Bridging the Gap with World Mobile CEO Micky Watkins
Jessica: Welcome to the World Mobile Interview Series ‘Bridging the Gap’ with me, Jessica Walker. So to kick start this series off, I’m joined by World Mobile’s very own CEO Micky Watkins. Micky, it’s great to be joined with you today, how are you?
Micky: Hi Jess, great to see you again, how are you?
Jessica: Great, I’m really good! Well it’s been a lot of hard work for you over the past few years and the past few weeks has been a very hard working final sprint. I’d love for you to start just by telling our viewers that are watching: what is World Mobile to you?
Micky: World Mobile is a new standard of Mobile Network Operator (MNO) that uses renewable energy, blockchain, and alternative spectrum, in order to deliver super-fast, six-generation Internet to rural areas around the world.
Jessica: And the concept itself is fascinating, but I always think it’s fascinating to hear from the founders and the CEOs; their story initially as well, so Micky - a little bit of context - what’s your story?
Micky: I’ve been in the telecommunications industry for the last 20 years, mostly bridging the divide and bridging borders, finding really cheap ways to provide connectivity to people that don’t have connectivity. The last five or six years, my focus was on privacy-based solutions where the rights were back where they should be; with the consumer and with the regulator. And then I stumbled across the 3.7 billion people around the world who are unconnected and this became a heavy focus, hence World Mobile today.
Jessica: It sounds to me like, based on all your experience over your 20 years that you’ve mentioned, that World Mobile really has been your calling?
“I don’t know if World Mobile was originally my calling but when you find a problem so big, you just can’t ignore it.”
Micky: So as soon as I discovered that this many people were unconnected, I felt compelled because I saw that Facebook, Microsoft, and Google had found semi-solutions to actually reach the unconnected, but they never found a sustainable way to keep the unconnected connected. For example, you’ve got the Google Loon project which had millions of dollars spent on it. It was very promising. It was running in East Africa, in fact, and in January this year, it shut down. So yeah, when I found out that you can actually reach those people, I discovered that there were solutions, namely the sharing economy, in order to be able to provide the solution.
Jessica: And with what we have seen unfold over the past few years, as you mentioned, as well as people that have also tried and attempted to enter this space, how would you evaluate the status of the telecoms industry today?
Micky: Telecoms is tanking, revenues are falling, minutes don’t exist anymore; they’ve been replaced by over-the-top applications, the same for SMSs, and data is getting cheaper. There are 1000 mobile network operators competing for half the world, but there’s none competing for the other half. So the situation in telecoms is dire and telecom companies are looking for ways to innovate and to create more revenues internally.
Jessica: It is hard, it sounds like a huge challenge. It also sounds like some areas have almost been overlooked so far by a massive amount of the market?
Micky: I know many CEOs and Managing Directors of MNOs in Africa. It’s not that it’s overlooked, it’s that legacy infrastructure doesn’t support going out to connect rural areas and the solutions that exist so far are turnkey. If you look back to 15 to 20 years ago there were hundreds of players in the space that were innovating and developing what we use today as telecoms. Over these years, an oligopoly took control, and there’s only four or five innovators in the space.
“So what we need to do is we need to bring back innovation. It’s not about the telecom operators overlooking it, it’s more about the telecom operators being stuck in a box they can’t get out of.”
They absolutely want to be able to connect the unconnected because it represents the future growth markets, it’s far from saturated. Like I said, 1000 mobile network operators operate in the half of the world that is connected and there’s none operating in the part of the world that isn’t connected. So even if 300/400 come into that space it still won’t be saturated for many years.
Jessica: Wow. And if we look at today, 2021, what makes now that the perfect time for change?
Micky: It’s the perfect convergence of technology, regulation, understanding, the United Nations, The World Bank. They’ve put their United Nations SDGs, at least 11 of them out of the 17, connectivity is absolutely essential. The World Bank, they put this as a priority to connect the unconnected, the problem is, whilst they put it as a priority and put focus, there was only 1.3% growth of coverage over the last the last two years, globally. So, you know, we’ve got a problem, we need to fix that problem. The technology’s here, we’ve proven that, again I say that Google, Facebook, Microsoft, big tech companies, it’s just about finding a sustainable business model.
