Speak to the right people and Africa is about much more than just the digital divide

Yesteryear’s conversation in Africa was all about balancing the commercial realities of bridging the digital divide, but this year’s AfricaCom has showcased the bigger ambitions of South Africa.

Perhaps we haven’t been giving the right people the podium in the past, but the conversation in Africa has always been focused on the same thing. How do you deliver connectivity to the masses on a continent which has significantly lower ARPU than more developed regions? While this is still a priority, this year’s AfricaCom conference is demonstrating there are bigger ambitions than simply enhancing coverage.

Yesterday we heard MTN’s ambitions to create a more agile organization which operates in the OTT space and can be branded as a digital services beast, and this morning’s presentations had a smart city twist. It might seem odd that we’re discussing such advanced ideas when basic connectivity is an issue, but why not? If Africa is going to compete in the digital era these conversations need to happen now, and these individuals need to be given their time in the limelight. The smart city segment in South Africa is an excellent example.

Looking at Cape Town, Omeshnee Naidoo, the city’s Director of Information Systems, told the audience the city has a fibre spine 1000km long but the project is still at the starting gate. The infrastructure rollout is set to finish in 2021, while the team has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Google to provide public wifi. The next step is figuring out how the initiative can now incorporate the citizens.

Johannesburg is in a similar position. Lawrence Boya, the smart city Director, said the city also has a fibre spine 1000km long, and currently more than 1500 public wifi spots. The challenge now is optimising the infrastructure and making sure government services are making use of the assets not going down the private route. Boya also highlighted the team are trying to figure out how to take the concept of smart cities down to a personal level for the citizens.

In both of these examples, steady progress is being made and the idea of the smart city might not be that far away. More government help is needed, both from a policy side as Boya highlighted South Africa currently lacks the framework to make smart cities sustainable, but also collaboration. Naidoo suggested public sector across the board in South Africa is far too siloed. To be fair to some local governments however, data sets have been opened up to the general public, providing the fuel for these new ideas.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to be honest, but perhaps we are guilty of pigeon holing Africa. Too many people, and admittedly Telecoms.com does this too often, suggest the only challenges in Africa are focused on expanding the connectivity footprint. This is patronising and ignores the excellent work which is happening further up the stack. It’s not the case that these initiatives are difficult to find, but maybe we need to give them more airtime instead of taking the easy ‘Africa needs to improve connectivity’ angle.

Google’s Loon is actually starting to look like a genuine business

The idea of using balloons floating 20km above the earth to provide connectivity quite frankly sounds bat-sh*t, but Google’s Loon is actually starting to look like a feasible business.

Google is a company which certainly attracts criticism, but you cannot argue with the creativity which is nurtured. The company has a knack of taking an idea which no-one has much commercial faith in and running with it.

Take Google Maps as an excellent example. For years it was nothing more than a helpful tool for users, but now it is turning into a commercial success. And Loon might just be the next moonshot to make waves. Speaking at AfricaCom, Alastair Westgarth, CEO of Loon, gave some insight into progress being made at the business, but also some of the challenges faced when attempting to use balloons to deliver the internet to some of the worlds digital baron lands.

Loon started life as ‘Project Loon’, one of the freewheeling ideas to come out of the mysterious X labs at Google. The idea was initially conceived in 2012 as a means to connect the five billion people around the world who are still without the internet, and named so purely because of the audacity of the concept. Last year, with the team gathering pace, the ‘Project’ part of the name was dropped and the company spun out into its own separate company. Justification for the confidence came soon after, with the team signing its first commercial customer in Telecom Kenya.

“Something which we’re really excited to announce today is that we have all our necessary regulatory approval in Kenya for our operations,” said Westgarth.

“It took a long time, it took partnership with government, partnerships with regulators as well as the MNO you’re working with. As we went on that journey we’ve been working with Liquid Telecom, Nokia, working with Telecom Kenya to install ground stations to connect the balloons, and that process is almost complete. Also we’ve been making sure we have the interconnection between where the Telecom Kenya ground infrastructure is and where our ground infrastructure is, so when someone finally connects to a balloon the signal goes all the way through from our balloon to Telecom Kenya.”

