Liquid Telecom CEO: We Are Tech and Supplier Agnostic
Connectivity on a global and unprecedented scale has never been as important as it is today amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and deals between telcos and satellite companies carry extra resonance. Liquid Telecom recently expanded its partnership with Intelsat to connect more than 2,000 additional Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) terminals across the continent. The two companies have worked together since 2016 to deliver Liquid Telecom’s VSAT service over Intelsat’s high-throughput satellite fleet to provide a communications network to communities, schools, and businesses in 20 countries across the continent. We talk to CEO Scott Mumford ahead of his keynote as part of Cell Backhaul Digital Week. Mumford speaks to Liquid Telecom’s plans, its recent deal with Intelsat, and how partnerships could work out with other satellite players.
VIA SATELLITE: Given the current global situation and a more dispersed workforce, do you think satellite-based cellular backhaul will become more or less important in the future?
Mumford: I think it is going to become more important actually. I think as we are seeing more and more of a move to everything being run on devices. That connectivity is going to become more critical to be ubiquitous everywhere. The only way to do that is that is to provide the connectivity to the towers by using a hybrid approach, where you are using fiber and satellite, and even using microwave as well to ensure you have complete network coverage. Even though satellite has been around for awhile and like many technologies has been on a bit of a rollercoaster, it is only going to become more critical and will continue to be for the next decade or so, as it becomes more and more integrated into our communications systems.
VIA SATELLITE: How difficult a challenge is it for a telco like Liquid Telecom to connect people that live away from major cities and major towns in Africa?
Mumford: It is tricky. Africa is an enormous continent geologically and it has a very widely dispersed population with the majority of people living away from metropolitan areas in sub-Saharan Africa. I think the successful companies will be the ones that don’t shoehorn everything into one technology. We have realized it is about the service and connectivity to those areas and using whatever means works best and the most cost-effective way of doing it to get people online and connected. Working with a lot of our partners is a critical element of that.
VIA SATELLITE: Could you tell us about the recent deal with Intelsat? How did that come about?
Mumford: This was actually an extension of a deal we did three years ago. We were always an FSS [Fixed Satellite Service] satellite beam operator taking both C- and Ku-band on FSS beams covering the whole region. We are shaping the bandwidth into the regions as and when we need it. The advent of Ka-band HTS [High Throughput Satellites] started to have an impact on the landscape. To start with, it never really fit from a technology perspective due to the very small nature of the Ka spot beams and the geographical spread of the population in African countries. When Intelsat launched Epic five years ago with the Ku-band spot beams, and covering one whole country with a beam, it changed economics of being able to provide HTS speeds and coverages into specific countries. We took that initial foray into markets where we already had local operating companies running and a good satellite customer base and took the opportunity on an initial three-year commitment with Intelsat 33 to put high throughput services into those countries. That turned out to be a bit of a game changer, being the first Ku-band high throughput service provider in these regions and the speeds and service availability we were able to offer as a result of that we saw good growth.
That partnership with Intelsat strengthened on a reciprocal basis as we provided some teleport services to them. It has been a strategic relationship that has been hugely beneficial to both of us for three years, so we decided to extend that. We have added three additional spot beams outside of the renewal. It has grown very fast. I think it comes from a deep understanding on both sides.
VIA SATELLITE: There are lots of satellite solutions out there with Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO), and Geostationary Orbit (GEO). How difficult is it from your perspective when evaluating which satellite solution to go for?
Mumford: We looked at the all the options like we always do. We are technology and supplier agnostic. It enables us to go out and have a look at the market from a technology standpoint and make sure we can always buy and launch services on the best technology for our specific customer base. We looked at Ka-band services, but the reality of it is, the frequency band that Ka-band operates in Africa, does not provide the availability that we need to be able to mix broadband and enterprise services off of a single platform. So, we use mainly the Newtec Dialog multiservice platforms and the iDirect Evolution platforms. It enables us to blend enterprise quality services with Internet quality services to small and medium-sized enterprises and even consumers. Ka-band doesn’t enable us to provide those enterprise grade services from that frequency band.
VIA SATELLITE: Did you seriously look at OneWeb for capacity?
Mumford: We were in discussions with OneWeb and Telesat as well on the LEO side of things. You have to be very open to all of the technologies that come on board and do your own evaluations and how you are going to commercialize those. I think there are still a lot of unknowns around the LEO services and the commercialization, and how that will fit into the market as a whole. So, I haven’t a definitive answer in terms of which providers we might go with. We will be looking at the LEOs and at some point, we will add them to our service portfolio, as we will with the MEOs and the O3b side as well. We are technology agnostic. So, we can add all of them to our portfolio, if and when we need them.
