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Network quality as key defferentiator

Interview - November 11, 2014

Unitel CEO, Tony Dolton, talks in an exclusive interview about Angola, the Telecom industry and Unitel’s impressive investment in a National Fiber Network.


Parallel to an impressive economic growth, Angola has maintained over the last years political stability.  Private investment has grown nearly 330 percent in past years, making the country one of the preferred investment destinations in the continent. What steps must be taken to turn Angolan potential into tangible results?

In my opinion, Angola is not well understood or well known outside of Africa, other than in the Portuguese speaking countries so it is important to attract investments and expertise from a wider global business community. The country has many business and social opportunities that range from the provision and supply of energy, telecommunications, ICT, oil and gas that is already well served and mining, but also, agriculture, tourism, education and health. To turn these opportunities into realities, first requires a greater appreciation from the international community of what Angola has to offer. I also believe some changes in bilateral agreements between different countries, in terms of visas and access to the country would assist this process.  However, from my own perspective and experience I believe that the opportunities in Angola far outweigh the challenges that may be initially faced by new companies entering this market.

What would you say is currently Angola’s biggest asset or added value?

Economically, the oil and gas industry has been the biggest financial asset to Angola. However, there appears to be significant investment from central government on large infrastructure projects such as new roads, railways, and construction in general.  It seems there is a clear vision in Angola to develop growth beyond oil.

On the telecommunications side, the role of Unitel is to “enable” businesses and people. Currently we have sites in all the provinces and we are continuing to expand both our coverage but also our technology that include building a national fiber network across the country. Nine thousand kilometers of fiber have been deployed with the intention of supporting our own networks, but also to provide support to the national infrastructure and improve broadband communications across Angola.

We are also deploying metropolitan fiber networks in the capitals of the major Provinces that are going to provide high quality and high-speed broadband and Internet connectivity to areas that are currently starved from this sort of technology, or rely on slower, more expensive technologies for these services.

Finally the Angolan population is generally very young, and ready to take on new ideas and develop in new ways.  I personally believe that is a tremendous asset in itself.

Fuelled by improved economic conditions, the last five years have seen Africa experience the fastest telecoms growth worldwide, which has transformed fundamental aspects of social and business life. With a vast experience in the African market, how would you assess Angola’s telecom industry and its greatest challenges?

Firstly, the Angolan telecommunications market is still growing and there is more potential for developing wider telecoms services. For the size of the economy the Internet and ICT penetration is still quite low when compared to similar size economies within Africa and the telecoms industry has a role to play in enabling people and businesses through the development of these services.

As you would expect there are a number of challenges that we have to face but I do not think there is much different to what you would experience in a similar Emerging country in Africa. Power reliability, fuel distribution, maintenance of sites in remote areas, and cost of satellite transmission from a base stations are all recurring challenges.  In addition Angola is a very big country that has a relatively small and quite dispersed population compared to its size, so when connecting isolated and difficult to reach communities the engineering team often have to build sites that are miles away from normal infrastructure and this can represent problems for us.

Despite the various challenges, Angola and particular Unitel is leading in the use of new, more efficient technologies to improve the quality of the network whilst reducing the cost.  We pride ourselves on our network quality as being a key differentiator from the competition and this is one of the reasons behind our extraordinary investment in a National Fiber Network that connects all the provinces together and allows us to deploy high speed and reliable data to our sites.

Carlos Slim and Cesar Alierta are of the opinion that telecom infrastructure must not be shared. What is your view on this regard?

I can understand the argument that says that sharing infrastructure promotes competition; but the other side of the argument states, and this is the one that Unitel has taken, that investing billions of dollars of shareholders’ money in building infrastructure, gives us a competitive edge through network coverage and quality differentiation. To give this fantastic asset away would discourage any inclination to invest more in the future. In my view competition isn’t just about price, competition is about value and what people perceive to be good value and in order to create new value, you need to invest in your network, your people, your products and innovation. For us, network differentiation is one of the reasons why our customers choose Unitel. We reward their loyalty by investing in great new products, new capability and better value services.