What Westgarth pointed out is this is not a substitute for traditional infrastructure, but an opportunity to enhance coverage. With each balloon capable of delivering a 5000 square km cone of LTE connectivity, this is an opportunity for those countries who deal with hostile environments to deliver the internet and bridge the digital divide in areas where traditional infrastructure is a no go. Westgarth pointed out around 50-60% of the world’s land mass is yet to receive the connectivity euphoria.

With the technology and concept validated, the challenge now is to make Loon a viable business.

“As much as we want to do good things in the world, we also want to be a profitable business,” said Westgarth.

The technology has more than proved its value after launches in Peru following an earthquake which decimated Telefonica’s network, as well as Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. These were ventures which justified the six years of struggles attempting to keep a balloon the size of a tennis court in the air for more than a month, while also keeping it juiced up and automating the steering.

This was a challenge which took ages according to Westgarth, as engineers had to learn how to read wind forecasts, before applying that to the balloons logistics, and then automating the process. It turns out getting a balloon to stay in the same place is a tricky task, as is getting it up in the air in the first place. The engineers had to design a completely custom launch system which, again, has been automated. Then you have to figure out how to monitor the health of the asset, as well as bring it down safely, in the right place and collect all the equipment.

The issue now is on the commercial side. The team are talking to various operators around the world, with particular enthusiasm from Africa and South America, though business is being massaged as the team search for the right balance between CAPEX and OPEX investments from the operators. Right now the balloons operate on an as-a-Service model, though you have to remember this is still early days, a business which is very much taking the first steps of its journey.

The focus will continue to be on Telecom Kenya for the moment, it is important to nail the first project or the business will never be a success, though Westgarth hopes to have more customers in 2019. Africa is seemingly the best opportunity for Loon, though having done most of the testing in South America, there is interest from the operators, while certain Asian markets fit the bill as well.

The balloons are now up there, and staying up, the boring commercial side has to be figured out now. However, this is just another example of how Google’s bold and adventurous attitude can reap rewards; it’s not an accident Google is one of the most influential companies on earth. And now even 20km above it…

MTN unveils its first OTT service and roadmap for digital fortunes

MTN has announced the acquisition of music streaming platform Simfy at AfricaCom and outlined the future of the telco, which doesn’t look very much like a telco anymore.

This is of course a slightly unfair statement, as the mission of connecting the unconnected millions across Africa will continue to be a top priority for the business, though CEO Rob Shuter highlighted the team have much bigger ambitions when it comes to maintaining relevance in the digital economy. The Simfy acquisition is just one step in the quest to morph MTN into a digital services business.

Speaking during the keynote sessions at AfricaCom, Shuter highlighted there are still major challenges when it comes to connectivity in Africa, though telcos need to look deeper into how these challenges can be solved. The most simple roadblock is a lack of connectivity across the continent, but when networks are being deployed, telcos need to understand how consumers are engaging with the connected world. A good place to look first and foremost is China.

“Our mission is not just about connecting people, but understanding what the users want to use the internet for, so we can build networks properly,” said Shuter. “When we look at China today, that will be Africa in the next two to three years.”

Looking at how consumers use connectivity in China starts to paint a picture. Media takes up 17% of time of devices, while communications and social media takes up 33%. Shopping and payments account for 16%, and gaming takes up 11%. For MTN to be relevant in the future, Shuter has ambitions to create a presence in each of these segments.

To capitalise on payments and shopping, the mobile money offering will be revamped and launched in South Africa during Q1 2019. Nigeria has also just changed its regulatory regime when it comes to mobile money, and Shuter said the team would be applying for a payments service license over the next month, with plans to launch a mobile money offering in Q2 2019. This is a big moment for MTN, as while the mobile money offering has been present for some time, this is the first venture into its two largest markets.

For Shuter, creating a digital services company has two components. Using connectivity as a platform, a comprehensive partnerships programme has been launched in four main verticals (communications, rich media services, mobile financial services and eCommerce) with the team working with various established players in the ecosystem, but MTN also have to push itself further up the value chain and offer its own competitive products. This is where Simfy fits in.