VIA SATELLITE: In recent conversations with satellite operators/solutions providers, has the tone or nature of these conversations changed? Has the dynamics of the satellite based cellular backhaul market changed?
Mumford: It is a really mixed one for us. With this pandemic, we hadn’t seen lockdowns and the stopping of local movement. It has obviously driven an increase in demand for our services as business finds a way to continue to operate as the best it can without moving its personnel. Conversely, we have had other sectors that have been massively impacted by the pandemic such as the tourism industry. For example, the game lodges in sub-Saharan Africa have all been pretty much shut down. So, we have seen some impact there. The conversation with satellite operators, is they are starting to understand there is choice out there, and people are not afraid move between places nowadays. Around 10 to 15 years ago, you would sign a deal almost for the life of the satellite. You could sit back on your laurels, but those days are long gone. They are having to adapt and become more flexible and creative in their commercial models. They are tied into a bigger part of the economic situation and they need to adjust and be flexible with their contracts and be in line with what their customers are experiencing.
VIA SATELLITE: What is the next stage of Liquid Telecom’s growth plan? Tell us about your roadmap over the next 12 months. Will your plans change as a result of the pandemic?
Mumford: We always have our finger on the pulse in terms of increasing our service offerings, the technology capabilities. We have shown our ability to change. We have recently just launched our 50 Mbps internet via HTS platforms. This could be the first one in Africa via a GEO satellite. I think our roadmap is in terms of expanding within the countries we are operating within, rather than reinventing the product or service set we have been working with. That continues to evolve. We are running some test simulations with some of the MNOs [Mobile Network Operators] in Africa around 100 Mbps connectivity into their base stations using HTS and our infrastructure. I think there will be a big push on that side.
We are also likely to expand into the energy sector, the oil and gas sectors over the last 12 to 18 months with partners we have been working with. The MNO and the oil and gas sectors are the new verticals. We have a legacy in terms of mining, banking, retail, small and medium-sized businesses that we will continue to push the service levels and speeds with. We are looking to expand geographically to the West and West Central Africa from a satellite perspective. These are regions we have not really worked in up until this year. We have been very [active in Central Africa and Southern Africa]. So, we are looking to expand our footprint.
VIA SATELLITE: Could you give us more details on your plans in oil and gas? When do you hope to sign the first deals in this sector?
Mumford: There has been quite a lot of publication around the natural gas found in northern Mozambique. The Angola and Nigeria markets have always been critical from an oil perspective. There is quite a lot of petrochemical and energy sector business that is done within Africa. Traditionally, it has been done by European service providers out of the U.S. and continental Europe. I think that environment has changed and those services providers that have really invested in infrastructure in Africa, and have the local business and support capabilities on the ground, we are able to offer services and price points without long haul support for example from U.S. and Europe. We can provide access into local services. So, it has changed there.
In terms of first contracts, I would have hoped we would have signed one by now but given what has gone on this year, things have been slightly knocked out of kilter. I would hope we would have signed contracts by the end of this calendar year, and predominantly in that northern Mozambique market, and that is where we are likely to see that.
VIA SATELLITE: Will satellite become more or less important in the future for your company?
Mumford: It has always been a very important part of Liquid. We were a satellite service provider when we started providing voice trunking services out of Zimbabwe to Europe for international termination. The spread and build of our fiber network, which has seen a lot of investment in that fiber network. We have now almost a reputation of being a fiber company, as much as a service provider or a satellite service provider. We have a renewed focus on satellite and we are committed to being a satellite service provider, and expanding that technology and service portfolio across Africa. We realize it is a critical element of our capability going forward.
VIA SATELLITE: Finally, how do you see the telecoms landscape changing as a result of recent events? Does this present an opportunity for a company like Liquid Telecom?
Mumford: The COVID impact is that it has just accelerating where we were all going, to be honest. The days of selling connectivity were really coming to an end anyway. It has become a commodity and we all just take it for granted. All telcos, us included, are moving towards a full-service architecture where it is done on the applications and services you need on a monthly subscription basis. I think COVID has accelerated that. We are now working remotely via cloud-based applications and videoconferencing. These services now need to be as bulletproof reliable as we can make them everywhere. Our last mile services need to be there and available everywhere at the enterprise level. It has been a bit of a jump forward for us as an industry as a whole, in terms of where we are going, but I don’t believe it has really changed the end destination.