TelEm Group (St. Maarten)
Business View Caribbean interviews Kendall Dupersoy, CEO of Sint Maarten Telecommunication Holding Company N.V., for our focus on the Resilience of St. Maarten.
Connectivity plays a critical role in every community’s infrastructure. It’s a lifeline in a myriad of ways, something of which St. Maarten was made brutally aware with the onslaught of the Sept. 2017 hurricane season. The island’s primary telecom provider, TelEm Group, was put to the test with getting St. Maarten reconnected and they responded valiantly in record time – living up to their mission tagline: “Connecting You.”
Officially registered as Sint Maarten Telecommunication Holding Company N.V., TelEm Group is a government-owned company consisting of Sint Maarten Telecommunication Operating Company N.V.; Sint Maarten Telephone Company N.V. (TelEm); TelCell N.V.; St. Maarten International Telecommunication Services (SMITCOMS) N.V.; SMITCOMS Inc.; SMITCOMS Dominicana Ltd.; and Caribbean Teleview Services N.V. (otherwise known as St. Maarten Cable TV or Cable TV).
For its residential and business clients, as well as visitors to St. Maarten, TelEm Group provides a complete range of telecommunication services including landline voice and data services, mobile voice and data services, international voice and bandwidth, cable television services, and internet services. A leader in the local telecom market, the Group is well aware of industry trends, and eager to adopt the latest technological advancements. The company is especially proud to contribute to the island’s cultural and social heritage.
TelEm Group works in tandem with government and other government-owned companies to deliver on its promised mission and vision to make customer satisfaction a number-one focus. This collaboration has seen several important projects develop in the telecommunication sector, resulting in economic benefits to the community and the country. Currently, TelEm Group employs 134 full-time and part-time personnel, of whom more than 95 percent are from St. Maarten, the Netherlands, or the former Dutch Antilles islands. The main office of the Sint Maarten Telecommunication Holding Company N.V. is located on Pond Island, Philipsburg, with a branch office in Simpson Bay.
Kendall Dupersoy, CEO of Sint Maarten Telecommunication Holding Company N.V., shares his perspective on the impact and after-effects of hurricanes on the island communications network. He reports, “Back in 1995, we had a devastating hurricane by the name of Luis, which damaged a lot of the infrastructure and, from that point on, the utility companies in St. Maarten started to put much of our infrastructure underground. By the time the hurricane came along in 2017, which was even worse than Luis, 70 percent of our infrastructure was already underground and didn’t sustain any damage. We did have damages to our central offices and buildings, but we were able to be, at least partially, up and running in a two-to-three-week period. Of course, we had to replace our cell sites, they were all blown down. So, that took some time, but landlines and indoor telephones, we had pretty much working about two weeks after the hurricane. It was so important because people wanted to get the word out about where they were and how they were doing.”
With a key emphasis on future planning strategies, TelEm Group is a member of CANTO, a focus organization for shaping information, communication, and technology in the Caribbean and Latin America. Dupersoy is on the organization’s Disaster Coordination Team and explains, “We plan for disasters and see how we can assist each other when one island is hit by a disaster and others are not. In general, there is some collaboration between the islands, but it could be improved. We try to contribute to disaster recovery and extend our hands to each other in ways that could be beneficial to multiple islands.”
Competition in the telecommunication sector is unique because it involves not just local providers, but also international entities. With the market changing from voice-based to network-based infrastructure, everything is driven by data, so TelEm has to compete with the likes of WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom, and all the other online services. According to Dupersoy, “If we keep our rates too high, nobody would use us because there is always the availability of those other industry disruptors that are forcing everybody to adjust the way they provide services. The internet has really changed the market, where now you’re not only competing with domestic people, but also international companies that are offering services via your internet that replace basic traditional services that telecom providers have provided in the past.”
Most TelEm customers are individual residents, along with some business clients, including the island’s hotels and hospitality industry. But they, too, have changed their business models; most guests use Wi-Fi to call from their cell phones, as opposed to the old way of making overseas calls from landline telephones, which brings in considerably more revenue for the service provider than wireless.
As a large corporate entity in St. Maarten, TelEm Group heartily acknowledges its social responsibility to give back to the people. Each year, the company and its personnel are involved in positive projects for the youth, senior citizens, the physically challenged, and women’s affairs – organizations with a great positive impact on the community. It also boosts the St. Maarten economy through job creation. Along with its regular employees, TelEm hires a large number of sub-contractors; paying out around $5 million per year in contract work for infrastructure and software, and hardware services. “Telecommunications, now, is pretty much an IT venture,” says Dupersoy, “so, we use a lot of local vendors to provide those services, as well as the infrastructure. They are usually small contractor businesses, a team of one to five men.”
Finding skilled labor in the telecom sector is not as challenging on St. Maarten as it is elsewhere. The island has a well-educated population and there is always availability for assistance with technology within, or outside, the region. One of the biggest challenges is economies of scale. Dupersoy admits, “Being a small telecom provider is very difficult in this industry because we have to buy the same equipment as Verizon and T-Mobile to provide less services to our customers – when they have a customer base in the millions and ours is a maximum of 12,000 at peak time.” Fortunately, shipping the equipment into St. Maarten is efficient and fast, so that is not a problem for TelEm.
A significant work in progress will drastically change for the better the way St. Maarteners connect. The $18.5 million, fiber-to-the-home project will connect 20 to 25 thousand homes directly to the TelEm Group network with fiber. “I came into the company in Feb. 2017,” says Dupersoy, “and the infrastructure was very old at the time and needed to be upgraded. This project had started just prior to my arrival. So, we signed off with an international company to provide us with a fiber-to-the-home network and it’s rolling along right now. Of course, we took a major hit when the storm came, and that delayed the project quite a bit, but it’s ramping up and we’re now starting to connect residences to the fiber.” Completion of the project is slated for the second quarter of 2020 – weather and unforeseen circumstances permitting.
As for the future of telecommunications in the region, Dupersoy weighs in, saying, “What I think is going to happen in the industry in the future is we are going to move more to the smart home, smart city concept. Even the small islands aren’t going to escape the push from customers to provide the necessary bandwidth. It’s going to be quite a challenge to get all those services via the international links. We have looked into some smart home systems – Alexa, Siri, security cameras – we partnered with the Justice Ministry, which is the law enforcement agency, here, to do an island-wide traffic camera system. That was all done with our equipment and our initiative.”
To sum it up, Dupersoy adds, “TelEm is a very nice company to work for; a family-type environment, we all know each other and work well together. The staff really enjoys providing the services and they know the importance of providing those services to our customers and the island of St. Maarten. It’s very important to our industry that telecommunication is modern. Being an island that depends almost exclusively on tourism, if people can’t get information in and out, and upload all their vacation photos to social media, it would be a deterrent for coming here. So, having really good infrastructure and a really good network also enhances our tourism product.”
AT A GLANCE
Who: TelEm Group
What: Government-owned telecom service provider
Where: Phillipsburg, Sint Maarten