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We must leverage digital technology to make our lives and jobs much easier – Blixell

Nicolas Blixell, Vice President, Ericsson Middle East and Africa. A position he has held since June 2018. Prior to this, he served as Head of Customer Unit West Africa at Ericsson Middle East and Africa where he was responsible for supporting operators across 24 countries to meet and exceed their strategic objectives using Ericsson Technology and Services. In this exclusive interview with ANTHONY NLEBEM, Blixell spoke on how digital technology has evolved since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Excerpts:

Do you think this ‘new normal’ of technology-reliance is here to stay?

The trend of technological reliance is not something new. In fact, it has been underway since the mass commercialisation of computers in the 1990s. Covid-19 only amplified this trend further, showing us the potential digitisation and digital technologies like AI have for improving our day-to-day lives. Technology kept the economy afloat and helped maintain business continuity. Digital technology like teleconferencing services also allowed the continuation of education in the unprecedented health crisis. With Covid-19 bringing us into a critical turning point in history, where digital technologies are enhancing our collective lives like never before, this trend of technological reliance is only set to increase.

What are the indicators that reliance on technology will continue to increase in telecommunication?

Our reliance on technology and applications of digital technology will only increase in the coming years. The Pandemic has only accelerated the digital economy. As technology is so prevalent in our everyday lives, it has become so convenient to leverage digital technology to make our lives and jobs much easier. For example, seeing the benefits of remote working, enterprises all around the world are experimenting with virtual work models, a trend that is only set to increase in the coming years. Moreover, we also see the world embracing “tele-everything” – from remote work, telemedicine, virtual schooling, e-commerce, and much more.

Are Nigerian communications service providers (CSPs) prepared for the continually increasing dependence on technology amid poor infrastructure?

Africa is witnessing a major technology shift and the pace of change in Africa is becoming exponential. With organisations across Nigeria depending on the region’s CSPs to support their digital transformation drive, it is critical CSPs across the nation have access to reliable and high-capacity network infrastructure. Although Nigeria is only slowly building its digital infrastructure, CSPs across the region must extend affordable broadband access to bridge the “digital divide” and enable residents in the country to reap the benefits of the digital economy. The Nigerian government also has a key role to play by introducing initiatives to promote infrastructure projects, as digital infrastructure becomes increasingly impactful to the development of Nigeria’s economy.

One of the benefits of the new normal is social inclusion due to reliance on telco technology. How will social inclusion impact the Nigerian economy?

Social inclusion will improve employment outcomes and enable greater access to education and skills acquisition, allowing millions of Nigerians to contribute to the countries’ economy. This will also lead to inclusive growth in the country i.e., growth distributed fairly across the Nigerian society. Over the years, information and communications technologies (ICT) have played an important role in fostering the nation’s economic growth and encouraging social inclusion in the country. This was only accelerated during the pandemic, with telecommunication technology serving as a tool that has helped enhance the individual and collective capabilities of Nigerians, leading to greater economic self-sufficiency. With social inclusion having a directly proportional relationship with economic inclusion, increasing social inclusion also holds great potential to eradicate poverty across Nigeria.

When do you think the Nigerian market will be ready for integrating Artificial Intelligence into the technology value chain?

The seventh pillar of Nigeria’s National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (NDEPS), which is on Digital Society and Emerging Technologies, has heavily emphasised that digital technologies such as artificial intelligence would play a significant role in the growth of Nigeria’s economy. Realising the impact AI will have on Nigeria’s economy, the nation last year inaugurated the National Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics. Artificial Intelligence is already beginning to have a significant impact on all industrial sectors across Africa and has played a key role in the fight against COVID-19.

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For Nigeria to leverage the full potential of the technology, advanced digital infrastructure becomes necessary. The mass expansion of reliable and stronger connectivity offered by networks such as 5G will help keep Africa ready for integrating artificial intelligence into the technology value chain. Even though Nigeria has a long way to go in integrating AI into its economy, we are confident the gradual and eventual roll-out of 5G will foster AI innovation in the country, bringing together functions such as research, product development, and commercialisation, adding significant value to Nigeria’s robust tech ecosystem.

Did the pandemic play any role in African communications service providers (CSPs) adopting digital transformation?