As a music subscription product, customers will be able to merge both connectivity and music payments onto the same bill, but Simfy will not be incorporated into the greater MTN business from an operational perspective. Simfy will continue to operate a separate entity, allowing it to maintain the OTT environment. Shuter highlighted he would not want the corporate and operational structure of a telco, completely unsuited to the OTT landscape, to impact Simfy’s operations.

On the financial services side, the team will make use of MTN’s scale to establish a more prominent footprint. With a user base of 24 million already, this number seems to be doubling every 18 months. The significantly larger mobile subscription base can be used to springboard the mobile money business north, as Shuter highlighted the distribution network is key. When customers come to top-up their airtime or data allowance, they can also deposit cash into digital wallets. It is convergence at its finest, though leaning on Orange’s ambitions to diversify out of the traditional telco playground.

There are still huge challenges from a connectivity perspective across the African continent, but MTN seems to recognise there is more to be excited about than simply collecting subscriptions. If the Simfy acquisition is to be taken as evidence of MTN’s future roadmap, this looks like it could be a case of convergence done right, not allowing the cumbersome, archaic telco machine to muddy the OTT waters.

Telco competitors aren’t other telcos anymore

It might seem like an unusual statement to make, but if the fortunes of the fourth industrial revolution are going to be realised, telcos need to stop bickering between themselves.

The new competitive landscape seems like a very counter-intuitive one. The status quo for years has been to capture as many subscriptions as possible, building profits on top of connectivity, though the digital economy is so much more. This might seem like a very obvious statement to make, though the dangers are seemingly more apparent on the African continent, with the OTTs and cloud players a larger threat to a telco than other telcos.

This was a fear which emerged during the opening panel sessions at the AfricaCom 2018 show in Cape Town. Connectivity is not enough, especially on a continent where ARPU can be as low as $4 a month. There is of course demand for more data connectivity, but where is the value when you actually deploy data networks? According to Hind Elbashir, Group Chief Strategy Officer at Sudetal, not in the connectivity business.

“The OTTs have spread their wings, while we are continuing to compete in a very small place,” said Elbashir.

While the telcos are laying the foundations for the digital economy in Africa, they are continuing to focus efforts on traditional business models focused around connectivity and subscriptions. This is a limited section of the value chain, becoming increasingly crowded, and built on the race to the bottom. Value will become increasingly difficult to find and profitability will erode as the telcos fight for customers on pricing. However, the fourth industrial revolution is creating value elsewhere in the ecosystem.

Nic Rudnick, CEO of Liquid Telecom, echoed Elbashir’s point. While the African telcos are building the networks and spending all their time on securing more subscriptions, foreign players in Silicon Valley or China are swooping in to collect the more lucrative rewards at the top of the digital value chain. The OTTs are capitalising on the vast expenditures outlaid by the telcos and stealing the new value which is being created through enhanced connectivity.

But why is this more of a risk in Africa than anywhere else? That is a very simple question to answer; Africa does not have anywhere near the same scale or penetration of connectivity infrastructure as in the developed markets, while ARPUs are significantly lower, adding more pressure to the bottom line. With African telcos having to spend more CAPEX to deploy infrastructure to realise the digital economy than European or North American counterparts, while simultaneously collecting smaller tariffs off customers, it cannot afford to lose the added value created in other areas of the ecosystem.

This is a change in the industry’s landscape which has been coming for years, but the telcos seem to be struggling to capitalise on. The rules are shifting with the cloud and OTT players securing the lion’s share of newly created revenues without assuming the risk and vast expenditure of network deployment. Not only will the telcos have to transform culture and operations to reverse this trend, but also create new relationships with competitors.

Elbashir pointed to joint investments in infrastructure to reduce financial exposure and allow telcos to spread CAPEX further. Multiple joint ventures would allow for quicker expansion of network infrastructure, increasing the connectivity footprint of the telcos, but also allow talent to focus on creating strategies and products to capitalise on the created value in the digital ecosystem.

Collaboration is a key word, though we all know how difficult it can be to create. However, telcos should recognise the greatest threat is not from other telcos who are fighting for subscriptions, but the OTTs and cloud players who so easily secure revenues in segments of the ecosystem the telcos are struggling to exploit. The threat from the OTTs is a simple one, but if it is not addressed, growth is going to be impossible.

