Managing and maintaining a fixed-line telecom network is an onerous job, but building one from scratch is even more challenging. Doing so in an island country, prone to extreme heat and hurricanes makes things harder. And when some customers are in remote areas where they don't even have addresses, running a network to them can get complicated.
That's what John Quinn, chief technology officer at Digicel Group was tasked with doing when he joined Digicel three years ago. In those three years, Digicel has been able to build out a network passing half a million homes with more than 100,000 subscribers. A key element of the operator's strategy was to provide highly innovative video services, comparable to major providers in developed markets. This has helped underscore the benefits of the fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network Digicel has built in its region.
Telco Transformation joined Quinn, who has also recently joined our Video Transformation Advisory Board (VTAB), to review Digicel's journey from zero to 100,000 subscribers, a pace matched only by the operator's spokesperson and "chief speed officer," Usain Bolt.
Telco Transformation: What led to the decision to launch a fixed-line network?
John Quinn: The decision to launch a fixed-line network was taken in the summer of 2014. The management recognized that as a single-product mobile operator, it was missing out on potential market opportunities like TV and home broadband services. Also, it seems that single-product companies are becoming less relevant with more consumers taking bundles. And there was a real opportunity in the market. There was no strong competition in the region, in the Caribbean and Pacific markets where Digicel operates.
So the company was keen to enter the fixed-line business, but more importantly get involved with media and entertainment services as we saw great potential there.
There was a another business driver for us -- we were planning an LTE deployment at roughly the same time. We needed a fiber network to support high bandwidth even on the mobile side. To deliver that, we needed to build a high-bandwidth fiber network to the cells. So we thought, why not create other services that we can carry on that network, once we have the bandwidth? The incremental capex was comparatively little. And then we could offer all the residential and business services.
We also wanted to look at how we can improve the quality of life in the region. The median connectivity speed was very low here; you could not even stream Netflix at decent quality. We wanted to encourage e-commerce shops and services, and people couldn't do it without the bandwidth.
It all made sense, it all just worked. So it came to a point where we just felt it made sense to do this as a company. And looking at it today, we feel we absolutely made the right decision.
TT: That was just three years ago – it's not much time.
JQ: I joined in September 2014, and was the first technology employee -- it was a very young idea at that stage. We decided to roll out a new network deployment and we chose to do it all with fiber -- FTTH. And today we've launched in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados; and we've announced we are launching in Bermuda and one more market [not disclosed at the moment.]
We started to build right away, working with our sister company Actavo [also owned by Digicel owner, Irish billionaire Denis O'Brien] to lay down a fiber network. We launched in 2015, with an all-IP network that featured a very advanced TV product. We offer network DVR, we have time-shifting, device-shifting, OTT and linear programming. We were also the first in the region to offer HDTV. The service is also designed to be very on-demand centric -- mostly everything can be seen on any device, at any time.
TT: What were the main challenges you faced?
JQ: We live in a changeable climate. We can have extreme heat, followed by hurricanes. We have to build and enable very rapid recovery. We've designed the network with that in mind. We use fully protected rings, with fast-path switching. So if one side of a ring goes out, we can switch in less than 50 milliseconds to the other side -- the customer won't even know.
But these are the things that have to be meticulously planned. There's extensive mapping and planning -- how many subscribers, how is the network architected... and this is much tougher here than in the developed world.
We also have 32 different markets, so there's a unique set of controls. Regulatory approval is required from each, so we have to go with clear answers and benefits for each market and show the merits of our approach to all the people that matter. So our legal and regulatory teams had to go through these processes again, and again. And again, and again... [laughs]
We also needed to get people with the right skills. We needed people with experience of of QoE, IP networks and understand the shift from linear TV experiences to more and more an on-demand experience for video. We had to find people, in many cases convince them to move to the Caribbean, get them trained and on the ground. We also had to educate them about market peculiarities, local customs and traditions -- all unique to our markets.
We really were starting from scratch -- we had no trucks, no install crews, no way to move fiber around. We had no logistics, we had to put all of that together.
We also needed a full IT stack -- all of our OSS/BSS systems, we had to put those together from a standing start. And we needed to get it ready in line with the deployment of our network. These systems are extremely important, as we need them in place to plan, deploy and have the ability to track in detail what assets are where, and be able to track traffic volumes, network performance etc.
All of this had to happen in 12 months -- all the people had to be hired and trained [and we had to roll it all out.]
TT: What's the current status of the service?
JQ: We last disclosed that we had passed half a million homes and signed up 100,000 subscribers. We've got a lot more now, but we haven't publicly announced a more recent number. We will be doing that as part of a larger update very shortly.
In part two of our conversation, Quinn discusses the importance of video to anchor a bundled offer, and describes the advanced video features and services Digicel has launched in the Caribbean.
— Aditya Kishore, Practice Leader, Video Transformation, Telco Transformation