You operated in a very competitive market such as Egypt. What differentiates it from Angola?

Egypt is a very interesting and highly competitive market. It has three operators, two of are quite mature with a newer 3rd operator entering the market much later.  The three operators have become so competitive that pricing was driven to an extremely low value such that the networks of all the operators were being “overused”.  Because the pricing was so low the returns were insufficient to encourage enough investment on the networks, so the outcome is that there is limited network differentiation, and therefore increasingly poor quality.  Customers get cheap calls but suffer from poor quality and low investment in new technologies.

Angola is a different environment and as a result Unitel has and can continue to invest huge amounts of money into the network to ensure that we can deliver the latest technologies and the best possible quality. At my own home for example I use a Unitel LTE router and consistently have 20 megabytes download speed.  We invest to improve coverage so we can connect the whole of Angola, we invest to improve quality and we invest to help businesses and society.

Can you tell us a bit about the LTE Advanced network you are building?

We are deploying a national fiber network that connects all the provincial capitals primarily to support data services on our sites and to allow the huge Broadband speeds that LTE-A represents.  At this stage we have completed successful trials of the technology and have witnessed phenomenal speeds. I am proud of the 20 megabytes I get at home, but we will start getting 60 or 70 megabytes thanks to this new technology.

At the moment there are limited affordable LTE–A devices in the market so we are not planning a full network roll-out of LTE-A until that situation improves; although it is on our roadmap and when the time is right, we will launch it; I must add that the equipment we are deploying on our sites is ready for launching this new capability quite quickly if we need to. Our focus today is to expand our overall network coverage across the country, as well as expanding the LTE network.  In Luanda we currently have around 60 or 70 percent coverage of LTE; but by the end of the first quarter next year, we will have reached 100 percent coverage in all the main cities of the country.

What will this mean for the future of the industry and its competitiveness?

It is not so much about the future of the industry as it is about giving new opportunities to the people and businesses of Angola. As with most countries in Africa there is not a strong legacy Fixed line network in Angola and the wireless technologies are leapfrogging the advances that you see in xDSL technology.   This represents an opportunity for the mobile Telecommunications companies in Angola to reap the benefits of this gap in the market.

We are now in a position where we sell high-speed broadband, data intensive services, over the wireless network. We will be introducing cloud services such as Office, Internet or Customer Management services in the future, as customer demand increases for these type of services.  We also intend to provide data centre services, data backup, remote disaster recovery, hosting solutions and a number of other services in the near future that rely on   reliable and high quality connectivity solutions – solutions that are already available in our portfolio. Angola is also investing in a new fiber undersea cable connecting Luanda to Fortaleza in Brazil.  Angola then has the potential to become a connectivity hub for West Africa and in preparation Unitel is extending the fiber network to the borders of neighboring countries.

You were in Ghana where you had to turn a company around; in Egypt you had to deal with the political and social turmoil, which by itself was challenging to say the least. Today you are CEO of Unitel, a company that was already quite healthy when you got here. Where do you want to take the company, what is the limit?

Unitel is a very healthy company and is doing fantastically well. I add a new set of experiences to a management team that has already enjoyed fantastic success.  Together we will take the company to a new level, in terms of revenue, in terms of scope and in terms of breadth.  Watch this space.

Could you please broaden on the ICT opportunities?

There is a great opportunity for Unitel to help in the development of ICT in Angola.  At the moment ICT services are in their infancy in Angola and this has largely been due to the poor availability of high speed and reliable data connections.  This is where Unitel can make a real difference and we have already started on that journey.   We have focused in two main areas:  How to grow awareness and accessibility of data services in the consumer market, and how to develop reliable and high speed connectivity solutions for the Enterprise and Corporate markets.

In the consumer business we have focused on the device or handset, the cost of data and the content we provide, and in a very short time we have already seen the success of this strategy, with our data through put expanding by over 60% in just 6 months.  

