Laying foundations for the rapid growth of Africa’s mobile network

By Dale Benton

As more and more Africans turn to mobile usage in their day-to-day lives, BICS ensures that the network infrastructure is in place in order to embrace this rapidly expanding market.

Across Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, the mobile phone market is exploding. According to a report from Ericsson Mobility, Long-Term Evolution (LTE) subscriptions are set to expand by 47% to 310mn by 2023 in Sub-Saharan Africa alone.

With more and more people using mobile phones to handle payments, voice communication and online browsing, only one such company currently provides the necessary infrastructure to enable such rapid growth.

With more than 120 access points-of-presence worldwide, capacities of multiple 100GB and participation in 20 submarine cables, BICS is well and truly a global business – and one of the company’s biggest and most dynamic markets is Africa. 

“Africa is a very dynamic continent with a lot of creativity and entrepreneurship,” says Clémentine Fournier, BICS Regional Vice President, Africa. “The role of the telecoms (mobile) sector is very important in the continent – much more so than in developed markets. Mobile phones are used for far more than basic voice communications, including things like mobile payments which can be critical in those regions that lack the kind of infrastructure you find in more developed areas.”

With more than 120 mobile operators using the company’s infrastructure network in Africa, the continent represents a key market for BICS. The company has points-of-presence (PoPs) in Nairobi, Johannesburg, Lagos, Djibouti, Port Louis and Mauritius, all built on a robust mesh of subsea cable systems.

BICS invests significantly in its ‘human presence’ throughout Africa, having opened up local entities in Ghana, Kenya and South Africa in order to be closer to the market. This, Fournier feels, fosters greater collaboration and service provision to its clients, local partners and end users.

“With our broad range of IP and Carrier Ethernet services, we provide carriers and communication service providers with point-to-point data services and access to the IPX (Internetwork Packet Exchange) community, which has enabled operators to increase their network availability and improve quality of service for customers,” explains Fournier.

BICS invests heavily, either directly or via partnerships in key markets (Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa) to create PoP ‘hubs’ to surrounding countries. As Fournier notes, these countries were chosen not purely because of their location but also because they provide sufficient regulatory and political stability.

Key to this investment are the relationships it strikes with strategic partners, and more so how it fosters and develops these relationships long into the future. “We offer critical communications services to a variety of parties, but mobile operators represent most of our customers in Africa. Without a carrier like us, international calls and roaming services would not work,” says Fournier.

As a (transit) carrier, BICS is an intermediary between two mobile operators and their respective subscribers for all their international communication needs (voice, messaging, roaming, etc.) “We share strong common interests with our customers and I like to say that we’re in the same boat: when our volumes and revenues are increasing, our customers’ volumes and revenues are also increasing and vice versa.”

In most of its African markets, BICS purchases more from its customers in monetary value than it sells. This is achieved though terminating calls and text messaging into customer networks within which BICS pays fee/airtime (i.e. a price per minute). This, Fournier feels, creates a relationship that goes far beyond that what is expected of a typical vendor-customer kind. 

This is proving increasingly important in Africa, where the falling cost of mobile devices and subscription plans have democratised internet access and thus unlocked a wealth of opportunity for BICS to explore and capitalise on. “It’s exciting to continuously look for creative solutions to mitigate the decrease in revenue from providing voice services – which has traditionally been our customers’ core and legacy business. Personally, I believe there is huge potential in developing roaming services in Africa, especially for data roaming.”

With more and more Africans now reliant on mobile phones, be it basic voice communications or mobile payments and other financial services, there is an inherent increase in the risk of fraudulent activity.

After all, with more users comes more data that is more accessible than ever before. To this end, BICS has partnered with FraudGuard, a global anti-fraud crowdsourcing platform which supports a proactive, collaborative approach to prevention and authentication. “This proactive approach reduces the time and cost required to react to fraud attempts, protecting operators’ networks, subscribers and reputation,” says Fournier.

The platform monitors global traffic on our infrastructure and highlights potential issues, as well as allowing customers to share instances of fraud on their own networks. “We’re working to transform what has traditionally been a closed-off, secretive topic, to something the industry can work on together to the benefit of all.”

The company’s work in cybersecurity doesn’t end there: BICS also partners with Local SMS Firewall, which manages all A2P (application-to-person) and P2P (person-to-person) activity, implementing an SMS Firewall product to reduce and block instances of spamming, fake messages and the flooding of messages, and a Voice Roaming Firewall to help block fraudulent outbound roamer voice call attempts in real time before the fraudulent call is made.

“Africa is a hugely varied continent, with some countries lacking strict (or effective) regulations and governance – including of the telecoms industry. This makes policing fraud even more difficult,” says Fournier. “Our platform allows for the sharing of resources and knowledge to prevent instances of fraud, something which is of particular importance to those regions where these are lacking.”

The rise of instant messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, the most popular messaging services used in Africa, reflects a wider trend which has seen subscribers move away from basic SMS and towards more feature-rich OTT (over-the-top) communications services. This is a situation which has – understandably – caused much concern among operators. 

“All actors in the chain are affected: the mobile operators, the carriers and, indirectly, the African governments which see their revenues from international taxes decreasing,” she says. “In contrast to other markets, the increase of data usage linked to OTTs does not offset the revenue loss from international calls.”

It’s not just infrastructure network that BICS brings to Africa. Fournier notes that BICS is an international company offering challenging opportunities in dynamic markets, which ultimately empowers the people of Africa.

“We are one of the world leaders in our industry, and many of my colleagues are renowned experts in their domain and highly skilled in providing valuable expertise to our customers. This gives younger colleagues on-the-job learning opportunities, in addition to a lot of formal internal training,” she says.

“Most importantly for me, there is a close-knit and collaborative atmosphere among colleagues – many of us meet also after work for social activities, and some have even met at BICS and gone on to get married! All this makes our team keen to stay part of the ‘BICS family’.”

This will ultimately prove key for BICS as it continues to enable and define the mobile phone market throughout the Africa of today and tomorrow.


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