This is the transcript of a phone interview conducted recently with Digicel Pacific CEO, Vanessa Slowey. I want to take this opportunity to thank the Digicel leadership for the genuine spirit of cooperation which they extended to me. Their openness and willingness to answer difficult questions is a good indicator of how they view their committment to the Pacific Islands.
1. In which Pacific countries does Digicel operate in at the moment? What countries are next in line for Digicel service?
Digicel currently operates in five countries in the Pacific: Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu and Fiji, covering a total population of 7.5 million people, and directly employing more than 1100 people across the region.
Digicel began its Pan‐Pacific roll‐out when it launched Samoa’s first GSM network on November 1st 2006. The incumbent provider there was operating a mobile service over nine towers on a second‐hand switch. Needless to say, Digicel’s arrival to market has transformed the telecommunications industry in Samoa with an increase of 150% in mobile usage.
On July 24th 2007, Digicel’s launch in Papua New Guinea marked the end of a fifty year monopoly in the telecommunications market. To date, Digicel has invested US$150 million in Papua New Guinea with plans to invest a further US$340 million over the next three years. The Minister for Finance has directly attributed a growth of 0.07% in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to Digicel’s launch in Papua New Guinea.
Digicel has invested US$150 million in Fiji with ongoing investment throughout and across 300 islands in the group. Prior to Digicel’s launch, the incumbent operators scrambled to get organised as even the threat of Digicel coming to the market scared them. We have witnessed a revolution in Fiji with Digicel’s arrival here, as prices have been driven down and now customers are experiencing real competition for the first time.
Digicel’s aim is to continue the growth of mobile networks in the countries in which it operates, and to increase mobile penetration as quickly as possible by focusing on customer acquisition and customer value.
Digicel’s strategic goal is to build a Pan‐Pacific telecommunications network across the region. Digicel has brought competition to the Pacific and revolutionized the telecommunications industry by introducing accessibility, affordability and 24/7 award winning customer care.
With plans to roll‐out in a further four markets over the next twelve months throughout the region Digicel is constantly reviewing possible opportunities to bring affordable telecommunications to the people of the Pacific, as many Pacific island countries are still characterised by telecom monopolies and high prices.
2. Please describe Digicel’s operations in Fiji and the Pacific for the past 6 months? What were particular challenges leading up to and during your company launch in Fiji?
Digicel has experienced a wonderful first six months in Fiji since our launch on October 1st 2008. We hosted a fantastic free concert for 80,000 people to mark Digicel’s arrival in Fiji with International reggae star, Sean Kingston headlining the event. The Fijian people have given us a superb welcome and we are very grateful.
In terms of challenges, Digicel is a dynamic and innovative company, and has consistently broken new ground and met challenges head‐on – be they geographic, infrastructural, or political.
Pacific countries often feature rugged terrain, with poor quality roads, and transport systems are often unreliable. Digicel Pacific operates across a vast theatre of islands, meaning transport must be undertaken by air and sea, and even within individual market and the challenges are great.
In Fiji for example, providing access to top‐up for 95% population coverage was a challenge. Digicel took up the challenge and in spite of these issues; there are now seven different ways to top‐up in Fiji:
- Direct top‐up – electronic machines found in Digicel stores and in Digicel resellers.
- Phone to phone – Digicel street sellers can sell credit direct from their Digicel phones.
- ATM machines – customers can top‐up using their ATM cards.
- ‘Credit U, Credit Me’ – Digicel customers can send credit to each other.
- Self‐service – kiosks.
- Flex cards – available through thousands of locations throughout the islands.
- Online @ http://www.digicelfiji.com
Since launch, Digicel has met and exceeded its targets and continues to grow, increasingly becoming part of the Fijian community. Digicel now holds the market leader position in Fiji and continues to grow its network, consistently bringing new and innovative products to the market while redefining service and customer care in a previously poorly serviced market.
Digicel became the proud sponsor of Fiji rugby in 2006 and have thoroughly enjoyed being a part of Fiji’s favourite sport. Digicel has had great pleasure in celebrating the Digicel Fiji 7s successes – most recently their win of the esteemed Hong Kong sevens tournament.
Similar to our sister company in the Caribbean, Digicel Pacific has a well‐established reputation for taking an active part in sporting and community based projects, particularly in times of need.
