Many telecommunications companies are becoming technology companies. Among them is MTN, which – working hard in recent years to close the gap in the fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) market – bought the multimedia and telecommunication services provider, Smart Village, in November 2016.
The telecommunications giant acquired Smart Village for R220 million cash, plus a deferred consideration of R12 million. The deal expanded MTN’s FTTH footprint across South Africa. At the time, Smart Village’s fibre network was plugged into more than 22 000 homes in Gauteng, the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. MTN said the deal would bolster its presence in the enterprise space by giving MTN Business the ability to provide wholesale access to businesses. It also believed the acquisition would give it a presence in more residential gated estates and apartment blocks, business parks and shopping malls. In 2018, MTN rebranded Smart Village as Supersonic.
But to turn their belief into a reality, MTN needed a leader with experience and an ability to deal with complexity. In seeking such a person, the telecoms giant needed to look no further than within its own ranks. The chosen candidate was Megan Nicholas, who at the time was general manager of MTN’s Residential Segment. She was appointed general manager of Supersonic in January this year.
During the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, Megan Nicholas was among those leaders in the telecommunications industry striving to make working from home possible for many large enterprises. She witnessed how poorly prepared some corporates were when the virus hit South Africa, and worked hard to address their needs. Today, some of those corporations have connectivity to thank for their survival. Nicholas’s experience and the lessons she learned have prepared her well when it comes to connecting South African homes and businesses.
This can be seen in the approach adopted by Supersonic to connecting homes through fibre. The demand is massive and digging trenches labour intensive. To speed up the process, Supersonic pushed the use of AirFibre, a form of fibre that does not require any trenches be dug. AirFibre uses existing infrastructure to connect consumers. By retrofitting existing MTN cell towers with this innovative technology, Supersonic brings a new, fibre-like service to consumers that addresses two of fibre’s main stumbling blocks at fibre-competitive prices.
One MTN executive described the work from home experience as follows: “As most businesses allowed their employees to work from home, the demand for data and strengthening security measures became mandatory… Working from home relies heavily on remote access to (the) company’s network, cloud accounts and video-conferencing tools. Without adequate security and cloud storage capabilities, company resources become vulnerable.”
To understand the value of the role played by Nicholas in fostering connectivity, you have to look at the current situation in South Africa. When lockdown hit, many parents from previously-disadvantaged communities struggled to get their children connected to online teaching. A significant number of schools were also scrambling to provide education online. The situation called attention to the extremely high levels of inequality in South Africa – as children in poor communities went without a teacher, parents in wealthier urban areas were able to have their kids connect to receive their education online through services provided by the more-privileged schools.
Nicholas believes every child should be able to connect online. “Having access to the internet is access to the library,” she says. Her efforts at Supersonic indicate she is passionate about this, and has the sense of urgency required to address it. Her value is not only important to communities, but to MTN’s presence in the fibre market.
MTN has been at a disadvantage domestically after it shed 1.9-million subscribers in South Africa over six months in 2019. Attempts to resuscitate the telecommunications company have been made, but it has a long journey ahead. Megan and her team at Supersonic play an important role in securing a role for MTN in this sector of the market.
MTN’s Ambition 2025 strategy is aimed at building the largest and most valuable platform business in Africa. It encompasses scale connectivity and infrastructure, making use of both mobile and fixed access networks across the consumer, enterprise and wholesale segments. The implementation of this growth strategy will be accelerated through selective partnerships and leveraging MTN’s brand as the most trusted and valued in Africa, while it will be supported and funded through enhanced cost and capex efficiencies. Its execution is embodied in four clear strategic priorities, in which Nicholas’s portfolio is crucial.
If there was ever any doubt about the value of the work she is doing within the MTN Group, it is only necessary to examine the company’s interest in the virtual-reality space, the metaverse. The tech giant has identified the fact that Africa’s population is growing rapidly and forecast to hit over 2.5 billion by 2050 (it is currently about 1.4 billion). Further, the African crypto market has grown by more than 1 200% over the past year. Chainalysis estimates that African countries collectively received around $105.6 billion in cryptocurrency between July 2020 and June 2021. In addition, MTN – together with some of its partners in the metaverse space – has identified the fact that Africa has some of the highest crypto adoptions rates in the world, including South Africa at 13%; Nigeria at 11%; Ghana at 6%; Kenya 5%; and Egypt 4%. With this in mind, MTN has partnered with other role players to create Africarare, a 3D virtual reality experience set in Ubuntuland, where the currency is the $UBUNTU token. The token can be bought, traded or kept, as well as used for various experiences such as art exhibitions, games and social experiences.
All this will require Nicholas and the team at Supersonic to succeed in connecting South African homes. In the absence of affordable, scalable connectivity, the Ambition 2025 strategy, metaverse vision and enabling online learning will not be fully realised.
For now, considering the impact Covid-19 has had on working environments, it can be argued that Nicholas and her team have contributed to ensuring South Africans can still be productive. For that reason, it is safe to say she is one of the Most Productive People in South Africa.