How to Work With Operators (Part One)

Posted by MelissaUlbricht on Jan 09, 2011.

Mobile-based projects for social change can be found in any issue area: mobile health, mobile money, initiatives that promote advocacy, citizen journalism, democratic participation, and economic livelihoods. While projects vary in scope, objectives, and platforms, one consistency between many successful projects is a good working relationship with the mobile network operator in a given country.

Mobile network operators, or MNOs, go by many names: mobile providers, cell providers, telecommunications companies. In this article, we focus on MNOs in the traditional sense: companies that provides mobile network services.

Since working with MNOs is the necessary sine qua non for many if not most mobile projects, it requires some context for how individuals, organizations, and NGOs work with mobile providers. We will include examples of successful relationships and discuss the bottom line for both the MNO and the project team.  In part two of this series, we present the top ten tips and strategies to establish a solid working relationship with an MNO for projects of various sizes with different financial limitations and in diverse regions.

We will also provide a set of strategic considerations for thinking about projects in this field, be it a one-off pilot or an attempt to go to scale.  MobileActive.org spoke with field workers, MNO executives, third-party providers and many others involved in this important but often difficult-to-navigate field of mobile technology for social change.

 In a Nutshell – It’s Necessary, but “Tricky”

Oscar Salazar is CEO of Citivox, a social company based in Mexico City. Citivox enhances communication between citizens and their governments. For the last two years, the project has grown to 70,000 by just word of mouth. Salazar said that building a strong relationship with a mobile carrier or an SMS aggregator is very important to deploy real and scalable solutions. In his case, Salazar has built a strong relationship with one the largest SMS aggregators in Mexico. But, he also said it was “the trickiest part of the process.”

Based on our research and interviews, we completely agree.

Not surprisingly, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a successful working relationship with a mobile network operator. But to launch a pilot or take a project to scale, this relationship is often an integral component of success. In this article, we summarize the factors that were most often mentioned among organizations and MNOs. These include funding, timing, capacity for technology, and scope of the project.

Mobile providers have long donated funds toward causes. However, we look at relationships that extend beyond social responsibility and one-off funding of a project and instead focus on leveraging MNO’s technical capacity and expertise in mobile-based social development projects.

In choosing to work with mobile operators, there are mutual benefits for both parties. Altaf Ladak, COO of Roshan in Afghanistan, said, “Our focus has always been bringing in the right partners. We are, at the end of the day, a telephone company.”

For one, a successful relationship might help reduce operating costs, resulting in free or reduced cost services for the end user or target audience. A mobile provider may be able to help promote or advertise a new program or initiative, and this promotion brings attention to both the program and the company itself. A strong relationship can leverage existing or popular platforms as well as internal and local MNO expertise and direction. It can also help a mobile-based project achieve scale and impact.

Working with MNOs almost always adds an element of complexity to a project. The relationship will take time to cultivate, and it can be costly or limiting. With this in mind, and with the caveat that there is no single approach, here are the top ten tips for sustaining a solid business relationship with a mobile provider. We’ll discuss these in detail in part two of this series.

  1. Know the “personality”of the provider
  2. Listen and be agile to local expertise
  3. Take a fresh perspective in selling your project
  4. Try to add rather than create
  5. Understand the technology capacity of the provider
  6. Be open to suggestions
  7. Be realistic and honest
  8. Consider a third-party approach
  9. Understand the drawbacks before you begin
  10. Know your history and do your research

Who is Working with an MNO? And Why?

There are numerous examples of projects and initiatives that are successful, in part, because of a good working relationship with a mobile provider. Some cases are highlighted here.