This is a new market dynamic, and while the OTTs might be a threat to all telcos around the world, it seems to be more pronounced in Africa.

UK eyes Africa for technology conquests

Millions across the continent are shaking in fear, not in anticipation of a technology-orientated wave of colonialism, but in anticipation of UK Prime Minister Theresa May dancing in celebration.

Following an announcement from the Department for International Trade which outlined future trade relationships between the UK and various African nations, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is weighing in on the African expansion. New partnerships in South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria will include dedicated teams to boost innovation in technology and research, an accelerator programme to help grow African start-ups, and entrepreneurship schemes.

“Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya’s technology sectors are growing rapidly and generating a significant part of their economic output. This means huge opportunities for UK businesses and for future partnerships,” said Digital Secretary Jeremy Wright. “New ideas, game-changing research and cutting-edge science are good news for our African partners and good news for the UK’s world-leading scientists, technologists and researchers who are representing the country on a global stage.”

As part of the new relationship, UK entrepreneurs will work alongside business men and women in Africa to develop new ideas in next generation technologies. Aside from charitably sharing their own expertise, the engagements will open up new opportunities in largely untapped markets. While African nations are playing catch-up, technology is making a more significant impact on society, with the sector accounting for 10% and 11% of the Nigerian and Kenyan economies respectively.

“Africa’s economy is projected to grow by 3.2% in 2018 and to a further 3.5% in 2019, according to the latest 2018 World Bank report,” said Julian David, CEO of techUK. “Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa represent a significant part of that growth with technology increasingly underpinning these numbers. The decision to set up Innovation Partnerships and extend the tech hub network to these African nations shows the Government clearly recognises this opportunity.”

Aside from creating new revenue opportunities, UK tech enthusiasts also might learn a thing or two when it comes to mobile money. While digital payments are a comparatively new craze in the UK, there are much more established markets across Africa. Today more than half Kenya’s daily GDP goes through mobile money, with mobile-phone based money transfer service MPesa one of the most popular.

The news might be worth rejoicing about, but we are all hoping our PM is excited enough to break out her own version of ‘dancing’.

 

Alphabet’s blue sky thinkers pen first Loon deal in Kenya

The Loon team have signed its first commercial deal with Telkom Kenya to deploy a pilot 4G network in suburban and rural areas of the country.

Having dropped the ‘Project’ part of the name, the Loon team now operates as an independent company within the Alphabet business, and does not look that ridiculous any more. Why didn’t anyone else figure out balloons would be an efficient means to deliver connectivity to some of the world’s more difficult not spots.

“As Loon, our mission is to connect people everywhere by inventing and integrating audacious technologies,” said Alastair Westgarth, CEO of Loon. “We couldn’t be more excited to start our journey in Kenya, and we look forward to working with mobile network partners worldwide to deliver on the promise of Loon.”

The deal with Telkom Kenya will kick off in 2019, and is being touted by the team as an alternative to the expensive job of building ground-based infrastructure. The balloons will be 60,000 feet in the air, on the edge of space, focusing on the central regions of Kenya which have been previously difficult to service, due to mountainous and inaccessible terrain. The exact coverage areas will be determined in the coming months, and subject to the requisite regulatory approvals.

“Telkom is focused on bringing innovative products and solutions to the Kenyan market,” said Telkom Kenya CEO Aldo Mareuse. “With this association with Loon, we will be partnering with a pioneer in the use of high altitude balloons to provide LTE coverage across larger areas in Kenya. We will work very hard with Loon, to deliver the first commercial mobile service, as quickly as possible, using Loon’s balloon-powered Internet in Africa.”

Alphabet is a company which certainly does specialise in absurd ideas, though this is one of the few moon-shots which looks to have genuine potential in the near future. Although it has been used to help provide connectivity in regions struck by natural disasters, this is one of the first signs of the long-term and sustainable presence of Loon. For telcos who are considering satellite as a means to tackle the rural not spots, Loon could certainly provide a more cost and time effective means to meet demand.

