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Building a digital ecosystem
Schalk Visser, CTO, Cell C

Cell C launched its operations across South Africa in 2001, seven years after the launch of the two incumbents, Vodacom and MTN in 1994. Exceptional Quality is the pillar driving network excellence, born out of over 4 billion rand (US$278.1 million) worth of investment in infrastructure over the last two years with an additional 8 billion rand (US$556.2 million) earmarked over the next three years. Service excellence drives Cell C’s business and ensures that every customer touch point is delightful. That is why the telco has increased its investment in a top quality customer service layer and is driving an internal culture of customer care to ensure that customers are at the heart of its business support system (BSS) that’s helping it to build a robust digital ecosystem.

In spite of penetration of over 140% of mobile services in South Africa, growth for telco Cell C – particularly in the prepaid market – continues apace. The company has grown its mobile subscribers from nine million in 2012, to over 20 million by July 2015. The momentum and success of Cell C’s pricing strategy over the past two years with its core consumer values of honesty, simplicity and transparency, has resulted in a positive customer response. Manda Banda spoke with Schalk Visser, CTO, Cell C, who addressed several initiatives the company is implementing and finds out how it has continued to innovate in readiness for 5G rollout across South Africa, is building a robust digital ecosystem and driving service excellence to ensure that every customer touch point is delightful.

Talk us through your role as Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at Cell C South Africa?

Cell C’s stated ambition is to evolve over time from a telecommunications providers to a technology business that is an enabler for digital lifestyle services through a digital ecosystem. To fulfil that vision, my role as CTO at Cell C is an exciting one that presents both challenge and great opportunity as we work towards our long-term objective as an organisation to pivot from a telco to a  technology company (“techco”). The big focus currently is the evolution of our business model through a new operating model, a major responsibility for the team because the successful implementation of our network strategy is critical to our business strategy. This transition, along with, just as importantly, building our digital ecosystem, are major drivers in my role currently.

Since taking over in your role, how have you guided your IT team to put technology at the heart of delivering the business objectives for Cell C in South Africa?

So often companies, not only technology organisations, develop products and services for the sake of having a product out in the market and hope people will buy or make use of it without having done any research into what consumers really need. The approach we are going in is the opposite of that – we investigate the business and customer needs and create technology and digital solutions that satisfy those identified needs. Being customer-centric with a value focus is important in delivering Cell C’s business objectives and therefore, our technology solutions must be in tune with that. This is an important part of our culture change that all teams, technology included, must be led by customer-centricity to inform the kind of solutions we deliver.

What are some of the IT initiatives, projects and implementations have you overseen since taking on your role as CTO at Cell C?

The biggest focus at the moment is the implementation of the new network strategy and ensuring the process is as seamless as possible. Ultimately, we are putting our customers first in the revised strategy to afford them the best network and offering them benefits that will make life easier and better for them to change their world. Another focus area is Cell C’s Digital Transformation journey and to support this, the next important project is refreshing the business support system (BSS).

What IT/Digital Transformation projects has Cell C implemented in the last 12 months in South Africa?

There has been a tremendous amount of work internally that the customer at the moment will not be able to see. We are putting in place the building blocks to build the digital ecosystem aligned with Cell C evolving into a technology business. The work happening behind-the-scenes includes getting the right resources to build the digital ecosystem and skills development to enable the team to grow and have the right and necessary skills to work in a technology business. The customers should be able to see the fruits of our labour in the next twelve months. We also have automation projects being executed internally in support of the business, which again are not visible to customers but rather projects that allow us to service both internal and external customers better. We have been changing our world, so we can change our customers’ lives by giving them a superior customer experience.

The role of a CTO has evolved over the years with more C-level and business line executives getting involved in making IT decisions and formulating the overall technology strategy. How hard or easy is it for you to get the correct support and buy-in from your peers at Cell C?

I am of the belief that there needs to be a collaborative approach within the business to succeed based on the complexity of the business model and the digital age we live in today. We cannot work in silos because that hinders one to see any blind spots, therefore, a collaborative approach allows the business executives to identify gaps and offer input that are aligned with the business strategy and ensure objectives are met. With the direction Cell C is moving in at the moment, there is collaboration in the technology strategy and more and more executives are interested in what needs to happen and offering suggestions and or ideas. Internal partnerships are just as critical, as our external ones, to our success.

How is Cell C preparing for 5G rollout when ICASA auctions 5G spectrum later this year?

Cell C is becoming the biggest aggregator of network capacity and we are using our own spectrum to carry traffic through access to a virtualised radio access network (RAN) provisioned by our network infrastructure partner. We are bidding for spectrum later this year and are already in discussions with our roaming partners and close to the implementation of 5G services for our customers.

Which telecoms equipment vendors is Cell C South Africa working with to roll-out its 5G network?

As mentioned earlier, we are leveraging off our roaming partners for the access component of the telecoms value chain. Huawei is our incumbent technology partner on our core and billing systems.