Jessica: So, we have looked at the technology that World Mobile has but when it comes to World Mobile and the importance of its customers, how important are they to World Mobile?
“Customers have always been taken value from. That is unfortunately how Mobile Network Operators operate at the core. World Mobile doesn’t take value from its customers, it gives value to its customers by giving them part-ownership of the network itself.”
And we’re looking to create a new relationship between connectivity and Mobile Network Operators.
Jessica: It all sounds so interesting. If we look ahead, and I’d love to hear as the CEO of World Mobile, your vision for the future of this.
Micky: We have spent the last three years running proof of concepts and feasibility studies in Tanzania in Zanzibar and in other parts of East Africa. We believe that the future of telecommunications is about sharing, creating a sharing economy.
“Much like Airbnb and Uber disrupted their relevant businesses, we can lower the bar for people to enter into the telecommunications market”
We can make it viable that people would host an air node, which is a pole that has a solar panel on top of it, underneath the street light, followed by a wireless access point, plugged into the World Mobile chain with the Raspberry Pi, and has backup batteries on the bottom. We’ve developed this device which is agnostic - you can stick any kind of wireless access point on there - for less than $5000. If we can bring that as a viable option for people in villages to host this node and to have it as an alternative to livestock, or as a supplement to owning a shop, then we can bring a big ROI.
“But the biggest ROI is the people being connected. At that moment, you’ve got power, you’ve got street lights, you’ve got connectivity, you provide digital identity, and now you truly are opening up a new world for every customer that’s on there.”
Jessica: And at this point, World Mobile is so much more than just a concept, it has already been integrated in towns, and the feedback and response that you’ve had has been very positive but I do want to ask if there’s any responsible feedback that maybe has surprised you? Anything that’s come out that has maybe caught you off guard that you weren’t expecting?
Micky: Sure, when we started the first feasibility studies and the proof of concepts, I was shocked personally - and it is a little bit embarrassing to say but it’s the truth - I sent the team out there with devices, with mobile phones, assuming that maybe there would be one or two in the village of a couple of hundred people. But it turns out that half the population in these villages have mobile phones, it’s their device for entertainment, it provides a torch, it provides downloadable videos they’ll download as they go to work and bring back. There’s no connectivity IN the villages but that was one misconception. They have phones.
The other misconception was I didn’t realise the villages didn’t have a central source of power. I figured that they would at least have that. When we arrived, there was also no street lights, so on the equator, especially in Tanzania, East Africa, it gets dark every night at 7:30/8:00/8:30, so all of a sudden the hustle and bustle of the village stops, people go back to their houses. Some people are fortunate enough to have a small solar setup; home solar and light, others not.
“What we found is where we put up the air nodes, all of a sudden that became the marketplace.”
Ladies sat outside, set up shop, and bedtime, and I’m not saying it’s good, but bedtime was extended instead to 11:00/12:00. We also got reports from the people in the village, especially ladies, that they felt much safer walking around. So we managed to extend in one village a whole bunch of street lights and then have mesh networking jumping through the signal and it completely transformed everything.
“We also saw things like financial, essentially a financial revolution, where people were getting paid five times more, six times more, for their catch of fish because they were able to communicate.”
We saw beautiful things like the Chief of the village was able to see China and India for the first time via Cameroon and YouTube. And of course, we’re seeing some really good progression now with people who have picked up the Internet, and started to educate themselves and started to become included with the world as one. And all of this was without digital identity attached and without a full commercial licence. These were feasibility studies.
“So as we roll out in Zanzibar, and we roll out in Tanzania and roll out in Kenya, with the digital identity, with full commercial licences, we’re going to open new worlds, we’re going to see something absolutely transformative happen.”
Jessica: Well, it’s definitely something, that when you explain the ripple effect from this, that it was beyond even my imagination of the things that you’re able to achieve. It sounds absolutely fantastic and I’m excited to hear more about word mobile change progress in the future. Micky, thank you so much for joining me today on the line.
Micky: Jess you are the best, thank you very much, speak to you soon! I look forward to the next session.
Jessica: Thank you so much. And I will be joined by more team members of World Mobile so please subscribe to the channel to not miss any more updates from us.
You can also watch this episode of Bridging the Gap on YouTube.
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