Absolutely, Covid-19 catapulted every sector in Africa towards digital transformation, even the telecommunications industry. It kick-started a series of disruptive business models across Africa and created a landscape of innovation powered by digital technologies. As telecom operators adopt these digital technologies to create digitally enhanced offerings, CSPs in the continent are finding themselves on the cusp of a new digital era.

What will be the spillover into other industries when the telecoms sector fully embraces digital transformation?

Telecom operators play a pivotal role in the digital transformation momentum we see today. As they invest, build, and operate the networks that aid today’s emerging digital technologies, telecom operators are shaping the digital world. Stronger networks will enable massive growth in e-commerce and will also enhance the performance of automated vehicles, making true driverless cars a reality. The digital transformation of current telecom infrastructure will also enable a greater number of connected devices in consumer homes, which would drive cumulative cost savings in the coming years. As the telecom sector embraces digital transformation and transition from legacy applications towards software and cloud solutions, they will have the ability to provide massive digital transformation assistance to various industries.

Is Ericsson positioning itself to be at the forefront of this wave? How?

With connectivity enabling digital technologies that play key roles in digital transformation, we have been dedicating our efforts to enhance our network products and solutions to ensure our partners have access to strong and reliable connectivity that aids them on their digital transformation journey. We are also helping our partners leverage analytics and automation capabilities made possible by cellular technology and assisting them to build dedicated cellular IoT networks.

Recently, we have enhanced our 5G capabilities by launching Time-Critical Communication, a Critical IoT software product that guarantees consistent low latency and high reliability demanded by time-critical applications and services for consumers, enterprises, and the public sector.

What technology is Ericsson adopting to stay abreast of this digital transformation?

As digital adoption opens new opportunities for CSPs, we have focused on enhancing our digital service offerings to modernise, digitalise and shape new business models for telecom operators worldwide. Our digital service offerings range from automated network operations to cloud core and cloud infrastructure. These solutions help us secure and grow the business and customer base of CSPs through innovative customer engagement platforms, automated operations, and programmable networks.

In what ways are African communications service providers (CSPs) embracing digital transformation?

Since the pandemic, telecom operators across Africa have been focusing their investments on digital transformation initiatives that create more value-added services for customers. The majority of telecom operators have gone beyond connectivity, becoming infrastructure providers for a range of new services such as autonomous vehicles and connected homes. In the coming years, 5G along with emerging digital technologies such as AI, will help position CSP’s as more of a technology company that provides specific products and services to aid the digitalisation of several industries.

What opportunities present themselves to grow the industry and provide empowerment for the consumers?

Today software-defined wireless and fiber networks allow the delivery of services at a volume and speed that would have been unimaginable a few decades ago. By adopting such technology and embracing digital transformation, CSPs can adopt more agile and flexible business models that enhance customer experience. Transitioning to cloud-based systems also provides CSPs with increased capability, scalability, and shorter time-to-market for services. Digital transformation also presents the opportunity for telecom operators to automate various labor-intensive and time-consuming tasks as well as digitise invoices and emails, significantly reducing reduce operational costs. Moreover, adopting customer relationship management software based on AI will allow telecom operators to provide enhanced customer experiences by ensuring smooth customer interaction and immediate feedback. For the first time, CSPs have the chance to become multiservice providers and move into adjacent businesses models, not only growing their business but also empowering their consumers.

How has Ericsson been able to keep up with the demands of the communications service providers (CSPs)?

Digital technologies such as AI, IoT, and machine learning are promising to usher in new ways of living, learning, and working throughout Nigeria. However, since these technologies rely on the high throughput and low latency provided by cellular networks like 5G, we are committed to working with CSPs in the region to build a digital infrastructure that supports next-generation networks. It is imperative that the right technologies and the right solutions are available to CSPs in Africa. With this in mind, we have worked on a new addition to the Ericsson radio portfolio, which we have tailored to the specific needs of our customers in Africa. This new radio (6626) provides multi-standard and multi-band coverage and will bring tangible OPEX benefits by minimising power consumption by up to 50percent, reducing weight on tower, and faster rollout due to reduced installation time. By providing the best-in-class connectivity solutions and practices to help CSPs in Africa reap the benefits of the digital age and we are striving to keep Africa in Motion.

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