The Managing Director/CEO of ntel Telecoms Company, Mr. Ernest Debo Akinlola, spoke with Emma Okonji on the company’s challenges and plans to reposition it to boost customer experience. Excerpts:
What has been your experience in managing ntel since you assumed the position of Managing Director and Chief Executive of the telecoms company about six months ago?
When I accepted the call to take up the leadership position of ntel, I knew there were some challenges on ground and I was also convinced that the challenges were surmountable. Since then, eyes have been on me from the direction of the investors, management and non-management staff, including government to see how I can reposition the telecoms company into profitability and to get more visibility and wider acceptance. And I have been doing my best to live up to their expectations. Upon taking the leadership position, the first thing I did was to identify the challenges on ground, which were mainly the desire to create brand visibility in order to acquire more customers, and to increase our working capital. What I have done in the last six months was to work with the management team to make some changes that gave us a stronger and better focus as a business.
One of the observed challenges was that we launched with 4G LTE, which is a technology that is far beyond the time we launched and we had issues of getting customers with 4G LTE devices to connect to our network. Having identified the challenges, we moved swiftly to address them and in the last five months, we have been able to grow our subscriber base by 40 per cent, and we are well over 100, 000 subscribers now. We were able to achieve this because we introduced below the line marketing campaign, which worked out well for the company.
Can you share your background in telecoms jobs since inception?
I stumbled into telecommunications by interest and strong desire, and it played out well for me, even though my educational background is in Accounting. I have worked with several fast moving consumers goods (FMCG) as an accountant, before working with telecoms companies of international and local reputation. I have worked with Etisalat as head of audit, before it rebranded to 9mobile, and all my work experience in and outside Nigeria has prepared me for this current role.
Going by the training of Accountants, there is a general belief that they are not free at releasing funds. How will you cope with the release of funds to run a telecoms company like ntel that is capital intensive?
This is an interesting question for me as an Accountant, but I use to tell people that I belong to the group that spends money on projects without being economical with funds, provided there is assurance on good returns on investment. I have worked as Chief Marketing Officer and that position entails spending money. I am a kind of person that is driven by value for money. There is nothing wrong in spending money, provided there are returns on investment. So as MD/CEO of a capital intensive business, I am duty bound to release funds for projects that will benefit our customers and will improve the financial status of the company and I am willing to do just that.
What is the fate of the business deal on national roaming plan that ntel had with 9mobile last year, given the current situation of 9mobile?
We entered into roaming agreement with 9mobile last year and we have almost concluded that deal. Having agreed on the terms and conditions, we approached the telecoms regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) for approval of concept and that has been done. The stage we are right now is getting the final approval that will enable us have the commercial launch with 9mobile. We decided to enter into national roaming agreement with 9mobile because we had since realised that it is only through collaboration that telecoms operators can sustain their business models in order to survive and national roaming is a better way to generate revenue. To allay your fears whether the plan will fly, given the situation of 9mobile, I will tell you that there is nothing to worry about because both telecoms companies are in business to make profit and I am sure they will not fail in the agreement so far reached. Yes we are aware that 9mobile is shopping for new investor, and we are ready to work with who finally emerges as the new owner of the telecoms company.
What value will the national roaming plan add to ntel’s operation?
By the time we launch our national roaming, it will help us have coverage in additional cities, and it will also help boost our 4G LTE rollout. The 4G LTE network that we have drives both out voice and data segments of our business. Our network is built as a 4G network, and that makes it more efficient, because it has become the widest coverage network. No other operator has a pure 4G network and that makes us far ahead of our time. The network is super-fast and that gives us an advantage over other operators.
Since 2016 when ntel rolled out its commercial services, it has covered just few states. What are the plans to extend coverage to more states of the federation?
The rollout plan to more states is in the offing but subject to funding. We are expecting more funds to be injected into the business, and as soon as that is done, there will be rollout to more states.
There is a general perception that the ntel brand is for the elites because the average income earners who form the majority of the Nigerian population do not have access to ntel recharge cards. Why is ntel not producing physical recharge cards like other operators?