  • BBC Janala is part of a multi-platform effort to bring English language education to millions of Bangladeshi people, as part of the BBC World Service Trust’s “English in Action” program. Using mobile phones, BBC Janala offers audio English lessons and quizzes to callers. The relationship that BBC Janala built with telecom operators is unique – the BBC World Trust was able to negotiate with all six Bangladesh-based operators to offer users one price for accessing the service, regardless of carrier. Calls made to BBC Janala cost roughly 50 percent less than standard call rates, while SMS messages are 75 percent of the normal rate. In this way, working with multiple operators allows the savings to be passed on to the consumer.
  • As part of a pilot project in Uganda, Refugees United is using mobile tools to help connect refugees who have been displaced by war, persecution, and natural disasters. One very important success for the pilot is the strength of the partnerships involved. MTN Uganda, for example, has been an integral partner, according to the project founder. The MNO provided free access for refugees and enabled Refugees United to advertise and provide information on the service.
  • Young Africa Live is a partnership between the Praekelt Foundation and telecommunications company Vodacom. Young Africa Live is a mobile platform that gives young Africans a place to learn about HIV/AIDS and other issues. The project manager of the foundation credited the popularity of Vodafone Live as critical to the success of the program. “I think part of the success is that Vodafone Live as a platform is so popular already, so we were lucky in the sense that we had a lot of existing users that go to that portal every single day,” he said. However, only mobile users who use Vodacom as their service provider can access the site.

Digicel Haiti works with health, education, and banking projects in Haiti; many of which are a result of the recent earthquake. For this article, MobileActive.org also spoke to David Sharpe, head of products for Digicel Haiti.  Sharpe and his team have partnered with numerous organizations on social projects, from “megapartnerships” with the U.S. government and large NGOs to smaller organizations and projects. One of the smaller projects is Konbit, the brainchild of Greg Elliott and Aaron Zinman. Konbit is a service that helps communities rebuild themselves after a crisis by indexing the skillsets of local residents, allowing NGOs to find and employ them. Konbit allows Haitians to describe their everyday skills and talents, in their own voice and language, over a mobile phone. This audio content is then transcribed and translated into job skill categories that can be searched by NGOs and employers in the area.

Elliott and Zinman planned a voice-based project, but originally intended to have people send an SMS to the system, and they would call the person back. They did this because they were unsure Digicel could support incoming calls. Later, they were told that incoming calls were easier on the operator’s end, so they updated the Konbit process. Ahead of an ongoing pilot in Haiti, Elliott and Zinman credit part of their success to David Sharpe and Digicel Haiti.

The two approached both providers Digicel Haiti and Voila, and found that Sharpe was responsive and excited about the idea of Konbit. From the get-go, “he was not only helpful in terms of what he was willing to offer, but he also provided guidance,” Elliott said.

“Since then, we’ve had this really great working relationship. We are free to email when we have questions or problems and it’s a very fluid communication line,” Elliott said. Digicel Haiti helped the two work through many preliminary issues and provides on-the ground insight for the pilot.

So how did they achieve this? And is Digicel Haiti an exception or the norm when it comes to establishing a business relationship between a project team and mobile provider?

The Bottom Line for the MNO: It’s (Nearly) All Business

At the end of the day, a successful relationship with a mobile provider is a business relationship. Whatever incentivizes an MNO to support a project, there has to be a business case behind it. This most often comes in the form of profit or increased number of subscribers; positive to the bottom line. An upcoming Community Power from Mobile initiative from the GSMA Development Fund, for example, seeks to test a profitable business model for off-grid power stations from mobile towers to provide excess energy to charging stations.

Perhaps most importantly, MNOs and third-party players look for sustainability. Companies want programs and initiatives that show how they are not going to be constantly relying on donor funding. That said, there are business cases and incentives for the MNO to get on board with smaller, mobile-based projects for development.

Yes, Business Cases Exist, But So Far They are Far and In Between

There are some business cases for mobile network operators to partner with development projects, though it’s still early to make a cogent case.  In the case of mobile-based projects for health, MNOs that jump into the health sector have the potential to increase average revenue per user, one of the holy grails of the mobile industry. According to a recent article, if it is shown that health service transactions increase usage for mobile financial services, this can be a motivator for MNOs: “Mobile money services are reaching critical mass in country after country. Though they are not at a global adoption as yet, for the mobile money industry, health can be pitched as the next logical market to tap into.”

GoMoNews article suggests that “Today is a good day for Bharti Airtel – the largest mobile operator in India. Not only has it announced two million more subscribers for the month of August, but it has also announced it is the first network to get the green light for mobile banking servicesfrom the Reserve Bank of India (RBI).”

There is an incentive and benefit for MNOs to be the sole or main provider of a service, especially once that the government declares “every Indian must have access to.” While approaches and relationships may differ between large projects such as this and smaller, one-off projects or pilot programs, the bottom line for both MNO and organization is similar.

