After the launch of the Africa to Europe (ACE) fiber submarine cable, IPXEG is the only ISP delivering fiber optic connectivity reliably and successfully across the country. Paul Jones, Director General of IPXEG, tells us about the launch of the company, its development and how it has been and is growing together with Equatorial Guinea
We have been reading about you and saw you have been working in different world-renowned organizations in the UK, China, the US or Brazil. Please tell us about your global experience and how it is helping you today to successfully run IPX EG.
I think my past experience has given me a broad platform in which I can analyze how countries are developing, the commitment that countries have towards development and the probability of success for a country. While I lived in China in 1998 - that was the old China, not the China that you see now with a Starbucks at every corner-, you could tell that there was a lot of momentum behind changing roles and modernization. I observe a lot in common with what we are experiencing here in Equatorial Guinea. I reckon that while in China, I did not have enough experience to capitalize on what was going on and I feel very fortunate that a similar transition is going on here. Although this country is, of course, not as big as China, I am very grateful to be here and be a part of it. One of the things that excite me, makes me get up every day, is the vision that 20 years from now I will be able to look back and think “I helped to build that, I was one of the guys who was, from the very early stages, rolling up my sleeves and participating in the development of this country”.
Most of the expats that I come in contact with carry that same type of mentality, that they are part of something special. Of course, as the first batch of soldiers or cowboys you hit the rough patches but at the end of the day you know that your labor will have an impact in the history of a nation. This is becoming more and more tangible every day, as the evident change is going along with it; it’s not just a couple of guys trying to move the nation while others stand by, but every day you see these changes and the government is investing heavily into infrastructure and more talented people join this movement. It is a great environment.
After 46 years of independence, Equatorial Guinea is living the most prosperous time in its history. Maintaining peace and political stability, the country is an example of governability in Africa. What are the challenges EG has still to face to become a developed country by 2020, especially in the IT sector?
There remains a tremendous amount of work to be done. There has been substantial progress over the past five years, especially in the past 3 years. In December 2012 the country was connected to the ACE cable, linking Africa to Europe, and this has had a huge impact on the telecom landscape in Equatorial Guinea. Prior to this, connectivity via satellite was the available platform and this had a lot of limitations for users to fully leverage technology platforms available. This changed in 2013 and IPX EG played a big role as being the first company to market and commercially sell fiber optic bandwidth and MPLS Layer 2 and Layer 3 solutions to the large corporations. We are the only company that provides such solutions to companies in the country to communicate and connect successfully to their head offices abroad. There needs to be a lot more investment, on the part of the government and operators, to have interconnectivity within the country. As you know, the country is split into different islands and the mainland and, even within the mainland, there are a few different cities that are emerging and there is a need for these different points of commercial and residential interests to be connected through a very solid network. The government is taking active steps, but like anywhere, the government can only do so much. The government is building a great foundation, and putting a lot of work into it, but a lot of the responsibilities are on the operators to build a grid to the households, build a model and maintain it and help create the awareness of proper internet usage. It is up to us not only to deliver the technology but also to help engage the population in proper usage and how to maximize the country’s investment.
How would you say the ICT sector has changed the lives of people of Equatorial Guinea and also the way of doing business in the country in recent years?
I think it is a reflection of the country. Many times people will go somewhere, or even here, and they will take a snapshot of what the country is. And of course as a development story it is easy to find fault at first sight, having the USA or Europe as a standard, but it’s really not an equitable comparison. If you look at the US ten years or five years ago versus where it is now, things have changed, some for the better and some for the worse. If you look at Equatorial Guinea five years ago to where it is now it is a totally different country. Five years ago communications were so underdeveloped that it was difficult to find connectivity and if you did it was insanely expensive and you really couldn’t do much with it.
