Q&A: Pierre Havenga, Managing Director MEA – Vertiv
COVID-19 has not only resulted in a surge in demand for telecommunications services in Africa, it has also forced service providers to evaluate their capacity and invest accordingly to ensure secure, reliable connectivity.
Journalist Paul Adepoju caught up with Pierre Havenga, Managing Director of Vertiv, MEA region, to discuss Africa’s tech ecosystem and its contribution to efforts to curb COVID-19, the emergence of 5G and other key themes.
Paul Adepoju: What roles can the tech ecosystem in Africa play in minimising the impacts of COVID-19 on the continent's economy, and in quickly returning to growth?
Pierre Havenga: The tech ecosystem can vastly contribute to the current situation and any future potential pandemic. To support this statement, movement permits can be completed from mobile devices, tracking who you have been in contact with can be done through applications, which would bring everything to the forefront of digital.
This would improve the digital economy of different countries on the continent, and eventually facilitate the migration of services to cloud computing which in turn could support enterprises in offering customers digital services.
Essentially, the more countries that come on board with converting different business activities to digital offerings, will enable applications to manage pandemics moving forward.
Paul Adepoju: How should African countries approach 5G – as a necessity or a luxury?
Pierre Havenga: The United Nations now considers internet connectivity to be a human right. The divide between rich and poor nations will continue to grow without access to information over the communications networks. As developed nations pursue a more immersive experience from the internet, the minimum threshold for data bandwidth continues to rise. The early use cases for 5G are indeed focused on content delivery and are targeted for an ‘early adopter’ audience. In time, when the subscriber numbers grow, not only from human subscribers but from IOT connections, 5G will become a necessity rather than a luxury. The timeline will differ region by region and country by country, but the original premise of societal benefit remains at the core 5G thinking.
Paul Adepoju: Unlike the digital innovation ecosystem where new products and apps can be easily and quickly developed, infrastructural burdens and policy requirements make it difficult for telecoms operators to quickly embrace new solutions. What is the best approach towards addressing this inertia?
Pierre Havenga: There has been a call for collaboration regarding infrastructure for some time and all stakeholders in tech and data traffic management need to work closely with the various governments on the regulatory environment.
With that said, the ICT sector in Africa has time and time again shown its ever-evolving state, by the dynamic growth it has displayed, particularly driven by the mobile sector. With the penetration of new technologies onto the continent, we are witnessing a more positive impact in getting more broadband and internet users and admittedly this is where the governments come to play. However, such investments require more capital than what government alone can provide, and therefore, a creation of a conducive investment environment and better regulation policies are just two ways of approaching and addressing the hurdles within the digital innovation ecosystem.
Paul Adepoju: COVID-19 is stretching telecoms capacities to the limit across the continent. Do you think the sector was well prepared for the sudden surge in demand? And what do you think needs to happen to ensure that infrastructure can withstand the pressure?
Pierre Havenga: Yes, the networks have been severely tested, stretched even. The volumes of traffic have been the same as at peak times of the year such as seasonal holidays, except they have been for far greater extended periods. While we may not have widespread coverage technologies as 5G available today, preparation in the background of the network has been progressing for the past number of years.
Strengthening capacity of major sites, increasing bandwidth between locations and transforming architectures, readying themselves for the next wave of digitalisation has largely enabled the massive demand from the domestic networks. Without this work, the pandemic lockdown would have been a very different story and bandwidth rationing would have been necessary. However, the work is far complete, and networks will continue to evolve as the consumers appetite for bandwidth and low latency grows.
Paul Adepoju: Current infrastructures are still at risk of attacks. How can the telecommunications infrastructures in- and around Africa be totally secured from both physical and cyber attacks?
Pierre Havenga: Vertiv is continuously working with mobile operators to improve security. However, there is a balance between the amount of investment versus the risk. Therefore, unmanned assets will continue to be a risk while it is perceived that there is value in vandalising them. The inventiveness and resourcefulness of the would-be thieves means that any new protective measure taken by the operator or vendor base has a limited shelf-life before it becomes obsolete. There have been some encouraging signs to break this cycle in LATAM (Latin America) where they have similar issues.
The local community is invited to hold a stake in the operation of a site, where the benefit of maintaining operation of the site outweighs the sale of a stolen asset. To add onto this, we have seen some companies adapting zinc-bromine flow batteries as opposed to lead or lithium batteries as this reduces the risk of theft.
Telco operators continuously work to improve their online security and all companies, not just telcos are exposed to cyber-attacks, all IT departments in all verticals are continuously faced with the challenge and as the volume and sophistication of cyber-attacks grow, companies and organisations (especially those that are tasked with safeguarding information relating to national security, health, or financial records), need to take steps to protect their sensitive information.