Satellite Communications

Taking them to the next level

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Parastatals get a bad rap at times, but satellite communications giant, Sentech, has been a stable performer of late, under the astute leadership of the insightful Engineer, Mlamli Booi, who was appointed as the Chief Executive Officer in 2015, and who brought his spirit of innovation with him. Booi is the founder of Z-Coms and a professional Electrical Engineer with decades of experience in engineering, policy/regulatory and management.

He holds an MSc degree in Electrical Engineering from UCT. He has held several advisory roles including advising the South African Government on telecommunications policy, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) on business process outsourcing (BPO) and call centre market, JPMorgan, on the telecommunications landscape and business model, and developing a licensing policy and universal access policy for the SADC region. In 1997, he was appointed to the IBA Council by the late President Nelson Mandela.

He was part of the team involved in licensing commercial and community radio stations. A soft-spoken and effective leader, he worked for Orbicom as a Systems Engineer and Technology Manager and M-Net as a Transmission Engineer.

He has certainly seen a number of changes in the industry, as Sentech continues the process of digitalising their various platforms from radio to television. The digital world is alive with new opportunities.

“We see the opportunity that is offered by digital terrestrial television (DTT) on the media side, which is an area for providing a lot more over-the-top services (OTT). And we see a lot of opportunities on the audio video streaming side, which is part of the OTT services. And then, secondly, we see more growth areas on the broadband side, particularly for providing services and connectivity to the public sector. Those are the areas that we’re focusing on. However, in terms of our innovation strategy, we’re looking at cloud services, we’re looking at IoT, which can be deployed using our extensive infrastructure that is nationally available,” says Booi.

“We are, together with some of our partners, looking very closely at the 5G area, which is about an evolution in mobile telephony and which will actually be much broader than your mobile services. It is about communication between machines, artificial intelligence. As a state-owned company where the government is focused a lot on the Fourth Industrial Revolution—which is really about providing 5G services—we are gearing ourselves up to find an opportunity within the services, which are regarded as the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” he reflects.

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution unfolds, we are going to see a lot more communication between machinery, be it cars, robots, generators or heating, for example. Booi expects a variety of areas where IoT could change business and efficiency for the better.

The IoT scope

“It is a lot more on machines, communications, autonomous vehicles and drones. In terms of where the industry is broadly going with regard to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as an industry now speaking to Sentech specifically, we need to be focusing on what we are going to do be doing within the space of blockchain, which is about information security. For every organisation that is exposed to issues regarding the security of information, security is going to be a key area of focus. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will also mean that we, as an industry, are assisting; we should answer the question, ‘What is going to happen with automation when most of the services, which are currently un-automated, need to be automated for the sake of efficiency’?”

New skills are needed

Booi sees an opportunity within this explosion of technology, skills development and the accessibility of apps to customers, which must be high on the agenda to meet the demands.

“We need to engage our organisation’s training for new skills, which are going to help us if we’re moving to an area of autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence. The area of applications, for instance, is now apps-driven, so even if I have my network here that is operating with a physical infrastructure, this should be able to have an app that you can download and you will be able to look at whatever service we’re going to provide. Every company has to migrate to the stage where we will be able to provide services in a very convenient way to our customers,” he insists.

For Booi, innovation is key to pushing the envelope and he is focussing a lot on research and development to keep the company sustainable, because there are so many changes taking place as the world moves to a purely digital arena, which is affecting radio and television, with pressure from the Internet.

“What I have introduced now, is to build a team that focuses on innovation and the key focus this financial year for the next three years is on research and innovation capacity-building in our space and allowing our people to gain more knowledge and innovation. Also, to have more knowledge about what we need to do as an organisation to provide cloud services, because most of the services we’re providing now are on the cloud and you can download them from wherever you are in the world,” Booi explains.

Local beneficiation

With regard to local beneficiation, it is important that South Africa tries to increase the production of the back-end technology of the Internet of things—the sensors, for example. But with pressure from the east on prices, how can we promote more locally made tech products?

“One of the things the industry can do is to ensure that most of these sensors that are being used in the Internet of things are manufactured locally if we can achieve the efficiency that is achieved elsewhere. So, we can improve the sensor manufacturing as well as the other network components by sourcing them locally. But, of course, the challenge is that we are not competitive from a cost point of view if you compare us with other markets like China, and that’s why most companies in the world, even all the Apple and Samsung components are manufactured elsewhere, not necessarily in the company’s home county. So, for us to compete, we need to look at our cost structure as a country. If we don’t focus on the manufacturing of the ICT space, it’s going to struggle to compete,” he adds.

