MOHAMMED RUFAI: With COVID-19, Acceleration of Digitisation is Unprecedented

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MOHAMMED RUFAI

 Mohammed Rufai has been the chief technical officer at MTN Nigeria for over a year. Prior to that, he served as the chief technical officer for MTN Ghana and was also the general manager, Technology in charge of South, East Africa and Ghana with MTN Group MANCO. Rufai joined MTN Group in 2002 as a graduate of Computer Science from the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi with certifications from globally acclaimed institutions including Cranfield University, Duke Corporate Education and the Lagos Business School. In this interview with Emma Okonji, Rufai speaks on how digitisation has witnessed an unprecedented acceleration with the COVID-19 pandemic. He also elucidates the state of MTN Nigeria’s network operations since the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, pointing out the steps the operator has taken to curb the effects of the pandemic on people, organisations and institutions across the country

At the onset of the pandemic in Nigeria, MTN announced interventions for its subscribers, which included 300 free SMS monthly per customer. This was met with a lot of push-back online with critics saying, people wouldn’t use it. What informed the decision to go ahead with this offer?

All of the interventions that we have implemented have been designed based on an assessment of the level of impact that they can have. When we were considering the SMS intervention, this was at the heart of our thinking, alongside the very real consideration of how to manage the considerable pressure that our network was under from increased demand for digital and data services. We selected free SMS because of these two considerations: first, it would be the intervention that would benefit the widest number of people and the most vulnerable subscribers; and second, it would be something we could offer at scale that would not unduly threaten the integrity of the network.

The data we are now seeing is clearly validating this. As at Friday June 26th, more than 52 million Nigerians have sent over four billion SMS for free as a result of the intervention. I think you will agree that the impact of that is quite substantial. As we approach the end of the 3-month intervention period, we are on track to even record higher numbers of overall free SMS sent. These numbers should not actually be surprising because we have far more subscribers on our network that use feature phones than smart phones, and so are unable to access WhatsApp, Facebook or other messaging services that ride over data services on the network.  These subscribers are those that are most vulnerable to the economic shocks that COVID-19 has brought with it, and as with all of our interventions, these are the communities we have placed most emphasis on. So, while access to free SMS might not be what everyone wants, it is vital to the millions of people who depend on this service as their primary means of communication at this time.

I think it’s also important to emphasise the point about maintaining network stability. In line with global trends, we experienced significantly increased demand for data services during the lockdown and our existing infrastructure came under serious pressure. Because of this, we knew that the network would not be able to manage the surge in use that would come had we dropped data tariffs, and so the decision to provide all subscribers with 300 free SMS per month was done to ensure we could support the maximum number of people, prioritising the most vulnerable, without threatening the network’s integrity, on which millions of Nigerians, and businesses were dependent.

 Was there any tracking system put in place to monitor the use of these services and how customers responded to each of these? If so, which of the offerings did Nigerians respond to the most- that is, which recorded the most traffic, the Mobile Money, SMS or Data?

Yes, we were able to track usage of these services, and the numbers that we have seen have clearly validated our approach. The free SMS service witnessed the most engagement by far. As at 26 June, over 52 million Nigerians used this (free SMS), compared to the over 4 million who took advantage of the free data we provided to access health websites via mobile. That means that over 75 per cent of our subscribers accessed the SMS intervention at some point during the 3-month validity period.

How have the freebies and the significant volume of usage affected CAPEX?

As I have said before, our interventions were specifically designed to ensure that the maximum number of Nigerians could benefit, without putting very high level of strain on the network. Having said that, it is worthy of note that the free SMS utilised so far by customers is valued at over N16 billion, which is a cost solely borne by the company, and which we expect to still go up.

The use of SMS that we have seen is something that we have the network capacity to absorb, but what really challenged us was the demand for data. Fortunately, we have invested a lot in building multiple layers of redundancy on the network to manage  the surge in consumer demand or significant changes in pattern such as the one we witnessed during the lockdown period, but despite this, we were forced to develop innovative solutions and approaches and to rethink the way we plan for future network demand. That means an enhanced focus on rollout of infrastructure to support data and digital services, which was already in the pipeline, but can now be accelerated.

We have been significantly challenged in the way in which we dimension, service and maintain our sites. Furthermore, infrastructure deployed for a certain number of subscribers  had to be adjusted to the new realities. But at MTN, we are committed to ensuring that the capacity required is always available. We will also continue to maintain optimal balance between enhanced access and network stability as they are related issues.

At this juncture, it is also important to acknowledge the support of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) which during the lockdown encouraged accelerated capacity upgrades.

Considering that the world is now seriously gravitating towards digitisation of the labour force and remote working is becoming a trend, does this give an insight into what services will be the most demanded from the telecoms industry?

Absolutely. I think that the process of digitisation was already taking place, but the speed and intensity with which COVID-19 has accelerated, it is unprecedented. While we have been consistently investing to address the growing demand for data and digital services, we had not anticipated it happening almost overnight. The industry across the world has had to adapt to this and find a way to balance the work needed to sustain and expand the network, with  social distancing requirement, new remote working protocols and travel restrictions. Imagine asking an industry to rapidly increase capacity, while fundamentally changing the way that it operates.  This is compounded in Nigeria by the scarcity of FX. That’s the transition that we’ve had to manage.

Since we have been talking about MTN supporting the most vulnerable particularly in this peculiar period, what are you doing to reach underserved or unserved areas?

Our rural telephony project has gone quite well. We have been at it for quite some time now based on our conviction that all Nigerians, no matter where they are, deserve the benefits of modern telecommunication services. Everyone deserves to be connected. So working with our partners, we have been rolling out low-cost coverage solutions to rural communities. To date, we have deployed about 400 base stations in the communities. Our plan is to add more than 2,000 base stations to these communities in the next 24 months.

The success of the rural telephony project is perhaps predicated on the amount of innovative thinking that we put into it, the quality of partnerships that we have and our belief that everyone deserves the benefit of a modern connected life. It is worthy of note that in most of the communities that now have coverage, there are no other mobile operators present there. We take special pride in that, and the transformation the connection has brought to those communities, is one of the things that drives us to cover other unserved areas.