While bandwidth remains relatively expensive, progress is very tangible. Citizens are starting to use Internet in their homes for entertainment, for education and are embracing the technology. IPX has been a part of a lot of the coordination between the private sector and the State, on infrastructure investment, and with operators. Indeed, the ACE cable allowed the Internet prices to go down about a fourth of the price, though it is still expensive. There is so much pent up demand for that capacity. If a user had ten times more bandwidth than he had five years ago, that is great, but he would probably need about a hundred times more to properly utilize it and have the same browsing experience as in other developed countries.
We continue to do our part - everybody should benefit from the bandwidth that is being provided by the government. We began marketing fiber capacity before ACE cable was installed and though people were doubtful about its availability, we would insist that the fiber cable would surely be available in the country. The oil companies started off by using it as their residential link, no business applications were placed on it because they just didn’t trust it; after time and a lot of support they started believing in the quality of service.
Once the business community fully engages, the economies of scale, an economic model comes in place where you can distribute fiber capacity to the broader population. The endgame is for everybody to have it and though we have focused more on enterprise as this is where our strength is, we also know that a lot of the other operators have a closer link to the residential segment, and once it is commercially accepted as the technology that everybody uses, it is going to trickle down and be the standard for everybody. It is one of those things that you want to happen and you know it is going to happen, but you have to be patient and wait for it.
Please tell us about IPX EG’s history and which milestones you have achieved since its establishment in 2011.
Facilitating companies’ conversion from satellite to fiber capacity was a notable milestone. Working with the ministries and introducing new technology solutions to the Ministries was, I would say, just as remarkable and had its own set of challenges. IPX EG management recognized various requirements and began to focus on various technology solutions customized to suit the requirements of the different user groups.
Oil and Gas companies’ requirement is to have very strong connectivity from Malabo to their office in Houston, and for it to be as transparent, secure, fast and stable as possible. This is a specific requirement and we considered different aspects to engage this opportunity. On the other hand, government requirements are a little broader.
As you mentioned, IPX EG is not only chosen by big or medium sized enterprises and Government but by small enterprises and residential customers. Why do you think you are chosen by all of them? What are your competitive advantages and how do you manage to keep the standards for such a diversified client portfolio?
For businesses and enterprises, which has traditionally been our focus, we have target companies that value service, from the standpoint that our systems are more stable and if something happens we are available to resolve the issues. I think in every marketplace there is a premium provider, which in many cases is more expensive than its competitors, as well as a low cost provider. Some companies have the misconception that all African customers only think about price, which results in the “race to the bottom” where he who has cheapest price obtains market share. We took sort of a contrary viewpoint and thought, “In EG many consumers appreciate good quality. We positioned ourselves as the quality service provider and this has worked well. Do we lose contracts for price reasons? Absolutely, but people who do want and need the right experience come to us. That is our reputation and we have worked really hard to preserve it every day and so far it has been pretty successful.
You recognize your customers count on IPX EG to deliver world-class service; therefore a significant investment is made in your personnel, processes, and infrastructure to ensure 99.9% availability. Could you elaborate on these programs and the investments you make to keep up with your own standards?
Technology is a sector where everything is always changing so you have to really stay on top of your game. IPX EG continuously invests in training and local capacity development to ensure we maintain a talented work pool. Sometimes you have to start with some of the basic skill sets, train your team and have a good pairing of expats and locals. One of the ways we compensate and evaluate our employees is how much they have learned and improved their skills set and, for expats, how much they have trained their colleagues. IPX EG has also invested substantial capital into our infrastructure. However it is now how much you in invest; it is how wisely you invest. IPX EG recognizes that there are certain solutions that are suitable for the local environments and others not so much. Many new companies make this mistake and end up with a sub-standard service. IPX EG has developed distinctive technical competencies complemented by in-depth knowledge about the local environment. Developing efficient processes and having the discipline to follow them is a challenge in any country and EG is no exception. While IPX EG has a long way to go, we made significant progress this year by structuring our business into units that focus on our various customer groups. In short, we put the customer first and designed our business processes amongst there unique needs. As you can imagine a residential customer’s needs and value proposition is quite different from that of a ministry or a financial institution. By aligning our business process closer with the various customers groups the Company’s satisfaction rates and efficiency have noticeably improved.
