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Forward-thinking Unitel investing to ensure Angola is well connected

Article - July 31, 2014
Unitel continues to invest in Angolan telecommunication infrastructure and in serving the needs of its clients
When it comes to industry in Angola, oil almost always takes center stage. That a nation of upwards of 18 million people aims to be producing 2 million barrels of oil a day by 2015 is remarkable indeed, though a gander at the current state of Angola’s telecom industry is proof that the sub-Saharan nation may soon be as well known for its cutting-edge fiber networks as it is for its prodigious fuel supply.

Established in March 2001, Unitel is Angola’s leading wireless network provider, and the prime driver of innovation in the Angolan telecoms sector. Within its first year of operation, it became Angola’s market leader, and now, after just over a decade of operations, it has captured 72% of the Angolan mobile market and has recently surpassed a much-lauded landmark of 10.5 million customers.

The company

Headquartered in Luanda, the company currently employs over 2,500 people, making it the biggest private company in all of Angola.

Roughly 25 expatriate employees are included among its ranks, and are only employed when the company faces a skills shortage that cannot be filled with local talent. Otherwise, the emphasis is on stimulating the local economy with employment and on equipping the local employees of Unitel with the skills and training which Unitel CEO Tony Dolton believes are at the heart of the company’s success.

Unitel’s reputation has been built upon quality service and cutting edge technology. It was the first operator to deliver 3G, and 3.5G networks in Angola, and nearly two years ago, it launched one of the first 4G networks on the entire African continent. More recently, Unitel has teamed up with Ericsson to offer the next step in the evolution of high-speed mobile broadband services: LTE Advanced Carrier Aggregation technology.

As the first African operator to use this state-of-the-art communications technology, Unitel’s foray into LTE-Advanced will allow it to make the most of its existing spectrum assets by combining multiple spectrum bands to provide higher data speeds while increasing network capacity and enhancing the end-user experience.

Telecom for the people

Well in tune with the extremely varied needs of its customers, Unitel is careful to keep an eye on future technologies without alienating its customers who are new to smart devices, or in less of a position to afford them. At the moment, its biggest push is towards the more universal and affordable access to mobile data; a resource that Unitel’s leaders truly believe will add real benefits and offer new opportunities to its customers.

The company’s strategy to increase access to mobile data is threefold, and begins with more pocket-friendly access to 3G and 4G, following Unitel’s wide deployment of these networks. In parallel, the company also plans to offer high quality, competitively priced 3G smartphones, including a device that retails for $69. Finally, the company expects to drive data adoption by offering new local content, including a music portal and several other customized entertainment options.

[THE GOVERNMENT] consider that this industry can be a catalyst for future development and that telecommunications will help create a better future for the economy.

Unitel Chief Executive
To help users understand how to maximize their understanding of this content and of smart devices in general, Unitel has established an online educational platform called “Smartphone 4Afrika”, and employs teams of “data experts” in its premium stores, who much like the employees of Apple’s “Genius Bar”, help familiarize customers with how to maximize their use of mobile data.

Though serving the consumer market is Unitel’s main objective, the company also has plans to expand into the Enterprise and Business sectors, especially in the realm of ICT. To date, Unitel has invested $700 million in a fiber backbone network of over 5,600 miles that will cover all of Angola by the end of 2015. In parallel, the company is also building metropolitan fiber networks for the capital cities of various provinces in a bid to help the country boost its “E” industry (e-commerce, e-banking, etc) in the near future. Finding ways to better service corporate customers while offering other ICT services that may enhance Unitel’s own networks are among the large projects that the company currently has in the pipeline.

Bolstering Unitel’s faith in the local market and its desire to continue investing heavily in Angolan telecoms infrastructure reinforces the company’s conviction that the Angolan government is truly committed to developing the telecoms sector.

“From my perspective the Government of Angola is very supportive of the telecommunications and ICT sector,” says Mr. Dolton. “I believe that they consider that this industry can be a catalyst for future development and that telecommunications will help create a better future for the economy.”

Though Unitel certainly has a vested interest in the future success of the Angolan economy, the degree of economic development it has helped foster – especially in some of the more rural regions of the country – must also be acknowledged. For example, some of the sites where Unitel currently operates were once so remote they didn’t even have electricity. In addition to bringing electricity, Unitel inevitably jumpstarted the jobs market in these areas by hiring locals to work as site security, or sales staff responsible for selling cell phone and mobile recharge cards.

Part of the reason for investing so heavily in the fiber network is to increase the efficiency of Unitel’s operations in the more remote areas of Angola. Instead of relying on satellite as the backhaul technology as is currently done in rural areas, the fiber network will allow a more streamlined integration of services, which Unitel hopes will have a trickle down effect of increased information sharing. The ability for schools and universities to connect and share resources, or the possibility for different hospitals to exchange information or better manage patient records, are all among the different benefits Unitel hopes the new network will bring to its users.

The people who make Unitel

Unitel CEO Mr. Dolton insists that at the core of Unitel’s business lies its people – its users who have consistently made Unitel the preferred mobile operator in Angola, but also the Unitel employees who design, engineer and operate its networks, or who develop the distribution business and serve on the sales teams of Unitel stores across the country. Unitel employees – from the most junior to the most senior – are trained through the Unitel Academy, an institution established with the help of several international partners to help train and equip Unitel employees to best serve and meet the needs of Unitel customers around the country.

With significant experience in the telecoms sector, including previous postings with both Motorola and Vodafone, CEO Mr. Dolton understands that like many of its African neighbors, Angolans are after a high quality mobile service that will offer good value for their money. He explains that convincing Angolans to spend a bit more for this kind of quality has been a challenge – especially with cheaper networks available – though in the end, the reliability of service has spoken for itself.

Upward and outward expansion

According to a report on the telecoms sector in Angola published by Eaglestone Securities, Angola could reach 17.9 million wireless subscribers by 2017, which indicates strong growth potential for market leader Unitel. Although the company is in danger of facing competition from a potential new entrant to the Angolan mobile market, the company’s extensive, highly-advanced infrastructure as well as current dominant market position and largely satisfied customer base will help it remain competitive.

In addition to its efforts on the home front, Unitel has also diversified its business by setting up operations in São Tomé and Príncipe, taking its second step towards internationalization after establishing itself in Cape Verde in the end of 2012.

Beyond pioneering telecommunications services and innovative products for both private and corporate clients, Unitel is a generous sponsor of several music and sporting events. This has further increased its visibility and has helped enhance its brand image across the country.

Through projects like e-NET, a program which helps deliver free Internet access to schools throughout the country, Unitel has also succeeded building closer ties with the least advantaged Angolans, and a favorable reputation among the more fortunate ones.

Though it currently enjoys continued growth and a solid positioning as the market leader, Unitel remains committed to crossing new boundaries and relentlessly exploring new possibilities. The company is keen to collaborate with local entrepreneurs and to find ways they might nurture and expand their businesses, especially in the realm of innovation. Leveraging power from resources such as its new fiber network, for instance, Unitel plans to become a veritable gateway for facilitating the growth of new industries, both geographically and economically.

In the long term, Mr. Dolton is confident that the company will enjoyed continued success, so long as it judiciously plans for the future, diligently maintains the network differentiation that it currently enjoys over its competitors, and strategically develops new business lines in the enterprise business as well as the SME market.

He insists that the mobile market in Angola is still a nascent one, and that there are myriad sectors that can flourish alongside it. Though oil is already a well-tapped industry, education, health, agriculture, tourism, and several others are well-poised to blossom. Investors, both local and foreign, are encouraged to take advantage.