Creating a digital future

The telecoms industry has had to change its approach, which, according to MTN SA’s CEO, Godfrey Motsa, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Read time 6min 20sec
Godfrey Motsa
Godfrey Motsa

Godfrey Motsa is a perfect example of upward mobility. In 1995, he worked at MTN SA as an intern. Today, he’s the CEO.

Discussing how the market has evolved over the course of his career, he outlines that customers are no longer coming to telcos; telcos are having to go to customers. “Up until the mid-2000s, customer interest was a bit like going fishing and having fish jump straight into your boat. Today, it’s almost like we have to jump into the water to catch fish.” This is due to changes in customer expectations and increased competition as a plethora of new players compete for their share of the market.

Times are tough, but this shouldn’t be seen as a negative, he notes. It just puts pressure on operators to up their game.

If you look at some of the technologies on offer from telcos today, their business models are more diverse than ever before. MTN has moved into wholesale, fintech and digital and they also offer more advanced business-to-business services like the Internet of Things and cloud. “We’ve had to get better at collaborating with others so that we can tap into new opportunities, identify inefficiencies and, ultimately, serve our customers better.”

For MTN, a key challenge is helping the ‘person on the street’ as they navigate their journey from voice and text messages to data and digital. It’s doing that by building networks that make this change as seamless as possible.

As part of this process, MTN is working to democratise the smartphone. Telcos can improve networks and offer a range of new services, but if customers don’t have the tools they need to use these services, the efforts won’t bear fruit. In order for everyone to enjoy the benefits of a modern, connected life, it’s critical to address South Africa’s affordability, access, educational and infrastructural shortcomings, he continues.

No longer only a mobile operator, Motsa says the future of mobile is fixed. “We have thousands of base stations across the country and these are all connected by fibre. Back in the day, they laid down rail networks to connect people. Today, we’re laying down fibre networks in much the same way.”

And gone are the days when it could offer a ‘one size fits all’ approach, he admits. For us, the challenge is to come up with more personalised, tailored offerings. For example, in more developed markets, customers consume a lot of data because they’re using premium devices. But a customer who has only just made the move from a feature phone to a smartphone will have different needs. MTN’s local products and services need to address both, he says.

Employment opportunities

Describing connectivity as being about as important as electricity, this MTN top dog believes that connectivity is the cornerstone of our digital future. What does this future look like? “Every town, village, school, shop and clinic needs to be connected so that they can digitise their services,” he says. The next layer in this conversation is all about partnerships. For example, in March, President Cyril Ramaphosa launched the Youth Employment Service, dubbed YES. The idea behind the initiative is for businesses, government, labour and civil society to work together to improve employment opportunities for young people. If local businesses want to support an initiative like YES, they need to help young people to participate in the digital world. For telcos, this means providing them with the connectivity they need to learn, network and connect with potential employers.

Third time the charm?

MTN’s Godfrey Motsa says MTN will launch a mobile money service despite previous efforts failing. Twice. “People keep telling us that this sort of thing isn’t a good fit for SA,” he says. However, with 17 million people in South Africa still unbanked or under-banked, he believes that the time is right to re-enter the market. Only time will tell.

Network operators like MTN need to act as enablers, Motsa says. One way it’s taking up this role is through its annual MTN Business App of the Year awards, which aim to encourage entrepreneurs to innovate. The competition provides them with access to the networks they need to build and develop the service economy.SnapScan and IoT.nxt are just two of the apps that have been recognised at these awards, and both have gone on to become successful brands.

Keeping its eyes set firmly on the future, MTN is actively involved in the modernisation of local networks. So much so that it has earmarked around R16 billion to prepare the local MTN network for 5G. These funds will be used to replace all of the radios on its sites across the country.

Courting consumers

But diversifying a business isn’t always easy.

As expected, regulation proves a stumbling block for local players. “Over the years, the regulators have become more and more difficult,” admits Motsa. “When we were still ‘kids’, they allowed us to run around and do whatever we wanted, but now they watch everything we do.”

He confesses that the lack of new spectrum allocation has been a challenge. “Spectrum is like oxygen for us. The more customers we add and the more data we offer, the more spectrum we need. I think we’re very lucky that President Ramaphosa ‘gets it’. We will get the spectrum, and we’re happy to pay for it; we just don’t know when that will be.” The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) published an Information Memorandum at the beginning of November. The memorandum sets out various options for the licensing of additional spectrum and the conditions for the assignment of spectrum. The invitation to engage in the licensing process was welcomed by the telecoms industry.

Going on to address this ever-controversial #datamustfall conversation, he says telcos actually find themselves in a bit of a vicious cycle when it comes to data availability and pricing. “When you drop prices, customers use more data. And as networks get faster, it’s easier for customers to use more data,” he reasons. This is great for network operators, because customers are more active and are using more of their products, but it also means that there’s less capacity, he continues. This, again, solidifies the need for more spectrum.”

"Spectrum is like oxygen for us. The more customers we add and the more data we offer, the more spectrum we need.”

Godfrey Motsa

Another speed bump for a brand like MTN is pushback from customers. “Customers are tough, man. They want faster, better connectivity, but in a lot of suburbs, the residents and municipalities reject our attempts to put up base stations. It all comes down to making compromises and working together. As an operator, there has to be constant dialogue with customers so that they understand the benefits of what we’re trying to do.

“I’ve said it before and I will say it again: if we want to get ready for the digital future, we need more connectivity, faster speeds and end-to-end networks. For us, providing this is all about engaging with regulators and with our customers so that we can offer the best services to as many people as possible.”

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