Interview with Clémentine Fournier, the Regional VP Africa for International Communications Firm BICS

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BICS is a leading international communications enabler, one of the key global voice carriers and the leading provider of mobile data services worldwide. It has its headquarters is in Brussels but operates several regional offices in Bern, Madrid, Dubai, New York, San Francisco and Singapore, a satellite office in Beijing and local representation in Accra, Miami, Montevideo, Nairobi and Toronto.

BICS has achieved a series of World’s Firsts successes including the launch of the first LTE Roaming relation. It also oversaw the first VoLTE International call between Europe and Asia, to name a few.

In this interview, its Regional VP for Africa, Clementine Fournier, shares more light on its global operations and its plans for Africa.

What type of connectivity services does BICS offer and to whom are they targeted? 

BICS is an enabler of global communications, operating an extensive carrier-grade network infrastructure, covering 178 countries and compromising of fibre and sea cables, satellite link, and connections to the world’s major internet exchanges.

We offer global mobile connectivity and interoperability services to the different players in the communications eco-system. Our platforms and solutions span all the different telecoms technologies and enable the seamless interoperability of traditional and cloud communications.

BICS is the recognised IPX Global Leader, offering a unique and direct reach to over 700 mobile and fixed networks worldwide. Our solutions are essential for supporting the modern lifestyle of today’s device-hungry consumer; from global mobile connectivity, seamless roaming experiences, and fraud prevention, to global messaging and the Internet of Things (IoT).

How does BICS view the emergence of new unconventional communications providers? 

In the mobile marketplace, digital communications providers are one of the fastest growing sectors of the industry. But, to support their growth and expand their range of services, unconventional communications providers need to enlist the experience of traditional carrier service providers, such as BICS. Our unrivalled insight into the mobile market and our solution suites equip these digital service providers with the tools they need to develop their business and offer a seamless customer experience to their end users.

BICS is delivering interoperability solutions between web-based applications and mobile networks, as we believe collaboration between these different players is key for the success of both, and in the end, for the enhanced customer experience that end-users demand.

Many traditional operators lack the resources and know-how to keep pace with the rapid innovations being developed by the new breed of communications companies. Traditional players should look to collaborate with other companies to share resources, knowledge and expertise, and develop the kinds of services and applications which deliver on customer demands, and help businesses remain buoyant in a competitive environment.

What are some of BICS’ pioneering innovations in driving next-generation communications technology? 

 BICS has always been at the forefront of next-generation communications, and we have achieved a series of world-first successes with the launch of the first LTE roaming relation, and the first VoLTEinternational call between Europe and Asia, to name a few. We have a long history of partnerships with operators, IoT innovators, data service providers, satellite operators, telcos, and mobile carriers, which have resulted in the creation of new service offerings to meet changing and growing demands.

What is your assessment and projection for the voice and data trends in the sub-Saharan Africa region? 

Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen some very interesting trends emerge out of the African region. The biggest and most noticeable development has been an increase of data usage thanks to smartphone penetration, which we’ve seen grow dramatically thanks to three specific reasons:

Firstly, handsets are now getting cheaper. Consumers across the globe are able to get hold of mobile phones and tablets for a fraction of the price that they used to cost, making connectivity more accessible than ever. Smartphone affordability is key for the African region, where ARPU (which in many countries is less than 10$ per month) is one of the lowest worldwide.

MNOs (mobile network operators) are continuously upgrading their networks to meet the demands of the rise in the number of handsets looking to access3G Internet or 4G services. At the same time, national markets are very competitive, enabling end users to afford data packages, driving up data consumption.

Although the connectivity is still a challenge, especially in the rural areas and for landlocked countries, both governments and telecom operators are working to improve their national backbone. There is also more international capacity available; big cities across Africa are accessible through fibre, subsea cables and/or satellite. To meet the demands of their data-hungry customers, implementing international capacity solutions has been a priority for carriers and telecoms operators, and consequently, significant investments have been made throughout the continent.

The result of this competitive, popular market has been an astonishing growth in mobile data usage. However, this has had a knock-on effect on international voice traffic (a legacy service) which has decreased due to the rise in the number of OTT (over-the-top) players, such as WhatsApp, Skype, Viber etc. offering “free” voice calls as part of users’ data bundles.

