World Telecommunications and Information Society Day |17 May 2021
‘Accelerating Digital Transformation in Challenging Times’
To commemorate the World Telecommunications and Information Society Day, which is observed every year on May 17, Seychelles NATION talked to key players in the telecommunications sector in the country to provide their insight into this year’s theme ‘Accelerating Digital Transformation in Challenging Times’ and the impacts of the pandemic during the past year.
The theme for the 2021 World Telecommunication and Information Society Day seeks to highlight the critical role of information and communication technologies (ICT) for continued functioning of societies as well as shine a light on the startling digital inequalities between and within countries.
The first telecom company this newspaper spoke to was Airtel Seychelles, and the article was published on Saturday.
Today we speak to the other two key players in this sector, namely Cable & Wireless Seychelles (CWS) and Intelvision.
“It is absolutely necessary for us to continue digitizing” - CWS
Charles Hammond, the chief executive of Cable & Wireless (C&W), gives his take on the 2021 World Telecommunications and Information Society Day, the pandemic and the rapid move towards digitization. The company has over a century of rich history in Seychelles, going as far back as 1893 and it has never stopped evolving since.
What does the theme ‘Accelerating Digital Transformation in Challenging Times’ mean for Cable & Wireless?
Charles Hammond: “The theme of digitization feels old for Cable & Wireless because we have been digitizing for a very long time. We have led in the Seychelles for a long time in terms of digitization; e-top up was a form of digitization and that was so long ago. We have the e-shop self-service kiosks and we have had the e-bills for years and years although this is now the default. We had MyCare before any other service provider in the country thought of having such a portal in Seychelles. You can do almost anything on the MyCare app from checking your bill to your data usage, you can change your service type. So we have been down the track of digitization on the customer contact front very early on. And we have gone even further as well in digitization and making sure that things come together; our customer service for example is all digitized, when anyone of us speak to our customers on the phone we know where that customer is, how long the calls lasted for so that we can better manage quality. In the future now, we have a WhatsApp queuing system coming together which will tell customers when they get an appointment, how long the queue is so they do not have to stand for a long while[…]”
How can local telecom companies better contribute to the acceleration in digitization Seychelles?
“It is absolutely necessary for us to continue digitising. What we need in order to accelerate digitisation is the proper laws and implementation of these laws – we have seen about five to 10 years of digitization and IT improvements in this Covid-19 period than we expected and the companies that did these digitization benefitted much from it.
Right now, we at C&W are developing our services to run in this environment but we want to make it fully optimised for video calls and things like that to make sure that our digitized environment works for our customers. We need the laws to make this easier for our customers. For example, Seychelles is still very much a cash based society but if you were to say that all purchases under R500 must be through a digital channel you would get a whole different type of environment—you’ll have a huge amount of transactions going through and that helps in other ways. It helps to screen for legitimate money, it helps the taxation system enormously so you do not have any leakage so we hope that these laws come in soon to make it easier for users to buy things from everywhere.”
How has the pandemic impacted C&W?
“For us, Covid-19 was not welcomed at all. It was pretty bad for us and quite devastating because we provide our services to the majority of resorts, hotels and the hospitality sector so when they closed down our revenue suffered as well. Not only that but we had the rupee depreciating as well and that amounted to a double whammy. About 70% of our costs are paid in foreign currencies and over 70% of our revenues are collected in the local currency so you can imagine how we needed more rupees to buy foreign currencies to pay our external suppliers – that is a very difficult equation. But we managed to survive[…] we wanted to make sure that all our staff still had a job and we achieved that. We all kept our jobs at C&W and we did not apply for government assistance and we did not receive anything from the government. We are a proud company, we prefer to manage ourselves. And on top of that, we gave way more than other businesses in Seychelles: we donated PCR machines which cost around US $153,000. We also kept giving free data to residents, to kids and so on. We were very happy that we could help our community in making the very difficult period just a little bit more manageable.”
C&W is always looking to the future, what new initiatives is the company working on?
“We have recently developed the Kreolwave platform which is targeted to the Seychelles diaspora and it is a wonderful product. It has got all the main TV programmes live and you do not see the concept of live TVs on too many apps. You normally see music videos or films like on Netflix but this has live programmes running on it, plus we have all our Seychellois artists, all of their albums and music. You pay about US $10 and consume as much as you can consume, watch as much as you want so we love it.
The thing about the pandemic is that time lost cannot be regained, we can only do a finite number of projects each year and there’s so much a company’s capacity can be used. So we are investing now; we have invested in capacity, we have already invested in our mobile system. Our largest project by far is to change our billing platform – that is a mega project that will take a huge amount of time and a huge amount of resources, probably stretching around two years and we hope that will deliver the next level customer experience.”
How is C&W ensuring it keeps up with increased demand?
“Due to Covid-19 we could not physically go to people’s houses to install Cable TV and so forth. It was very frustrating for the customers as well as for us, so we have long queues of people waiting. In some areas, to be very open and honest, we prefer not to go install TV at the moment. These are in areas where we are not happy that the network will carry the pictures clearly and we prefer to do something to improve on this first before providing TV service. We must hold to our principles because from my experience we encounter some problems with the network when it rains and hopefully in the next two to three years our fiber TV home roll out will catch up with all of that. Going forward, fixed network must be excellent[…]
“We have to make sure that customers are always connected, no matter what type of network you are on and we will achieve that.”
In his budget address the finance minister noted that, unlike most sectors of the economy, the telecommunications sector saw a 13.9% growth in 2020. What accounted for such a growth and does it reflect the telecoms experience during the past year?