Back in October, Alphabet was given permission to use 30 experimental balloons to provide connectivity to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, which have been ravaged by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, leaving around 90% of the territories without coverage. While temporary coverage following natural disasters will be a continued use case for Loon, executives will certainly be comforted they don’t have to sit around and wait for a natural disaster to hit.

Alphabet is one of the internet giants which has been consistently searching for ways to diversify the business model, though this is not the first time connectivity was a major play. US telcos might have been relieved to see the end of the Google Fibre experiment, though this venture looks to be far more sustainable for Alphabet. Should the Telkom Kenya project be successful, Loon will start to attract interest around the world.

Is mobile payment going too far when cash has become unacceptable?

When mobile payment with smartphones has become the means of choice at retail outlets, the central bank of China needed to remind businesses they should not reject cash payment.

Once upon a time, people said “cash is king”. Not anymore.

In most retail outlets in China, mobile payment with smartphone apps WeChat Pay (of Tencent) and Alipay (of Alibaba) has become the de facto option. Customers with credit or debit cards only, including the cards on UnionPay (China’s clearing platform), are sometimes in bad luck. It turns out even cash payment may not go all the way, which prompted the central bank, People’s Bank of China, to issue a warning notice to the retailers that rejecting cash is against the law.

This fast and massive move towards mobile apps based payment dwarves the slow uptake of NFC based contactless payment championed by the technology companies. This is despite the tech heavy weights Apple and Google having been supporting NFC payment since 2014. The enthusiasm in which consumers and businesses embrace it, even with the clout of Apple and Google thrown behind it, has been underwhelming.

According to the research firm Berg Insight, the total number of NFC enabled POS terminals grew by almost 100% in 2017 to reach 54.5 million, most actively in North America and Western Europe. Only about 30 million of the terminals have been activated.

Apple has refused to disclose user numbers or transaction values related to Apple Pay, although different research has put the number of users who could pay with Apple Pay and who actually did it at about 3%. The uptake of Android Pay is no better. The comparable adoption rate is estimated at about 1%.

It is safe to say Apple CEO Tim Cook’s ambition to replace wallets with Apple Pay has not gone too smoothly. Mr. Cook himself was reported to have been rejected to pay for his coffee with Apple Pay by a barista, reported The Information.

In contrast, WeChat Pay and Alipay did not only handle over 90% of China’s $16 trillion mobile payment transactions in 2017, they are also actively expanding overseas. An agreement was signed last week with the Kenya based Equity Bank to bring the services to eastern Africa including Uganda, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and Rwanda, in addition to Kenya. With a smartphone penetration level much lower than in China, we do not believe retailers in Africa will rush to refuse cash payment though.

Africa is our biggest headache, and we aren’t getting much help – Orange SVP

With the technology world constantly focusing on bigger, faster and better, it is easy to forget there are challenges outside aside from satisfying the demanding appetite of the digital natives.

This is one of the biggest headaches for Emmanuel Lugagne Delpon, Senior Vice President Orange Labs. The African market doesn’t need bigger, better or faster connectivity, it just needs basic internet. In light of the challenges faced by the telco world, it might seem like a simple one, but right now Delpon isn’t receiving the assistance he needs.

“So far we do not have a solution,” said Delpon. “We have standardized equipment, which allows for economies of scale, but we use the same solutions for rich countries as we do Africa. These countries have ARPU of $30 a month, compared to $1 in Africa. We simply cannot afford that.”

Standardization has been wonderful for the developed nations in Europe or North America, were densely populated communities benefit from mobile equipment which is designed for high download speeds and high bandwidth. But to achieve these aims, broad coverage has had to be sacrificed. Delpon highlighted that today many of the radio antenna solutions cover 5-10km, which is fantastic for central London, but wholly unsuitable for rural Africa.

Considering the vast expanse of the African continent, the number of underserved areas of connectivity and the low ROI through ARPU, the economics of equipment which cover 5-10km do not make sense. Antennas need to be able support 100km or more to be suitable to meet the demands of the African continent, as Delpon commented the demands are not for exciting content or ridiculous download speeds, just basic connectivity. Unfortunately, no-one is providing a suitable local solution as it stands.

While rural coverage in Africa is an on-going challenge, only specific to a small proportion of operators around the world, the next one is one which should be universal; virtualisation.

