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Telecoms operators, driving the digital ecosystem

Telecoms operators, driving the digital ecosystem

By Sylvie Pierrot Allain, Directrice Conseil Change Management & Capacity Building, Sofrecom - May 11, 2020

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Internet penetration rates in Sub-Saharan Africa are the lowest world-wide, amounting to half the global average. While there are many factors explaining this shortfall, the most significant one is the lack of capacity and infrastructure. Telecommunications operators not only provide connectivity and services. They are also pioneers in the introduction of new professions, new usages, and new working methods -- in other words, the 3 pillars that make it possible to assess a country’s knowledge and digital maturity. To create a powerful digital ecosystem, a real accelerator of economic and social development, operators can take aim at several levels.

Deploying the essential base: digital infrastructures and service offers

In charge of deploying broadband infrastructure in collaboration with governments, operators ensure the accessibility of services for the entire population, and in particular contribute to bringing rural areas out of isolation and connecting schools and universities. The impact these projects have is undeniable: a 10% increase in the penetration rate of household broadband connection translates into a rise in a country’s GDP of between 0.1 and 1.4% [1]. The donors have made no mistake about it: they are massively financing deployments in developing countries and have established it as a condition for bringing forward the Least Developed Countries.

However, the availability of digital infrastructures is only the start of the solution. We also need to develop a range of accessible services adapted to the usages, needs and financial means of companies and citizens.

In countries where the mobile phone remains the leading mode of Internet access, it is important, first of all, that broadband connectivity offers are affordable for all, and, secondly, that innovative solutions guaranteeing access to digital services, including 2G, be developed. Digital technology must be available to the widest possible population in order to become a reality and support actual development by facilitating exchanges and the creation of businesses and jobs. Operators have been a driving force in the development of innovative low-cost solutions such as mobile financial services, or package offers for telephony and energy in Africa.

Operators are also stakeholders in the development of e-government accessibility strategies, providing the infrastructures, connectivity, and certain services, as well as ensuring optimal coverage of territories in partnership with the governments.

Develop digital skills 

However, over and above infrastructure and services, operators also play a part in skills development.

The development of digital infrastructures and services will only be able to take place over time on two conditions: that the infrastructures are properly deployed and maintained, and that operators also have the marketing and commercial skills needed to create and market a range of services that will enable the full exploitation of the capacity available. Today, however, most countries are held back by a real lack of skills in these areas.

Where infrastructure is concerned, equipment operators and suppliers use either unexperienced labor or workers from other countries and cultures. In the former case, the result is often mediocre deployment quality -- which then hurts the quality of service, and makes for rarely met deployment deadlines. In the latter case, the project’s impact in developing skills at the local level is null, or even negative.

To remedy this situation, we need to train in network-related professions upstream, whether fiber or mobile network technologies (4G, and soon 5G). The idea is not only to prepare marketing and sales executives, engineers and senior technicians, but indeed to train all the professions, starting with civil engineering, access and connection, etc.

Well aware of this challenge, many operators, particularly in Africa, have made major commitments to enable training in and around the digital professions. Their involvement plays out in many ways:

  • academic partnerships,
  • the creation of vocational training courses, over short periods (under one year), jointly defined with companies, in particular for manual workers (civil engineering) and technicians (connection, etc.). These courses are aimed at those with few or no qualifications and are designed to lead to employment. They can also bring on board employees from operators and companies in charge of deployment, to increase their skills,
  • the development of training structures; these will serve the specific needs of operators as well as those of the ecosystem.

In Ethiopia, Ethio Telecom has developed a training partnership between its corporate university, TExA, and the local universities. Orange Côte d’Ivoire has opened up a Digital Academy to train young people in digital careers.

Through this type of action, operators become local expertise clusters, established for the long-term, in the area of networks, information systems and marketing, as well as provide pools of skilled talent for a rapidly growing TICS sector.

Supporting the launch of innovative digital start-ups

Operators are often a driving force in structuring and creating a digital ecosystem through their involvement in training, but also through their support for business creation in the digital sector.

Orange, for example, supports start-ups and entrepreneurs through a variety of initiatives. Examples include its network of Fab Labs, incubators and Development Centers such as the Orange Development Center in Tunisia, or Orange Fab Senegal in Senegal. Orange also organizes competitions such as the Orange StartUp Cup Challenge Business Model Competition, initiated by Orange Egypt in partnership with the Nile University and designed to promote and facilitate entrepreneurship.

Helping people to make digital uses their own

Lastly, and less visibly, operators, which are generally some of the largest companies in their country, are often pioneers in rolling out and spreading digital uses.

  • Through internal digitization (ERPs, HR information systems, corporate social networks, etc.) which familiarizes employees with e-services and the use of email,
  • The widespread use of bank transfer systems for salary payment, which requires that all employees have a bank account and encourages the development of banking in the population.

These usages spread by capillarity to the rest of society, providing an additional basis for the uptake of digital technology and the reduction of inequalities.

Africa’s digital transformation will have multiple positive effects:  it will boost the continent’s economy, create jobs, identify and encourage entrepreneurship, train and retain talent, and create a digital culture specific to the continent. Telecommunications operators are one of the pillars in this transformation and must be aware of the multiple roles they play.

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