For the operator (MNO), this shift in user behaviour has forced a change in strategy. Previously, international calls were generating a large chunk of revenue, and thanks to African exchange rates this was even more lucrative for local operators. Now however, users are relying on Internet service providers, or applications, which only require data. Data is bought locally through individual data packages, meaning operators aren’t able to cash-in on international calls anymore.

In the past two to three years there has been a dramatic decrease in traditional international voice traffic. BICS’ projection is that this trend will continue since smartphone penetration is still relatively low in many Sub-Saharan Africa countries, but that this will grow over the next few years.

What are your views on the strides that are currently being made in Africa’s telecommunications sector? 

Due to the uptake of mobile technology across Africa, there is now an increasing demand for higher bandwidth to support voice and data traffic. A better connection is required to support this demand, and consequently, many African countries are improving their fibre networks. However, this has not been without difficulties.

In addition to national network backbones that are for many countries still under development, there is an increasing reliance on the Internet. Even just an hour-long power failure will negatively impact mobile users. Without electricity, mobile signal will wain and user quality will be compromised.

Rural areas are predictably more challenging, with more electricity cuts. However, there have been tremendous improvements within cities as many are developing their networks, supported by communication enablers such as BICS, to provide MNOs with premium quality solutions for international capacity, roaming, and messaging.

Messaging in Africa – bothP2P and A2P – is extremely valuable, as, with a mobile continent and tricky network connections, text and multimedia messaging is one of the few ways communication can be guaranteed.

There has been a lot of creativity and entrepreneurship in using mobile phones to compensate the weaknesses of other sectors (banking, post, etc.).  Mobile money is the most well-known example: created ten years ago in Kenya it is now widely used across the continent. Even now, the rest of the world is only just starting to use mobile payment.

Another example is text messaging (SMS) which has been used by businesses and institutions not only for marketing and security, but also for information purposes in many sectors such as agriculture, health and education.

Mobility has created an abundance of Big Data, which when harnessed correctly, can be used to improve customer offerings.  Digital players such as taxi apps, e-commerce merchants, etc. will make use of operators’ data and actually buy it from them. Mobile communication is perfect for those who do not have a fixed line, and for MNOs, it provides an opportunity to monetise their assets.

What is the biggest challenge of the African telecommunications market? 

Fraud is the biggest challenge for players in the telecoms space. The two most prevalent forms are SIM box fraud and roaming fraud. Combined, they are responsible for the loss of a significant portion of income:

SIM box fraud: Fraudulent companies or individuals install SIM boxes (housing SIM cards) with multiple low-cost, pre-paid SIMs, which they use to terminate international calls through local phone numbers. The misled callers believe they are calling a local number, but instead end up with a hefty international phone bill.

Roaming fraud: Costing the industry billions of dollars, this is one the most sophisticated forms of telecoms fraud, as it takes between four hours and three days to identify. It is popular with criminals

who target the next-generation risks and vulnerabilities associated with roaming; often where operators are most exposed.

How does BICS contend with these challenges? 

BICS has an enviable record of offering solutions to protect and preserve revenue streams. Its crowdsourcing tool, FraudGuard, proactively prevents fraudulent activity to and from networks, providing telecoms players the opportunity to fight the drain on their revenues.

Through FraudGuard, BICS provides a cloud-based service to telecoms operators, avoiding the costly and complex set-up of local platforms, while offering the most effective fraud protection.  As a tier-one international carrier switching millions of minutes monthly, BICS has a global view and thorough expertise to spot fraudulent activity globally. Thanks to FraudGuard, African MNOs can be not only alerted on fraudulent calls but BICS can also offer the possibility to block them proactively before they even reach the operator’s network. Preventive and immediate blocking of calls is key to avoiding revenue losses.

In this context, BICS is taking the initiative one step further. We are now launching a new innovative anti-fraud service to protect operators’ subscribers whilst roaming abroad.  Their voice calls are screened and fraudulent calls are blocked before the call sets-up. This major leap is helping operators protect themselves, and their customers, against one of the major fraud schemes globally.

BICS partnered with Eutelsat to provide satellite-based business continuity solutions for African operators. After Djibouti, Mauritius and South Africa, BICS has established another Point-of-Presence in Kenya. Are there plans for more projects and investments in Africa?