“Our company did not see that at all. As I explained earlier we lost revenue from the hospitality sector but some other areas saw growth especially in consumer based areas where people worked from home, where the government gave generous packages to the people and they were able to consume a lot more telecommunications services. We gave a lot of services for free, we did not charge for them so no we did not see any growth and we had to concentrate on survival – cutting our costs where we can except for the people and also trying to give more to our community.”
‘The pandemic has proven our ability to adapt to changing times’ – Intelvision
According to the spokesperson for Intelvision, another key telecom company in the country, the Covid-19 pandemic has proven the company’s ability to adapt and continue to turn up for work and deliver the promised service to its customers and one year into the pandemic, this is what it has done – adapted to changing times.
Present in the country for over a decade, how has Intelvision contributed to the evolution and development of the telecommunications sector?
“Over a decade, Intelvision has reached more than 90% of the people of Seychelles and over 75% of the households though our cable TV and broadband services. We have witnessed the changing consumer behaviour as this is reflected in the way Intelvision has managed these transformations.
This transformation, led by the rapid evolution of digital technology, poses considerable challenges for telcos worldwide. The demand for data is growing exponentially here in Seychelles as consumers demand for quality and better media, particularly high-quality video.
Considering these demands, Intelvision was the first to offer unlimited data and we are proud to say that we are still the only telco that is offering these packages. But we have not stopped there; Intelvision is now offering Video on Demand (VOD) platform with thousands of hours of unlimited entertainment for a very nominal fee.”
How has the pandemic impacted Intelvision and the telecommunications industry as a whole?
“The Covid-19 pandemic has made the world reconcile with the simple fact that, as humans, we are more and more deeply connected than perhaps we have ever imagined. Airline and telecommunications connectivity are now essential to our daily lives. As the Covid pandemic intensified, Intelvision, remained committed to keeping our customers connected and entertained during these unprecedented times. The health and safety of our employees, customers, and partners are of utmost importance to us. We were determined and dedicated towards maintaining business continuity of our services to support our customers with business operations and work/study-from-home requirements.
While there are opportunities for the industry, this does not mean that telecommunication companies are immune to the economic effects of Covid-19. The pandemic has brought into focus the reevaluation of needs and wants for the 21st century consumer. Telcos which adopt and focus on these needs will prosper.”
What does the theme for World Telecommunications Day, ‘Accelerating Digital Transformation in Challenging Times’ mean for Intelvision?
“It simply means keeping our commitment to keep abreast of the global digital transformation, and ensuring that we remain an industry leader in this regard. We certainly do not want to relegate ourselves as a simple dumb pipe, however the challenge with the digital strategy is the local ecosystem. As a service provider for TV and Internet, Intelvision is on the path of adapting to this transformation; we have already taken the first step in offering content on a digital platform, our iVOD (Video on Demand) product is a testimony to that. With plans on mobile network to be launched as a fully-fledged telco we will have the added advantage and insights that come with owning the network.”
Given the increasing importance of the telecommunication sector, notably the internet, in ensuring that the economy continues to run even though workers are at home and so on, how has Intelvision ensured that not only does its network reach everyone across the islands but this is at an affordable cost?
“We have been continuously working on rescaling our cost structures. This is an annual exercise to ensure that we look at our internal organisation and find ways to do things better, reduce our cost base and make ourselves leaner. We have been proactive in looking at ways of using technology and innovation to break down our cost base.
Today we are offering our customers different options, as we try to cater to different needs and means. This has led us to come up with various options for customers to choose their packages based on their usage and ability to pay. We continue to engage with our customers and with development in the sector to offer our clients the best deals possible.”
Unlike most sectors of the economy which contracted, the telecommunications sector saw a 13.9% growth in 2020. What accounted for such a growth and does it reflect the telecoms experience during the past year?
“The growth in this sector was mainly contributed by the demand for connectivity, Data being the main driver as with lockdowns being imposed globally, people were restricted to their homes and had to work/learn from home, and OTT (over-the-top) providers being the main applications for socializing and entertainment.
However, although customer demand showed a positive growth, due to the devaluation of the Rupee profit margins were also impacted.”
What has been some of Intelvision’s challenges and achievements during the pandemic?
“Our challenge was to ensure business continuity, as internet and cable TV are now essential utilities in both domestic and commercial settings.
A special mention to the team at Intelvision, who rallied round to ensure services are continued and customers stayed connected. Initially our priority was to ensure that staff were safe and prevent clusters developing across the business line. Our first priority was the safety of our staff and letting them know proper precautions were in place to ensure their health and safety.
The pandemic has proven our ability to adapt and continue to turn up for work and deliver the promised service to our customers and one year into the pandemic, this is what we have done. Adapted to changing times. This has been a collective effort and at the centre of it, remains our dedicated workforce.”
The digital and telecommunications industries in Seychelles have been forced to evolve much faster than it would have if not for Covid-19?
At Intelvision, we constantly look at ways of improving and investing on our network, converting customers from HFC network to GPON paid off during the pandemic, hence we were better equipped to handle this demand through our local network. We still face challenges in certain areas such as continued demand for the bandwidth. This is something which we are addressing as we continue to look at various options to offer our customers.
Complaints about telecoms continue to be a concern in the country, with customers alleging slower, lagging and sometimes non-existent network/internet access in some places. What does Intelvision have to say in this regard?
“Indeed and we are very much aware of these challenges. We also experienced a rapid increase in demand during the pandemic, more than we anticipated in our forecast at the beginning of 2020. Like I have also mentioned, the changes in exchange rate have impacted on our profit margins. The marketplace is very dynamic, so we have had to react and adapt fast. The good news is, we are making new investments in our network infrastructure. We take customer complains seriously, and while some challenges can be addressed quickly, long term solutions are also imperative.