In the Enterprise and Corporate markets we are developing new products and services so we can provide reliable and high-speed connectivity solutions followed by value-added services over that connection.  We intend to expand this into data center services in the near future.  In just a short time we have seen a huge demand for these services and we believe this demand will continue to grow significantly over the next few years.

Currently most telcos have embarked on a journey of cost consolidation and revenue growth through service diversification: e banking, commerce, education, health, etc. Mobile technology and innovation cross every industry and sector. What opportunities do you see here and how is Unitel capitalizing on these possible synergies?

Everything you mentioned represent new opportunities, I agree. However, we embrace, promote and hopefully enhance them but do not see them as significant opportunities to increase our own revenue, rather we see them as opportunities to contribute to society; and hopefully the benefit we get from this is recognition.  It is our role to make them available to people when and where they need them.

Mobile money for example, it is not currently in Angola. If and when it does come to Angola the value to us as a business will not necessarily be the revenue it might generate but how we are seen in the process by our customers. We are never going to offer medical services, but we might enable the doctors to do their jobs a little easier, a little better, a little quicker. I think that is where we fit in.

So, for me it is about how we can collaborate, and be a part of that new world; how we can use our extensive network in a really positive way to help society in general. I see our role as “enablement” and hopefully people will see that Unitel helped and in return, we believe society will thank us by using our services.

To some extent it is about creating brand loyalty, through innovation and support to our customers.  Our brand stands for quality and fun; we represent quality in what we do and if we were to launch something in these areas, I would want it to be a quality product; this way we are more involved in people’s lives, we are more than just a mobile company.

The first phrase you said in this interview was that Angola is not well understood. You are talking about representing quality, how do you think Unitel can represent quality outside Angola considering the lack of information about the country?

Everyone that comes to Angola for the first time is surprised that we have an LTE network and that we have mobile networks that actually work as well as they do. They are surprised to see that there are very nice restaurants, fantastic hotels, etc. I think that, largely, it is about a lack of exposure to the outside world to the development and culture of Angola.  

We can represent quality by how we behave, how we communicate and how we work with companies outside of Angola.  Unitel International has recently launched a new network in St Tomé and last year we invested heavily in our operation in Cape Verde so it is our ambition that these companies represent the Unitel brand in terms of differentiation and quality in the same way that we do in Angola.  

What is Unitel doing to tap the corporate and business niche, how can you add value?

We have a fantastic network, whether it is the fiber or the mobile network; therefore, we can provide a lot more to industry and businesses than we have done in the past. I think we can offer a lot more in terms of high value connectivity solutions and data centric solutions. It is a priority for us, but more important is to create a level of trust; and that is what we are currently doing, building trust.

I think there is a great opportunity in the business sector and we will be investing heavily on developing and growing our corporate solutions portfolio.

You are the undisputable leader of the sector, but analysts expect Regulator to issue new mobile licences. Vodacom, MTN and other operators are eying the Angolan market. Sun Tzu, in his art of war teaches us to rely on one’s readiness to receive the enemy. How ready and prepared is Unitel?

I do not mind anyone entering the market. We have a fantastic voice and data network, of which I am very proud; we also have the best people in Angola and we have the best fiber network. It will take a competitor several years and significant investment to be able to do what we do. We see competition as being good; but as I said before, competition in the right way.

Many interviewees have stressed the gap that exists in terms of human capital development and training; many companies bring expats, but Unitel’s workforce is 99 percent local. How do you face this challenge and what opportunities for collaboration through Unitel Academy exist with Spanish companies?

Our people are the success of Unitel. Out of 2600 people, only 19 are expats and they are employed in areas where we have real skill or experience shortages. By nature, when you have only two mobile operators, there will be areas where we lack experience but I am immensely proud of the people we have. They helped build this company and they are the ones who will continue to make it grow. I see our human capital as being a very big asset and where there is a gap in experience we will find ways to fill it.

We do most of our training through the Unitel Academy; we try to invite suppliers to join to us, rather than us going to them and we aim to use our own people to train; asking the suppliers to “train the trainers” and they, in return, train our own people.