We are aware of that challenge and this is one of the things we are trying to correct and make our recharge cards available to all categories of cushiness, such that they can get it at any of our retail stores or with our direct and indirect vendors. We have a robust network but we need to work more on engaging our customers. Once we get the right customer engagement, we will begin to build the right proposition that will eventually drive that. Last week, we launched our ePin and printed recharge cards and that is about engaging the customers more. We do not want to be perceived as an elitist brand, because our brand is designed to meet the needs of all categories of customers.
What is your view about the country’s 30 per cent broadband plan. Is it achievable by the end of 2018?
Nigeria has all it takes to meet the broadband target, in terms of her readiness to boost the nation’s broadband infrastructure. To achieve this, all industry stakeholders, especially those in the private sector, must show more commitment in advancing the technology development of the country. As a country, we have a target of 30 per cent broadband penetration by the end of 2018, but we are presently at 21 per cent and we have nine months to go. It is an ecosystem objective that could be achieved through collaborative efforts between the government and the private sector led initiative. All stakeholders and the government, in particular, have to play their roles to achieve the target, and it is achievable if the right policies are put in place and the private sector is incentivised to play their roles properly. The 30 per cent is even an aspirational goal for the industry, but what the industry really needs is a significant penetration of between 60-70 per cent broadband penetration.
Given the capital intensive nature of telecoms business, is ntel open to more investors that will bring additional funds to the business?
Working capital is the key in any business and we have lots of ideas to push out but we need funding to actualise them. I have been engaging with the board members of ntel on initiatives to inject more funds into the business and I am sure they are in discussions with credible partners to achieve this. We have grown 40 per cent in five months in terms of our customer base and we need more of such growth, which has to do with proper funding to drive laudable initiatives. Funding is key to our business, we need more funding and I am very optimistic that in the next few months, we will get the kind of funding that we desire.
So how much funding are you looking at?
Huge funding that will run into millions of dollars.
ntel had in the past, givenÂ customers unlimited access to data. Is it a business plan that will run for eternity?
They are our customers and we cherish them. So they will enjoy the unlimited data plan as long as the network exists. We launched with N12,500 unlimited data plan, we later increased the price and customers still prefer it to other data plans because it is much more profitable to them and their business. But we have diversified our portfolio from unlimited data to several other plans that are of greatÂ benefits to our customers. The reason is that not all customers need unlimited data plan. SomeÂ also need weekly and monthly plans which are captured in our diverse plans.
The financial health checks carried out by NCC recently showedÂ that nearly all the telecoms companies are not financially stable. What is your take about this?
It is true that telecoms operators have financial challenges, but as ntel, we are engaging with our creditors and the NCC to address out financial debts. Like every other telecoms operator, ntel has its own debt to manage and we are managing it well. Our level of debt is not as high as other operators indebtedness. I understand where the NCC is coming from in the whole issue ofÂ non-financial stability among operators. But I can confidently tell you that our financial debt is not a big issue because we are managing it very well.
ntel is not captured in NCC’s rating of telecoms operators as displayed on NCC’s website. What could be the reason for the omission?
NCC rates all telecoms operators and publish the ratings on its website, but you may not see ntel being rated along other GSM operators, because we are classified and rated under Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and that is the reason our rating does not feature along side other GSM operators. It cannot be said that NCC does not have sufficient data about ntel, hence ntel is omitted in NCC’s rating. The truth is that we are grouped under VoIP.
As VoIP provider, NCC does not rate our data performance, because of the way they programmed their system to read and capture data. But we are engaging with the NCC to address that since it is becoming an issue.
NCC recently withdrew the licence of telecoms operators that were into call masking and refilling, citing national security risk. How has the practice of call masking and refilling affected your business?
Call masking is not affecting our business for now, probably because we do not have high international traffic coming through our network into the country. We are not into call masking, our traffic is clean and we never thought of doing business in that direction, because of the illegality in the investment over the business of call masking and refilling.
As CEO of ntel, what is your vision about ntel business?
My vision for ntel is very clear and laudable. My vision is to further develop ntel to become a fully integrated Information and Communications Technology (ICT) company in the next five years. We have all it takes to achieve it because of our robust technology and network.