The future of community radio

In terms of community radio stations, we’ve seen a number of them falling off the map in recent times due to funding issues. Booi goes on to outline what the future of community radio might be down the line and the role it plays in 2018, with pressure from other forms of online media/entertainment.

“Community broadcasting plays a very important role for communities because it is speaking on issues, which are valid to them. We should embrace the community broadcasting media and try to support it. But because of the cost structure that currently is being implemented, some of them can’t afford the transition.

“What the Department of Communications needs to look at is the funding model because these are supposed to be not-for-profit organisations. Thus, we need to find out how we can then finance them because I know there is an MDDA fund, which has been established. This was established to fund the community media, we just need to come out with a better strategy to make it easier for community radio to afford that. But, certainly, there is room for them in the market and I don’t think we should rule them out. From a regulatory point of view, we should be careful how we license them. It is not sustainable to have multiple community radio stations is the same area,” Booi explains.

Balancing the books

Sentech has been one of the more profitable parastatals in recent times, while other high-profile concerns struggle to make ends meet, often costing the taxpayers billions in bailouts to stay afloat. Sustainable profitability is something Booi hopes to expand on in the coming years at Sentech.

“First of all, we’re fortunate to have the infrastructure, which we have invested in for a number of years, so we try to service our customer as best we can. We’re focusing on customer services and providing good, quality service to our customers, and we are also trying, by all means necessary, to manage our costs because there are no guarantees. We have a high-risk industry and, therefore, for us, it’s that we try to manage our costs as much as possible. We have the advantage of the footprint of our broadcasting network. We are carrying more than 90% of the broadcasting radios in our network and from a television point of view, we carry all the free-to-air broadcasts—we’ve got a good base and a good relationship with our customers,” he says.

Re-investment is essential

In the tech space, it is vital to always re-invest in the business by maintaining and upgrading infrastructure where necessary. This is something Booi takes seriously so as not to fall behind.

“On the broadcasting side, we have spent a substantial amount to keep our network current with new technology and more efficient, power-efficient transmitters on the television and radio side. We keep refreshing our infrastructure so that we can increase our viability of service to our customers.

“It’s something that we continue to do most of the time and if you compare broadcasting and power, for instance, which is energy, if you have a load shedding on broadcasting, you will have a huge outcry because we are depriving people of information,” he explains.

Mentors

A scholar and gentleman, Booi, has read all the great leadership authors of our time and rattles off an all-star list of mentors, who have shaped his outlook on business, technology and life itself.

“Good leadership—it’s about influence, in general, influencing people, influencing your stakeholders, managing their expectations and I’ve had a few role models. I read a lot of leadership books from various leaders who are viewed as mentors, starting from the late Stephen Covey to Tom Peters, who have been the authorities on leadership. One of the books I read quite often is John Maxwell’s book about leadership. I am fortunate to have been mentored by a retired professional engineer, Ashley Blakemore; he mentored me on what it means to be a professional engineer,” he says.

Access to capital for start-ups

He continues, “But where we’re lacking here in South Africa is in the area of spending money on start-ups. I found a lot of start-ups in the United States. The venture capital industry in Silicon Valley is so huge that one learns from those kinds of experiences that we, as a country, need to invest a lot more in start-up businesses because through those smaller businesses, you can create a lot more employment. President Ramaphosa is saying, ‘Let’s create more employment for the youth’, and the only way you’re going to create more employment for the youth is by growing the industry, investing a lot more in the industry and a lot more in start-ups, and by not being afraid to spend because if we are afraid to spend, we will never start anything new in our country.”

Booi finishes off by outlining his plans for Sentech for the next few years, as he rounds-off his current five-year contract with the company—on a high note, one would expect.

“We really want to make sure that it successfully moves out of analogue to digital. Secondly, at Sentech, we are focusing on an innovation within the media, and we will be looking at providing broadband services to the public sector. What this means is that, for instance, we are pursuing areas such as e-learning, providing platforms for e-learning and supporting the public sector to provide connectivity. You’re going to see a lot of us in that space in the next year or so,” he concludes. 

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