Within the IT sector, you also offer security services. Please tell us about these services.
We offer IP–based security solutions. This is a natural fit because they are value add-ons to a strong telecom platform. Given IPX EG’s desirable distribution platform and strong relationships amongst large enterprises and government ministries, we attempted to look at this new technology leap from our clients’ perspective in terms of what solutions would provide them the best value. IPX EG even started a new business unit, IPX Secure where we introduce a “customer – solution” paradigm rather than the proverbial “product – sales” model. For example, we observed that many ministerial buildings did not have proper security oriented mechanisms in place with resulted in the general public entering areas that are traditionally unauthorized. Recognizing the vulnerabilities, IPX Secure installed in integrated facilities security at the National Treasury which included turnstiles, door access systems and surveillance cameras allowing officials to control levels of access granted and track the movement of its employees using smart ID cards. Similar systems have subsequently been adopted by many other government buildings.
Given the dynamic environment, our solutions often come about by our customers need at the moment. This requires us to be flexible and maintain a broad range of technical partners. Most recently IPX EG delivered, on very short notice, a project for the African Cup of Nations. The task was to deliver counterfeit-proof tickets with multi-layer of embedded security as well as scanning devices to track and not duplicate tickets. We brought one of our best technology partners to the forefront and it was a great success. Requests for different facility security systems have come in and we have always delivered. IPX EG is always developing technology solution paring material and human resources available in country with technology developed by global market leaders resulting in solutions that comparable to what you see anywhere else in the world.
Another aspect of our critical requirement is to find technology partners to fully understand that there are an abundance of opportunities in EG; our job is not just to sell product to people in EG, but to also sell the country to companies abroad. There are a lot of people, especially in the US, where the first meeting we have with them for the first hour we tell them about Equatorial Guinea, showing them a map and educating them on the remarkable evolution occurring in the country. This is clearly substantiated by telling them the IPX EG story, notably how we were able to successfully grow a thriving enterprise here. We have brought numerous people here from various professional and geographical backgrounds and without exception, they left very impressed by the country’s development and tremendous business potential.
Do you have any more expansion plans within the region?
Yes, another byproduct of the ACE cable is more Pan Africa expansion. Historically it has been more expensive for someone to call from EG to Ghana, than to call from EG to Spain. Presently, the ACE cable interconnects countries all along the west coast. The connected countries will witness a lot of very exciting products and solutions built on the fact that now you can stop at these different points along the highway and store content here; whereas previously all the content was stored in the US or Europe. This enables faster, more stable and less expensive communication between various African countries, and opens platforms to make phone calls and video conferences, just to mention a few. IPX EG is determined to remain in front of this technological wave, as we are actively engaging with international telecom companies that have infrastructure throughout Africa, to serve as their local partner in EG. Our partners benefit by capitalizing on our local infrastructure to reach their customers and our superb group of highly trained engineers to ensure world class after sales support. In exchange these partnerships catapult IPX EG a company that can offer services 20 different countries throughout Africa. Our international partners also understand that EG as a very big market to trade and store material, because it is centrally located, it is a very secure country and it is a gateway to the rest of the continent. EG is effectively a gateway to a market of 200 million people!
Bearing in mind we are speaking to a mostly American audience, what would you tell American investors about EG and coming to invest here?
EG is very receptive to anyone who comes and wants to add value. As an American, who has lived here for over 5 years and attest to the amount of eagerness within EG to forge stronger ties with the USA. The country really does invite Americans; it is not just a feeling, it is tangible from the lack of visa requirements for Americans, the fact that still the large oil producers are Americans, and the US embassy is a substantial first class embassy. The relationships growing stronger and is mutually appreciated. If a company endeavors to launch a product or service in a secure area that can reach all of West Africa, I think EG should not just be your first choice but I would say it should be your only choice, There is so much security and so much support amongst the US and the EG side that it is a no-brainer to me; this is where you want to be as an American company that wants exposure to the continent.