclaims they work full time for Flow and are very successful as a result of being equipped with the right tools. She credits the team of local contractors with Flow's ability to deliver a good product.

"We spent the first couple of years in construction mode and I had to do practically everything. One minute I was recruiting customer service representatives, the next, designing the products and coming up with how we were going to sell them. Then hub sites had to be built. There was a phenomenal amount of activity in those first couple of years, but five years on that hasn't really stopped but is now more focused on operational practices.

"We delivered to our first residential customers in the summer of 2006. Back then we only had a licence to deliver Internet and voice services both locally and internationally. We did apply for a cable license but we began with a double-play offering," recalls Flow's chief operating officer.

Delivering a stellar service

This goes some way in explaining why Flow went into acquisition mode, snapping up cable operators aggressively. The first company Flow acquired was Sauce in the Kingston area thus allowing it to offer a triple-play service (Internet, voice and cable). Flow had arrived, and the question was could it manage expectations?

Today Flow has about 5000 kilometres of fibre in its network, then another 4000 kilometres of cable, a 1000 kilometres of subsea cable and a dozen hub sites built. When Flow first got started it could only deliver its service to 10,000 homes. Five years later it can deliver to 50 per cent of the homes in the country and almost 100 per cent of all businesses operating in Jamaica in terms of an enterprise level fibre service.

Michele English transitioned from the operations role into the president's role in August 2008. She managed to switch hats with great aplomb, but concedes the biggest challenge was to take her hands out of all the details of the operation and focus on strategy.

"I had spent the first couple of years at Flow doing 16-hour days and mired in detail. We worked on all the customer care, tech-ops, the construction, marketing, sales, and we were trying to build those areas. Sometimes my head felt so full, I had to write everything down to recall important issues.

"The most important mission was to build a team and today we have a fantastic management team that has done Flow proud. Sharon Roper came on as head of marketing in January 2009. Jan Pisko started just before I did and took over from me on the operations side. Carlton Baxter moved into the VP Engineering role. Makeba Bennett-Easy is our vice-president for Organisational Development, Thomas Chin is vice-president of Finance, Nail Sheehy heads up our business solutions and he has taken that arm to a whole new level. More recently, Denise Williams has been promoted to director of corporate and government affairs."

Flow has always sold connectivity to businesses, but it felt there was an opportunity it was missing out on and that was the commercial market.

Employee loyalty

In many companies in Jamaica, there is a high rate of employee attrition. The workforce feel unfulfilled and don't buy into their company's vision or feel that the firm they are employed to is on a road to nowhere. They see management going through the motions with no idea how to change the company's fortunes, so they look elsewhere. That ambivalence appears not to have afflicted Flow.

English explains: "We are about to give out five-year awards and we have 130 employees who have been with us during that period. What that says to me is that almost all of that initial staff complement have stayed on. What I have liked about the people who work at Flow is that they regard what they do as more than just a job. They bought into the vision. They see it as more than just providing a service that sees people watching television at home. They see it as making a difference to the growth of the country. I hadn't experienced that in a company before. I see how Greg Pink, our director of IT, is so keen on what he is doing. He believes that the technology we are putting in place can really make a difference."

Vice-president of Marketing Sharon Roper added: "Another reason why we are so proud of what we have accomplished is because in Jamaica we are used to making do. It really is about rolling out a technology that puts us so far ahead and as a team we are proud to be part of that revolution. We have made a difference to people's lives in terms of work, the home and being cost-effective. We have put in First World infrastructure from day one and we don't have to worry about upgrading it down the road because we are good for the foreseeable future.

"We have introduced high speed Internet, unseen digital broadband cable television and a state-of-the-art voice offering; things that you hear happening overseas but not in Jamaica. We are making that happen in Jamaica right now."

The new director of Corporate Affairs Denise Williams said: "All of us at Flow realise we are part of something that is different. Before Flow, Jamaicans could barely get one megabyte of Internet speed. Now we are giving kids in schools access to commercial grades of Internet. We are bringing the best technology in the world to Jamaica and that gets our staff and customers excited. We no longer have to wait for first-class technology in Jamaica."

Speedy Internet service

Today Flow offers 12 megabytes of Internet speed for only J$2,500 per month. Five years ago this would not have been possible. Back then the average Internet speed was less than one megabyte and cost approximately J$3000 per month. This was too slow to effectively stream high definition content and surf the Web.

Back in 2006, cable television was delivered in analog format, which offered poor sound and picture quality. Consumers could only buy one-size-fits-all video packages with no choice for what came into their homes. There was also only one landline provider where consumers paid for expensive on-net calls. Features such as call waiting and conferencing were added at an additional cost to the customer.

Flow was the first provider to offer Internet speeds of up to 12 megabytes, 20 megabytes, 50 megabytes and 100 megabytes. With the introduction of up to 100 megabytes in Internet speeds to residential homes, this puts Jamaica among one of only 20 countries in the world with this capability.

On this, English further added: "Our existing fibre optic network carries video, data and voice traffic in huge volumes. The network has been designed to carry volumes of traffic directly to each household in Jamaica. Unlike the existing DSL systems, or even the mobile solutions like 3G, 4G and WiMax, which requires network upgrades to meet these speeds. Flow's network already provides the fastest speeds, best stability at the best price in the market. Flow is currently testing a 300 megabyte service for the consumer market, which could be made available to Jamaica as early as 2011."

Education and health care

Flow is stressing that its Internet offering can be employed to assist education and that it has a vital role to play in the schools across the island. Children in the more rural areas are at a disadvantage because they are not able to get the same quality of teachers as the city and they can't take advantage of certain subjects. The fact remains that the Government doesn't have the funds to offer quality education throughout the island. Here Flow's sees a role for the utilisation of the Internet on an interactive basis via the Universal Access Fund.

"The infrastructure and network is in place. What has to happen now is that the policies and regulations have to move to be able to enable the technology to be placed in schools so that it can really enhance the learning environment. There is also a huge opportunity to improve the quality of healthcare by bringing specialty care to all Jamaicans and to cut the cost of delivering a higher quality of care in the country. This is where we are going and this is our focus. We now have to work with the government to get these opportunities in place. If I live in St Elizabeth and need specialist treatment, although there is a clinic in the area, I need to travel to Kingston's University of the West Indies in order to get that treatment. There is technology today that would allow that specialist to interact with me and actually diagnose my problem then afterwards follow up on my care," said English.

Part II next week.

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