When destructive floods struck Fiji in January of this year, severely affecting the country, Digicel was one of the first to step in and provide assistance by donating food and basic supplies, and working closely with DISMAC, The Red Cross and the Police force to provide assistance to those who has been displaced from their homes.
Digicel donated FJ$5million in free credit ensuring our customers could maintain contact with friends and family as well as FJ$500,000 in cash to the emergency services and charitable organisations. Digicel staff got involved, by purchasing and delivering food and necessary supplies to those worst affected.
Digicel operates in a number of countries where harsh weather is experienced, and in some cases similarly devastating. Fortunately, Digicel’s experience with this meant we were first to implement relief and provide a recovery plan.
3. Please describe Digicel’s plans in Fiji and the Pacific for the next twelve months? (An assessment of where the company is now and some things we should be on the lookout for on the short‐term horizon)
Digicel is pleased with the progress in Fiji and the Pacific to date. Future plans for Fiji are to continuing building on our already strong subscriber base, extending our network even further, as well as bringing new and innovative products to the market.
Digicel is committed to delivering world‐class mobile telecommunications services to the Pacific. Plans for the region reflect this as Digicel’s strategic goal is to build a pan‐Pacific telecommunications network across the region.
The Pacific region, similar to the Caribbean, has been characterised by monopolistic telecommunications providers who charge exorbitant prices and offer inferior service, forcing the citizens of the Pacific to accept this for far too long. Digicel believes that every citizen of the Pacific has the basic right to affordable communications.
In Fiji, Digicel operates a GPRS/Edge network enabling customers to access data technology and mobile internet throughout the country. With EDGE, Digicel has the fastest, nationwide mobile internet offering in Fiji using a network with three times the amount of towers compared with our competitor, guaranteeing coverage in even the most rural areas.
Digicel is constantly driving education and practical applications for mobile phones. In Papua New Guinea, Digicel launched GPRS network, bringing mobile internet to people who never had access to even basic telecommunications in the past.
4. Please describe how mobile Internet fits into Digicel’s future business plans in the region?
Digicel currently offers state‐of‐the‐art GPRS/Edge in all of our markets in the South Pacific enabling customers’ access to data technology as well as mobile internet. With almost 100% coverage in all of our markets, EDGE brings mobile internet to even the most rural areas with GPRS enabled phones and BlackBerry devices. In most Pacific markets, Digicel was first to provide, not only 100% coverage, but also internet capabilities using a mobile phone, revolutionising the day‐to‐day lives of our customers.
With a BlackBerry device, users also have a BlackBerry instant messaging facility – allowing them to instantly message any BlackBerry user anywhere in the world for free.
Providing a mobile internet is a key factor in our business development and an increasingly important service to our customers. In the current climate, businesses rely heavily on instant
email and mobile internet and Digicel recognises this as a crucial part of our telecommunications offering.
Digicel will continue to pioneer internet‐friendly mobile services in the countries in which it operates as the opportunities arise. While this often depends on the existing infrastructure in particular markets, Digicel’s presence in a country always brings about huge direct and indirect economic benefits and spin‐off effects – we helped add 0.7% to PNG’s GDP in less than one year of operation there, and as a country’s economy grows, diversifies and modernises, the internet becomes a more viable platform for next‐generation mobile services.
5. In Digicel’s view, what are the obstacles to the widespread take‐up of Internet service and how do you expect the issue to be remedied?
Digicel has broken monopolies, and liberalised many of the countries in which it operates, enabling everyone, not just the wealthy to access affordable mobile telecommunications. Digicel offers GPRS/EDGE networks in all of the countries in the Pacific in which it operates, enabling customers’ access to mobile internet.
Some islands in which Digicel operates are connected to satellite only for internet access, the cost of which is a big deterrent in rolling‐out a wireless broadband service. Satellite is approximately ten times more expensive than fibre, and is used in Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu.
However, in some instances, the incumbent providers in the country have exclusive rights on the International fibre network. Often in these cases, the cost of buying service from the monopoly is overly expensive for new service providers in the market. Inevitably, the high costs will in turn be passed onto the customer making it very difficult for ISPs to provide a value for money solution.
A resolution to this would be the liberalisation of all telecommunications, thus enabling competition in the market which inevitably benefits the consumer. The Governments of Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and PNG are already enablers of change and should be congratulated for doing so.