It’s another topic which not be new to the telco world, but the standardisation of Network Function Virtualisation Infrastructure (NFVI) is one of the most important hurdles being faced by Delpon right now. Standardization might not be the most exciting topic in the industry, but it is critical. Delpon has 20% of R&D workforce focusing explicitly on standards, trying to avoid the dreaded divergence trend which is starting to appear.

“For 3G the industry failed,” said Delpon. “Operators made progress for 4G and the adoption of 4G was very quick. For 5G there is a chance of divergence, but we are working hard to maintain the one standard.”

This is the threat which the industry is facing. NFVI is not standardized, potentially meaning every operator will be reinventing network architecture on their own terms. This is not a new topic, but seems to have been brushed aside recently. A telco driving forward with its own imagination is great for the short-term, but ultimately it will destroy the concept of economy of scale, which is imperative for the development of cost-effective and high-performance networks.

Unfortunately, some of the major contributors to standardization, the vendors, can act more like a devil on the shoulder than the angel. Ultimately, the idea of decoupling hardware and software is not the most sensible business decision, you are after all then losing a guaranteed customer, and lower the barrier for entry to a horde of new software competitors. The vendors aren’t wholly ‘enthusiastic’ about this idea according to Delpon, which has been causing problems. Operator pushing their own version of 5G network architecture are not being discouraged by the vendors because why would they?

Economy of scale is critical for Delpon and his army of R&D engineers in creating the networks of tomorrow. Unfortunately, the industry is not exactly supporting his ambitions for the moment. Change is coming, but change is always difficult.

China Telecom and Liquid tie up in search for scale

China Telecom Global and Liquid Telecom have announced a new collaboration to extend their respective network coverage in the African and Asian markets.

The partnership will allow both of the telcos to offer additional network solutions and services to enterprise and wholesale customers, as well as increasing coverage across two challenging regions. China Telecom Global has already established a Point-of-Presence (PoP) at Liquid Telecom’s East Africa Data Centre in Nairobi, though this will be extended facilities in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

“With more than 50 countries in the region, Africa is nonetheless the booming new market with the highest development rate just after Asia, and a very important market for CTG,” said Changhai Liu, Managing Director of China Telecom, Africa and Middle East. “This collaboration will enable both CTG and Liquid Telecom better serve our customers and explore untapped business potential for further development. Under this partnership, we are well positioned to enhance the connectivity and network infrastructure in both regions.”

“This partnership with China Telecom Global reflects the strong global demand for world-class network services across Africa. Our combined service and network capabilities will be of great value to multinationals operating in some of the fastest growing economies across Africa and Asia-Pacific,” said Willem Marais, Group Chief Business Development Officer at Liquid Telecom.

Partnerships like this should be encouraged in regions where investments can be challenging to justify. While telcos in more developed markets can build business cases around investment in network infrastructure, the difference in economics between the developed and developing nations mean the rules are not the same. Telcos in developing nations aren’t even playing the same game, as economy of scale becomes much more difficult to realise.

BICS and Fastweb combine to link Europe and MEA

Connectivity vendor BICS has joined forces with Italian operator Fastweb to augment communications links between Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

The strategic partnership aims to combine BICS’ pan-European network with Fastweb’s fibre backbone in Italy and its access to submarine cable systems originating in Sicily. The point of this joint effort is to offer intercontinental connectivity services wholesale to other operators.

“We are highly satisfied with this partnership agreement with such a major international player as BICS, which highlights the strength of our network and the solid nature of our strategy,” said Fabrizio Casati, Chief Wholesale Officer at Fastweb. “The partnership with BICS adds further value to our investments, following on from our participation in the Open Hub Med consortium in Sicily and the development of an innovative and future-proof Flexible Optical Network all along Italy.”

“BICS has always been committed to providing its customers with first-class connectivity, and this partnership confirms our position as a bridging partner for operators expanding their capacity provision throughout Europe,” said Daniel Kurgan, CEO at BICS.

In case you’re wondering where else BICS connects here are a couple of maps for you. We couldn’t find any for Fastweb, sorry.

BICS Europe

BICS global