Talk us through what the rollout of 5G will mean for Cell C customers and what sort of services and experiences can they expect from your company that they are currently not getting?

As an industry, we need to be cautious in creating an expectation that a 5G network will be rolled out as quickly as 4G and 3G networks because the frequencies used in 5G is much higher, which means it doesn’t reach as far. What I mean by that is, in order to cover the same area as 3G and 4G networks, there will need to be many more 5G sites to cover the same geographical area.

The first use case for 5G would be fixed wireless access service for customers – areas where there isn’t a fibre footprint the solution would be to deploy 5G fixed wire access. Another use case, which is in the future, we will see automation in various industries with delicate remote procedures made possible due to the low latency of 5G. Internet of Things (IoT) technologies will also become more prevalent due to the ability of 5G to support a lot more connections and devices at a given point in time.

What impact will the rollout of 5G networks across South Africa have on Cell C’s Digital Transformation journey?

We need to always bring it back to the customer by identifying a challenge they face and providing the right solution. 5G will provide more people access to high-speed Internet, which enable the execution of digital activities such as gaming, virtual reality and the high bandwidth combined with low latency has the potential for remote healthcare services. Fibre access in remote areas is expensive in terms of infrastructure and difficult to justify the investment commercially, if leveraged correctly 5G can bridge some of that divide. Although 5G is being deployed in South Africa at the moment, 4G/LTE will still have a key role to play in South Africa for a while because we still need to ensure people are connected and bridge the digital divide.

The African continent and in particular South Africa, has witnessed a heightened wave of cyberattacks in recent months targeting sectors like banking and financial services, telecoms, education and government. How is Cell C protecting its digital assets and most importantly client information that it doesn’t fall into the hands of cybercriminals?

The Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA)came into effect in July 2021, which requires businesses to be compliant based on the conditions set out in the act. Cell C has been in the process of ensuring it is compliant in all its policies to meet the July 1st, 2021 deadline. In addition to POPIA compliance, we perform regular penetration testing to highlight potential weaknesses that might be a gateway for cybercriminals and put a plug on them, closing any gaps.

Noting that excess security in the form of software on individual devices may slow down employees’ ability to work due to hardware being slowed down, we rather invest in the education of our workforce. Employee education and awareness are key because employees need to be empowered with the right knowledge to identify potential risks and how to stay protected, especially because of the remote working culture that has been adopted. From the ransomware and data breach cases we have seen in the past 18 months, employees were the gateway for cybercriminals in some of them. There are many different types of ransomware such as phishing and viruses that employees might fall victim to that then allow cybercriminals to infiltrate the organisation’s system. It is not at the fault of the employee because cybercriminals are evolving almost at the same pace as cybersecurity technology and tricks such as phishing emails are so advanced they appear to be legit. Cell C staff are educated and reminded regularly to be cyber secure in an effort to amplify the standard IT controls we have in place to strengthen our security structure.

How much of your IT infrastructure is on premise versus that which is hosted in the cloud?

Currently, we have limited services in the cloud but we are looking at migrating more business operations to the cloud as part of our technology strategy. One of the key drivers in this is that such a migration must make commercial and business sense. If not done correctly, the cost can run away with you quickly.

Other than the rollout of 5G technology across South Africa what other initiatives will you be focusing on in 2021 and how hands-on are you going to be involved with your IT team?

I’ll be focusing on three major activities namely the implementation of Cell C’s new network strategy, putting in place the building blocks for Cell C’s digital ecosystem and BSS transformation as part of the Digital Transformation plan.

In terms of involvement with my team, I try and stay as close as possible to them, allowing them the opportunity to take responsibility and accountability for their areas and be available to support them where and when needed. My biggest wish for each of them as a team is to be successful and in doing so support the success of the entire organisation. I believe that there needs to be a balance of being an observer and being hands-on in the thick of things. Additionally, we have an extremely talented technology team who are experts in their respective fields and are more than capable to execute their tasks knowing they are trusted.

How is Cell C reprioritising IT spending in an era of lockdowns and economic uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

At the moment we are focused on digital – app and web portals – and in support of this, the BSS transformation, because ultimately we need to remove the friction for our customers to make their experience as seamless as possible. In parallel we are building the digital ecosystem because if we are successful with its implementation, we can replicate the model anywhere in Africa.

What is the business outlook for Cell C in South Africa in 2021?

There is pressure on the industry due to the increased demand for data and consumption, and revenue not climbing at the same rate. At Cell C, we are in a fortunate position because we are lean as an organisation and relatively smaller than other operators – this gives us the ability to make decisions and take action without going through a hierarchy of approvals to get the simple things done. We have positioned ourselves as a force to be reckoned with. As a business in transition we are starting to see the impact of our changes and the Cell C team is highly focused on continuing to build a profitable, innovative player and we are on track to achieving that ambition.

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