The GSMA is the global trade industry body for the mobile phone industry and, as such, may be in a unique position in regards to development projects. The GSMA Development Fund, a project of the GSMA, runs many development programs with focus areas on agriculturehealthwomen, and learning. The fund aims to “act as an honest broker in the middle, which I think is a position that the operators like,” said Chris Locke, managing director of the Development Fund.

“We act as a good anonymizer of data. We have good relationships with the operators and are able to pull case studies out to show what works and what doesn’t. But we do it in a way that doesn’t compromise their needs to keep commercial information confidential while still getting the value for the wider community and wider development industry,” Locke said.

Corporate Social Responsibility Plays a Role

The idea of corporate social responsibility, or CSR, can also be an incentive for MNOs to partner with or support mobile-based projects for social change. Sometimes this comes after a time of disaster, as was the case with Digicel Haiti.

After the earthquake in Haiti, a number of projects “we felt we had to do,” Sharpe said. “We were committed before we even knew it.”

At Digicel Haiti, many of these projects are free for the end user, with the idea that the company can make money in other areas. “I don’t know that they will always be free,” Sharpe said. “But the consideration that we’re giving is that we will give up some small amount of network resources to show the public that good corporate social responsibility is returning a lot to the public.”

However, for mobile projects in the development field, these kinds of handouts can be a double-edged sword. While useful for a while, they are certainly not sustainable; a company can change its mind about it at whim (and based on corporate earnings) and the relationship with the project will always be an unequal one.

Some MNOs have a capacity or ethos to contribute to social development projects, but find certain projects outside of a scope of expertise. “When you look at us as an operator, we’re very small. Our view has always been that through partnering we can leverage the expertise of partners with different skill sets, where we don’t have all the knowledge,” said Ladak, of Roshan.

The telecommunications industry is big business; this provides many MNOs with a unique role in development projects. For example, companies such as suppliers and partners who work with Roshan, such as Cisco based in Afghanistan, have wanted to invest in various development programs but lacked the infrastructure to do so. So, they send money to Roshan to invest in programs.

“We started becoming the conduit for many organizations to give us the money to put into these programs,” Ladak said. “Be it philanthropic in nature, from soup kitchens to more formal programs and educational sponsorships.”

Programs like M-Paisa bridge the gap between the infrastructure that exists in-country and the use of technology as the platform to carry out programs.

“We’re not health specialists, we’re not doctors, we’re not a bank. But we know how to leverage technology to do that better,” Ladak said.

Know the Foundation behind the MNO

Many telecommuncations companies, like VodacomMTNVodafone, and Digicel Haiti, have a foundation arm. At Digicel Haiti, Sharpe said that plenty of companies have come to him with ideas that haven’t made sense to support. A good approach here is to align projects with companies and foundations that focus on similar development sectors.

“Generally, it’s more products or services that are in line with where we are heading as a company that we’re willing to work with,” Sharpe said. “Obviously education plays a large role for the foundation.”

At the same time, it is important to be cognizant of the limitations of many foundations. One misconception is that MNO foundations will inherently be interested in mobile-based projects. But many foundations do not focus on mobile-based projects, mainly because it can be construed as a conflict of interest. Foundations often will take on projects supporting clinics or building houses or community centers, for example, rather than mobile-focused programs or approaches.

Advice for MNOs in Emerging Markets

Ladak suggests that telecommunications companies have a role to play in the development sector.

“At a basic level, we are a social development company,” he said. “Because you are providing people with a service that is a basic need, which is the need to speak. We always say, if people could speak, they wouldn’t fight.”

Fostering this role is beneficial to the MNO, Ladak said. It can help with a provider’s brand as well as customer perception and loyalty. Telecoms have a role to play in fostering growth and development, and it can be done in an economically viable way with programs that have a high impact. To do this, an MNO has to focus on key areas to develop, and understand that partnering is key to sustainability. In some locations and with some companies, such as Roshan, the government or local experts also need to be involved, Ladak said.

“Don’t have the ego to say, I know better how to spend this money,” Ladak said. One of the strengths at Roshan has been to clearly define roles. “We’re great at managing. We’re great at coming up with ideas. We’re great at implementing. But we’re not necessarily the experts.”

