ISPs' Service Techs Get COVID-19 Safety Protocols, Face Risks
ISPs are adopting evolving protocols to help keep service technicians and residential customers safe during COVID-19, they said in interviews last week. Actions include screening customers for their risk of exposure to the virus before scheduling a truck roll, equipping tech staff with personal protective gear, limiting repair work to what can be done outside, and promoting self-installation and repair. Even before the pandemic, cable operators and telcos sought to limit how frequently they send staff to customers' homes.
Telecom is considered essential, so providers must balance employee safety against keeping customers connected. Experts said in interviews this week that providers must do whatever they can to protect their workers even if it means postponing nonessential jobs.
Providers screen the need for customer service calls, and nonemergency requests for a truck roll will be deferred, said NTCA Senior Vice President-Industry Affairs and Business Development Mike Romano. If a customer has three TVs and one set-top box has a problem, providers won't go, but if it's a call to repair phone or broadband, techs will try to fix it, he said.
Mediacom implemented contactless installation and repair protocol April 3, said Senior Vice President-Government and Public Relations Tom Larsen. Technicians do as much work as possible checking wiring and signal strength outside, delivering customer equipment as needed, he said: The technician tells the customer "from 10 feet away" how to complete the installation, sometimes via video chat. "Going inside the home is only a last resort," Larsen said. Technicians wear masks, he noted, "at least while supplies last."
NTCA members also struggle to get sufficient personal protective equipment, said Romano. Some are "working at the county level to get what they can," Romano said. While some began mitigation steps later than bigger, urban ISPs, "everybody is cognizant the virus is here," Romano said. "There's no one we're talking to who hasn't implemented procedures." NTCA members created checklists to protect employees, based on Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines, Romano said. OSHA and the Communications Workers of America didn't comment Tuesday.
Comcast limits in-home tech visits to "when it's necessary to ensure they are connected to critical services," a spokesperson emailed. The provider requires installers to take daily temperature checks, wear facial coverings when with customers, and practice enhanced sanitization.
ISPs say they are increasingly turning to virtual assistance.
Verizon is limiting in-home installations "to medical emergencies and critical installations," a spokesperson emailed. The company is piloting a virtual assistant tech tool so customers and field technicians can interact in real-time over video chat and employees don't have to enter a residence. "Most of our technicians are now keeping their vehicles and trucks at their homes," the representative said: It "prevents them from going into a garage each morning" and minimizes exposure to other technicians and staff.
Cox Communications sped deployment of a virtual assist tool to troubleshoot installs and repairs, a spokesperson emailed. The customer has the option of communicating by voice, text or video chat. If video chat, "the Cox technician simply sends the customer a text message with a link to connect" via smartphone with a rear-facing camera, the company said.
There's confusion as public health guidance changes, said Parks Associates analyst Brad Russell. Some companies' technicians wear masks, and others gloves but not masks. They are trained not to touch surfaces if possible and to wipe them down when they do, he said; "They're disinfecting the trucks."
Some companies won't enter residences at all. "To protect both our customers and our employees, and to prevent the spread of COVID-19, CenturyLink technicians will no longer enter homes or businesses" and will rely on customers to complete interior work, the telco said.
Self-installation is available "for the vast majority of services," and most installs are now self-installations, a Charter Communications spokesperson emailed. The company continues to make service calls, but every attempt is made to diagnose and resolve issues outside, Charter says.
Alaska Communications began planning for self-installs in early March before shelter-in-place orders were issued in Alaska, a spokesperson emailed. "While we discussed self-installation policies in the past, necessity truly is the mother of invention." Otelco evaluates its protocol to ensure the health and safety of its frontline staff and customers, a spokesperson emailed. It posts updates as practices change.
Fort Collins, Colorado, municipal broadband provider Connexion is continuing outside and inside engineering work, said Broadband Marketing Manager Erin Shanley. "We're constantly monitoring and evaluating" guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, local emergency agencies and the Larimer County Health Department, she said. Among service tech best practices are a health check on workers the day before a service call and similar checks with customers then. The company places another call 30 minutes before arrival to let customers know installers are outfitted with a mask and gloves and will maintain safe distance. Some customers show concern anyway, Shanley admitted. One asked to stay in a separate room from the installer, who communicated through the customer's Alexa device, she said.
Many "customers are just as apprehensive as technicians are now," Larsen said. He acknowledged one customer was upset when told Mediacom wouldn't send a technician to service a garage TV.
"It's a constant balancing act," said Romano of meeting increased demand for service while customers are largely at home, against the need to keep customers and employees safe. NTCA members are sharing best practices, and the group posts resources. Big Bend Telephone has a business continuity tabletop exercise.
Keeping service technicians safe takes commitment from customers and employers, said Stacey Lee, associate professor of law and ethics at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health. Providers should call customers and set up touch-free transactions. Have the customer open the front door, move furniture if needed to maintain safe distance, wipe down surfaces ahead of time and make sure paper towels and soap are in the bathroom in case the worker doesn't arrive with gloves, she said. Only one person in the household should interact with the staffer, and any children should be "somewhere else," she said.
Workers should arrive with masks, gloves, shoe coverings, a plastic mat to set a toolbox on, and a plastic bag to hold it all at the end of a job, Lee said. Don't require customers to sign anything, Lee said. "I'm worried about everyone," she said, but customers have more control over whether to schedule a service call: "The person who's going from home to home has the bigger risk."
Broadband "is right up there with food and water on the hierarchy of human needs," emailed Summer Johnson McGee, dean of the University of New Haven's School of Health Sciences. "Because technology is so important to our society, some level of risk on the part of telecommunications employees is warranted." Frontline workers "should be acknowledged for their sacrifice and the potential exposure they face. That said, whatever can be done to minimize that risk is the responsibility of telecommunications companies."
"Long term, companies will reflect on this whole experience and see how they evolve their business practices" with do-it-yourself installations and "do-it-with-me" customer coaching tools, Larsen said. "Consumers might want people coming into their homes much less frequently."
Editor's note: This is one of an occasional series of articles about how telecom is adjusting to the pandemic. A story in the previous day's issue showed 911 calls are surging: 2004130032. A past report was on how to keep emergency call takers safe: 2003180033. Two more reports examined how sheltering place is affecting residential broadband networks: 2004060038 and 2003190042.