Several landlocked countries are still mainly relying on satellite connectivity as they barely have access to terrestrial fibre or sea cables. They, therefore, need to have satellite links for their redundancy needs.

Satellite connectivity is usually very costly and most telecoms operators cannot afford to have links not fully used. At the same time, network outages are common in Africa and there are many sea cables or terrestrial fibre cuts, electricity outages, and even landing stations set on fire.  For example, a few years ago, Benin was completely cut from the international world (internet, voice calls, etc.) due to a fire in their sea cable landing station. Benin was not an isolated case; every year there are countries facing this kind of issues, so there is a real need for redundancy.

BICS’ IPoSat (IP over Satellite) solution has been tailored to answer telecoms operators’ redundancy needs. The pricing is mostly based on a ‘pay as you go’ model, where mobile operators only pay for satellite bandwidth when it is used. This avoids renting permanent satellite connectivity at a high price. BICS’ IPoSat, therefore, acts as insurance.

In addition to providing innovative capacity solutions, BICS has set-up a third PoP in Nigeria (in addition to South Africa and Kenya) to guarantee premium quality. International calls and data roaming are switched locally, while most of our competitors are sending the regional African calls to

Europe, then back to Africa. For example, for a call between Angola and South Africa, the call will first be sent to Portugal, and then back to South Africa.

Using such a long route has a negative impact on the quality of the communications. BICS decided a few years ago to make significant network investments in Africa to enable international calls to take the shortest and quickest route possible, aiming at keeping regional communications within Africa.

Since then, the quality of international voice and data roaming communications has significantly improved, which is key for mobile operators who need to comply with strict quality KPIs given by regulators. These investments are also being future-proofed, with our PoPs made to comply with 4G technology to support video calls, streaming applications, etc. which demand higher speed networks.

What are the potential growth areas in the continent’s telecommunications sector? 

Roaming is an opportunity for growth, especially on the data side.  Some MNOs haven’t deployed it yet.  Indeed, the prepaid data roamer requires complex technical set-ups which are not always available to mobile operators.  Nevertheless, since consumers in the region do not always have bank accounts, most subscribers are prepaid (on average,95% are prepaid subscribers).

BICS’ roaming hub solution will address these challenges to improve roaming coverage while mobile operators are upgrading their networks and building their own coverage.  In some cases, subscribers are switching off their data roaming or buying local sim cards to avoid expensive roaming costs.  We call them the silent roamers, which can be ‘woken up’ with our Data Roaming Control (DRC) tools.  Our DRC platform identifies silent roamers, and via SMS (text messages) or USSD offers them cheaper roaming packages. Consequently, data roaming is a good opportunity for mobile operators to boost their revenue.

The IoT(Internet of Things) is set to be as big in Africa as it is elsewhere in the world. We’ve already seen that the lack of fixed lines in Africa has driven the take-up of mobile devices, and this is likely to have a positive knock-on effect when it comes to rolling out IoT connectivity.

Clean water initiatives, agriculture sensors, wildlife monitoring, remote education – the opportunities for the IoT are endless in the African region. However, good connectivity will be needed, especially with so many countries to consider.

The network, therefore, needs to be able to withstand cross-border connectivity. A good example of this is when truck drivers make long journeys to different regions. If their smartphones lose connectivity when they leave their home country, applications they are using such as maps may stop working.

BICS’ IoT solution – Sim for Things – attracts MNOs and ICT enterprises alike, and is useful for transport, logistics and utilities, such as the example above.

What is BICS’ vision for its work in Africa?

Mobile operators have been facing many challenges over the last few years.  There has been slower economic growth, so much so we can almost say we saw a mini-recession in 2016.  At the same time, mobile operators have faced a drastic change to their business model as they had been losing out on international voice revenue due to the increasing use of OTT players. As data revenue (generated by the use of OTT players) is not yet offsetting the revenue losses, operators need to continue to invest in high-speed networks to serve data-hungry consumers.

However, there is still a lot of potential for growth and we have seen that many mobile operators are at the crossroad of different sectors: mobile money, IoT, education etc.  These make up a crucial role in the African economy – more than in any other part of the world, and if we look at penetration rates there is still a lot of potential for growth here.

At BICS, we will continue to invest in the continent and offer tailored solutions to the African market.  We are committed to supporting our customers with our innovative services to help them maximise their international revenue potential in these challenging times.

 

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