Digicel is committed to working closely with Governments to realise the ICT goals of the Pacific region and of bringing the benefits of information, communication and technology within the reach of all Pacific Islanders.
Digicel hopes to open up the international gateway, the liberalisation of which will give Digicel the freedom to offer our customers more.
Indeed, as with everything, Digicel’s short and long‐term aims will always remain focused on the consumer, and on providing high‐tech, high‐quality, affordable services across the region, to people who have not had access to mobile telecommunications before.
Digicel believes that by adhering to this consumer‐first methodology and ethos, we will ultimately achieve all of our short and long‐term targets.
6. Last week, the Coconut Wireless featured a post on mobile banking in Kenya. Does Digicel plan to offer mCommerce or mPayment services in the near future? Can those services play a role in helping differentiate Digicel’s service from the competitor?
Again, Digicel is constantly driving education and practical applications for mobile phones. Digicel differentiates itself by delivering innovative technology, being passionate about providing the best mobile phone service to customers as well as investing back into the countries where it operates by supporting community development at a grass roots level.
In terms of mobile payment solutions, a range of services is currently under development which will facilitate customers on the move to make small and larger transactions with greater ease.
Most recently, Digicel Papua New Guinea announced their partnership with the Bank of the South Pacific (BSP) in providing a mobile banking service on April 29th 2009. The service offers real convenience to its users, providing them with on the go banking wherever they are.
Digicel aims to provide the most up‐to‐date and innovative services to our customers in each market and we are always looking at ways of providing business and lifestyle solutions to the handset.
Another example in PNG is Digicel’s impending announcement of a new partnership with Esipay, the electricity provider, which will allow Digicel customers pre‐pay for electricity using their Digicel mobile phones. This unique service is set to benefit the lives of its users offering convenience and peace‐of‐mind.
Digicel continues to innovate with mobile services, which offer great benefits and convenience to the users. In many of our markets, in the Caribbean and in the Pacific, there are high levels of diaspora. In such markets we fulfilled a need for sending and receiving credit among friends and family, not only nationally but internationally too. The service, called ‘Credit Me, Credit U’, has been an overwhelming success enabling sons and daughters living abroad are able to talk to their families at home having sent them credit that they otherwise would not have been able to afford.
‘Credit U, Credit Me’ is in operation in some markets in the Pacific and is planned to launch in Fiji in the coming months.
7. Two articles recently featured on the site bring news of major developments in the UK mobile sector. Operators are moving to joint ventures that involve sharing of networks. What do you think is the significance of this for the deployment of next‐generation wireless networks in Fiji and the Pacific? What do you think might be some first‐steps toward passing sharing between mobile operators in Fiji and the region?
The current economic climate has seen operators in Europe look at ways of reducing their costs. Several operators have opted to outsource part of their operations and to share elements of their networks. Others have decided not to do so. Similar to operators in Europe, Digicel is constantly seeking ways of reducing its costs and better serving its customers. We examine this on a country by country basis. But a note of caution, network sharing should not come at the expense of network coverage, competition, investment and innovation. It is Digicel’s drive to build the Bigger, Better Network that results in competition and drives customer benefits.
8. Share thoughts on how Digicel believes Telecommunications regulatory authorities can build capacity and become enablers of change in the Pacific region.
The Governments of Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and PNG are already enablers of change and should be congratulated for doing so. The economic and social benefits for their countries that have resulted from mobile competition are undeniable: consumers and businesses now benefit from affordable prices, vastly improved coverage, far better customer care, greater innovation and superior quality of service. Their overall economies are better off too: the Minister for Finance in PNG, for example, estimated that the country’s GDP grew by 0.7% GDP in only three months after Digicel’s launch. Other Governments are following this wave, such as the Solomon Islands. Others unfortunately are not and this is a shame for their people.
Digicel believes that regulation should assist with market entry issues such as interconnection and ensure that spectrum and numbers – the raw materials of our trade – are properly managed. But after that, it is best to keep it to a minimum and let market forces compete and deliver the economic and social benefits which they are unquestionably doing. Increased regulation infers with these forces and increases the costs for operators and reduces their willingness to invest. Our view is that if it is not broken, then don’t fix it.