Kathy Gibson is at AfricaCom 2019 in Cape Town – As well as providing the platform that lets customers digitalise their operations, telecommunications companies should be digitalising themselves.

This is particularly important in Africa where there are so many opportunities, but massive challenges too.

Telco development has to be customer-driven, says Schalk Visser, chief technology officer of Cell C.

Internally, its important to understand what drives the numbers and costs, he adds. “Digitalisation becomes important for telcos because it enables us to efficiently service customers and also to contain costs.”

This applies equally to telcos working in remoter areas of the continent, says Ian Paterson, chief investment officer of Africell.

There are opportunities to provide digital services, but also to digitalise the telco itself. “The dumb pipe is a thing of the past – it is now a smart pipe. All telcos have to think along these lines.”

Among the new products and services that will be seen in the telco space are mobile money. “This is the most innovative use case, born here in Africa,” says Fadi Pharaon, president of Ericsson Middle East and Africa.

“There will also always be a plethora of services for e-health, education and agriculture.

“We also see a trend to introducing chatbots to AI, helping to resolve queries and eventually reduce the number of calls coming in.”

There is no shortage of ideas, Pharaon says. “What is important is that you have the platform and the ecosystems available.”

A critical part of the technology is a continuous deployment of software, which is a big shift from the way it is done today.

Visser says collaboration is vital. “From a Cell C perspective, we don’t have a choice about collaborating. We will never go into a head-on capex race with the bigger guys because it’s not sustainable.

“Through our partnerships we hope to extract the value of efficiency.”

He adds that the roll-out of 4G and 3G has been doing significantly well over the last three years – but the adoption hasn’t’ been as good. This could be because of the cost of connecting.

“How do we bring the rest of the people into the economy, to grow the economy? The only way we can do this is to partner and to remove friction points.”

Telcos in less developed markets are in the infant stages of 4G deployment, Paterson says.

“What we need to build the fourth industrial revolution is to build the infrastructure – data centres, fibre, even partnerships with tower providers are still critical.

“In addition to telco specific challenges are things like electricity. We can’t run before we walk.”

As they grow through digitalisation, telcos aim for agility, differentiating customer experience, new revenues and different business models, Pharaon says.

“Telcos sit on large pools of data that haven’t been capitalised on yet. We need to find other business models.”

Digitalisation is a good way to grow a telco, he adds. Companies that have done so, and offer new digitalised services, have seen positive growth.

Customer experience is vital. “It’s a ticket to the game: if you don’t have it, you aren’t relevant,” says Visser.

Without an infinite resources, Visser says companies like Cell C have to prioritise their investments. The key is to partner strategically, then use digitalisation to make operations as efficiently as possible.

“For us it is about directing resources to the right space, to make sure we are relevant for our customers.”

The goal for Cell C is to continue to bring the communications revolution to all users.

“There is a lot of news and comments in the markets about challenges,” he says. “From our perspective we see them as opportunities.

“Going forward, we aim to identify the current opportunities and solve them with technology. If you don’t solve a problem, why will people adopt technology?”

Africell hopes to transition to 4G within the next couple of years, and starting on 5G.

“I would think we would have a completely different menu of services, at pieces that are considerably more cost-effective than is possible at the moment.

“I don’t think our business will be recognisable compared to where it was a couple of years ago.”