Project Managing Your Operator

Simply stated, the bottom line for an MNO is to make a profit. For the project team, the bottom line is program impact and/or reach. For both parties, the bottom line is shaped by multiple factors, include funding, capacity for technology, location, and timing. While flexibility in certain areas may be a project-specific challenge, it is important to be aware of general trends and best practices toward a successful relationship between mobile project and mobile provider.

Funding and Timing

Many mobile operators work on an annual cycles. If a team approaches a provider with a new project that will take significant allocation of time or money, it may well be 18 months or so before budget money is available, and it can prove difficult to get help if projects are not in some sort of budget cycle.

Financial information on MNOs so long as they are publicly traded is available through annual reports and other filings. This, of course, takes time and expertise often not afforded to many project teams. More often, understanding and capitalizing on provider budgets and expenditures involves an iota of luck. Asking for support may come at exactly the right time, when a provider is looking for ways to get involved with a certain service or technology, or it may not.

Changing Business Processes

In terms of working with mobile providers, one key consideration is where the technology “sits.” Some simple mobile applications, such as a basic SMS service, may sit outside or on the edge of the network, making this a potentially easier sell. There might be a public domain gateway, but this does not affect the MNO because the interface is tried-and-tested and the service is provided on existing infrastructure. In this case, an operator may not even have to be involved with the project; instead, a project team can work with an aggregator or buy messages in bulk from the provider.

With the Konbit project, for example, Digicel Haiti offered to let the team bring the equipment into the network center, where the data would be hosted. For this, Digicel charged half price, and added free incoming calls, SMS, and a shortcode. This allows the end user – Haitians looking for employment – to use the service for free. In addition, callers are given 15 Haitian gourde credit to their account.

But, if you want to change significant business processes, you may encounter resistance or challenges. The other extreme involves projects that work in the core of the network. Very complex projects may require additional help from the operator’s engineering or technical team.

Merrick Schaefer, a technical project coordinator with UNICEF, agrees. He spoke with MobileActive.org about Project Mwana in Zambia. Often, his team was the first to request certain services, such as reverse billing for SMS, or a toll-free SMS.  Mobile provider Zain had provided such services to UNICEF in other countries in the past; it was not a new concept. But while working in Zambia, where Zain had not set this up before, there were issues that took time to resolve.

Essentially, it is important to understand that some things you request may have either never been done before in the country or region, or are rare enough or change business processes to a degree that the operator’s technical staff may balk.

Working Across Teams

The more complex a project is, the greater the number of people involved. A new tech build-out, for example, may require a project team to work with numerous MNO teams, including marketing, sales, technical, financial, products, and network teams. When multiple teams are involved, you may run into decision-making barriers. It is important to know who to talk to within a company.

Schaefer explained that his team would sometimes enter companies at a very low level and it would take “weeks and weeks” to get to a decision maker. In Zambia, however, his team went to the top and began their conversation with the managing director for the entire country. “It was excellent,” Schaefer said. “We immediately started talking to someone who could make decisions. We didn’t have to sell the idea of letting us talk to your manager.”

The ability of an MNO to make agile decisions will also depend on company ownership status. If the MNO is part of a large operating company, leaders may not be able to make decisions on your project until it is sanctioned by headquarters.

Projects Are Different. This Will Shape the Relationship

An initiative that focuses on mobile-based emergency response will be very different than an m-health education project.  Eduardo Jezierski, Chief Technology Officer at InSTEDD, a nonprofit that uses technology in response to global health threats, natural disasters and emergencies, noted in an email to us:

“One need is to allow individuals to start small (with modems or Skype, for example) but to be ready for high volumes of use. With disaster-related initiatives, the MNO or partner may need to monitor all aspects of the infrastructure 24 hours a day, be ready for dynamic network topologies and implement robust queuing and prioritizing capabilities.”

Requirements will differ based on the nature of the project. This is an important factor to keep in mind in building a relationship with a mobile provider. Understand and be clear about your projected technical and logistic needs upfront so that expectations are clear.

In the second part of this series we will present the top ten tips for a successful relationship between mobile provider and mobile project team. Stay tuned!

Handshake photo from Flickr useChris-Håvard Berge. Mobile phone photo from Flickr userMilica Sekulic.

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