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UNITEL: Making Angola an ICT Hub

By Linda Xu

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Considerable investment in national infrastructure, particularly telecom infrastructure, is helping to power a national economic revival in Angola. UNITEL, the nation’s largest mobile operator, is leading the way through innovative and affordable products and services, strong engagement with the community, and ambitions to become an ICT hub in the region. CEO Tony Dolton shares the details.

Land and sea 

WinWin: As the largest mobile operator in Angola, what efforts have UNITEL made to upgrade its communications infrastructure? 

Tony Dolton: Our focus today is to continue the expansion of our overall network coverage across the country to provide data everywhere and increase the coverage of our LTE network. Currently, we have sites across all provinces, and we’re continuing to expand both our coverage and technology, including building a national fiber network across the country. Nine thousand kilometers of fiber have already been deployed with the intention of supporting not just our own mobile network, but also the national infrastructure. We will invest more than €1.5 billion (US$1.9 billion) to install and expand an optical network for connecting all Angola’s provinces to cover all areas that are currently starved of this sort of technology, or rely on slower, more expensive, and often less reliable technologies such as satellite for these services. 

We’re also deploying extensive metropolitan fiber networks in the capitals of the major provinces. These networks will provide high-quality, high-speed broadband and Internet connectivity for future customers and, in particular, for businesses and government.

As for expanding LTE, we currently cover around 60 percent to 70 percent of Angola’s capital Luanda with LTE, but we’re planning to reach 100 percent coverage by the end of the year. We have also recently completed successful trials of LTE-A technology, and witnessed phenomenal speeds. Due to the limited affordable LTE-A devices in the market, we’re not currently planning a full rollout of LTE-A just yet. We have a vision of “beyond the borders of Angola”, and see the potential of becoming the hub for ICT in Southwest Africa, given the right levels of investment in the right areas.

WinWin: Can you elaborate more on this plan?

Dolton: Angola is well placed geographically and geopolitically to become an ICT hub. It can capitalize on both the existing submarine cable connectivity, but also on planned future investments, in particular with the development of the South Atlantic Cable System (SACS), also known as the Angola-Brazil Cable deployed by Angola Cables [a company jointly owned by UNITEL and the other telecom companies of Angola]. SACS will link Luanda with Fortaleza in northern Brazil, with a leg connecting to the Brazilian archipelago of Fernando de Noronha and to Miami in the US. 

The 3,800-mile SACS will be the first transatlantic system in the southern hemisphere to link Africa directly to South America, offering an alternative to Africa’s links with the rest of the world and giving the continent a tremendous technical and commercial opportunity. SACS will improve latency times and result in a significant capacity boost that will offer a real alternative to Africa for broadband connectivity. Angola is ideally placed to drive this project forward. We see UNITEL’s role to provide connectivity to adjacent countries so they also will have access to this fantastic new African resource. It is with this in mind that we’re turning our attention towards how we can develop our ICT business and what services we can offer to the wider African continent. 

Tapping verticals

WinWin:The oil and gas sector is vital to the Angolan economy. What are the corresponding ICT infrastructure needs and how does UNITEL fit in?

Dolton: The oil industry is a huge user of ICT technologies. In general, apart from connectivity services, oil multinationals use in-house resources both abroad and locally. Many of their IT-intensive activities are often carried out offshore, mainly because there is a belief that Angola does not have the capacity or capability to deliver these critical services. There is an opportunity for companies such as UNITEL to develop its skills, capability, and capacity to offer multinational companies an alternative approach. Is Angola ready and able to fulfil the needs of the oil industry today? Probably not. But that’s part of our ambition. We’re already providing what I would call the most basic services – highly reliable and high-quality connectivity. As long as we can deliver what we promise, we have then taken the first step towards building trust and will have the opportunity to move onto more complex services. We’re currently discussing with many businesses, including oil companies, what they would like us to do next. From there we will develop our strategies and plans to align with their requirements.

Besides the oil industry there are many other businesses, such as banking and financial services, that have a desperate need for a trusted partner that can provide ICT services to support their business. Our plan is to invest heavily in developing our capabilities in both technology and people to help grow this sector, and part of that is to build a new tier-3 data center (DC) targeted at providing new DC-focused customer services. 

WinWin: According to Huawei research, the financial sector is the most proactive embracer of ICT. In fact, 71 percent of enterprises we surveyed indicate that ICT investment growth will exceed 5 percent in the next two years. How is UNITEL serving Angola’s financial sector?

Dolton: A few years ago, we were a minor provider of connectivity services to banks. Now, we provide them with highly reliable redundant services connected through our national fiber backbone. At the moment, there is very little in the way of e-commerce inside Angola. We are looking to see how we can leverage our own technology, retail, and distribution infrastructure to help grow this important sector. In Angola, the majority of our customers are prepaid subscribers, so we currently sell services through prepaid systems. The challenge is to work out how can we encourage our customers to accept e-commerce as a way to do business. I believe that UNITEL has a unique opportunity in Angola, given our distribution network and retail presence, to make a major contribution to the growth of this type of business.

Accessibility to all

WinWin: Compared with other African countries such as Kenya and Nigeria, Angola has a relatively low Internet penetration at around 26 percent. What are the hindrances in promoting Internet services in Angola and are there any solutions?

Dolton: The low level of Internet penetration could be due to three main factors:  the technological challenge of connecting people to the network, the relative cost of delivering services, and the availability of good quality smart phones with local content that can help grow usage.  

On the technical side, Angola suffers the same challenges as other countries in the continent like power reliability, fuel distribution, maintenance of sites in remote areas, and the cost of satellite transmission from base stations.  In addition, Angola is a very large country with a relatively small and quite dispersed population. So when connecting isolated and difficult-to-reach communities, the engineering team often has to build sites that are miles away from normal infrastructure, which adds to the cost of running the site and supporting commercial distribution.  

The cost of delivering services has been a major focus for UNITEL over the past couple of years. The deployment of the national fiber backbone has allowed us to significantly reduce the price of data for our customers so that we’re now one of the most cost effective service providers on the continent. In addition, we’ve brought to market some very affordable, quality 3G smart phones, and introduced new local content services that are relevant to people’s lives. We’ve focused on selling value, not volume. As an example we’ve provided free unlimited access to the Wikipedia mobile website for all customers with a data enabled phone via a partnership with the Wikimedia Foundation under the Wikipedia Zero banner.  We also enabled similar Facebook Zero services as well. Recently, we launched a music streaming service that’s very similar to Apple music. This service allows customers to play local artists, who are grossly unrepresented internationally, as well as international artists. Customers who subscribe to this service don’t have to pay for downloads, just the service. We’ve signed contracts with as many of the local artists as we can. 

We also believe that UNITEL has a part to play in providing better services to the health and education sectors. We’re working with a local team on how we can provide free Portuguese educational material for everyone and high-speed connectivity to our universities through the fiber network. As for health, we’re working closely with the Ministry of Health and WHO to see what we can do to help provide health education and support. Can we use our distribution network to assist in the provision of drugs? How can we help medical experts deliver all they need to deliver in a more efficient way? 

This is an exciting area where we have committed new resources and investment to make some of these ideas become reality.  

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