The academy is really very much like a mini-university and its scope goes across all parts of the business. We are also creating modules for leadership from junior management to Director level. This might come from formal training, experience in work, job rotation, or a myriad of other things that should help someone climb up the management ladder.

In terms of collaboration, we collaborate with quite a few institutions. For example, over the past couple of years, all of our directors have spent time in the London Business School in order to give them experience in wider global business issues, challenges, solutions and methodologies. And I think this is a good way for people to develop their thinking and to meet other business leaders. We collaborate as well with many Portuguese companies; For someone to join partner with us in the area it is a case of it having the right approach and your ideas and solutions making sense for us. If you are the right person or team, then you have an opportunity here.

Larry Page says that many companies do not succeed over time, mainly because they usually miss the future. How do you see Unitel’s future?

Fantastic. As I mentioned before, we have a very strong strategy. We are planning for the future and have articulated a vision for 2020. We tried to imagine what the world will look like in 2020 in Angola, and from there we developed our strategy and this represents a roadmap for growth.  This years projects in commercial teams, the finance and technology teams are all aligned around our strategic plan.

Unitel has always been a very forward thinking company and as a result Unitel’s position in Angola will continue to grow.

What role does internationalization play in your roadmap to Vision 2020?

The extent to which we internationalize will be largely a decision made by our shareholders, depending on how much risk they want to be exposed to. What is clear in Africa, is that a lot of people have worked really hard to try to succeed and have failed. You see buyouts every few years because companies aren’t making enough money. So I think whether and where we intend to internationalize depends on the opportunity being right, if it makes sense to us as a business and our shareholders agree, we may make an offer. But we will have to wait and see.

CSR is part of Unitel’s DNA: Culture, education, health and sports are your 4 main pillars when it comes to giving back to the community; your responsibility goes far beyond providing a quality service. For you, Tony Dolton, what does CSR mean and what do you believe is your responsibility?

Our CSR program is currently under review. The reason is that in my view our CSR is currently more about a giving mindset, and I want to change that to a “how can we enable and help create sustainability” mindset, using our core strengths as a telecommunications company to connect people.  We are asking ourselves how can we connect people who are less fortunate and can’t perhaps access our services, or need help in terms of education or in terms of health?

Our plan is to collaborate with government and local communities to help in education and health; maybe through connecting hospitals, maybe by connecting universities together, and doing it in a very low cost way.

We also plan to loom at initiatives to support young and local entrepreneurs. We are a very big company, and we have the scale to be able to support people who have “good” ideas, but do not know how to build it, develop it and get it to the market. 

We want to enable these guys to succeed – if we can.  So we are looking at different ways to develop future ideas with people outside of the company.

Also I believe that good CSR has to be sustainable.  The team has developed a great vision for our CSR activities in the future and we will look to launch something early in 2015.

Without good leadership there can be no success. Unitel’s success is more than obvious. How would you assess your leadership philosophy when you come to the office?

Fundamentally I believe in people and when given the right opportunity and in the right environment their ability to amaze. So we aim to give our employees the opportunity to succeed and I try to engage as much as possible to encourage, to suggest and to challenge. However, a leader also needs to know when to engage and when to make a decision. You have to let people grow their own way, which means sometimes letting them make mistakes.  In summary I like to to engage with people and push them as much as possible to achieve more than they thought was possible.

That being said one of the most important parts of my job is to create and communicate a vision for the company and for the people in the company. I have to persuade people that it is worth joining me on a journey and I have to be totally committed and enthusiastic about that journey – or I might find myself on my own!

Looking back, what makes you more proud?

I have been extraordinarily lucky in my career in having the opportunity to experience a variety of roles, countries, cultures and industries.  I have only been part of the Unitel family for a short time, but I have already fallen in love with Angola; it is a privilege and I am extremely proud to be part of this fantastic company.

It seems you are always looking for the next big challenge. What drives you and motivates you?

I am a naturally optimistic person, I like getting up in the morning and going to work and I am very enthusiastic about life. That combination of enthusiasm, optimism and high energy just about keeps me going.   I am naturally motivated.