Big Interview

Digicel Pacific: Uniting frontier markets

Shally Jannif Digicel.jpg

Shally Jannif, regional CEO of Digicel Pacific, speaks to Natalie Bannerman about her plans for the region amid growing D&I, network investments and volcano eruptions.

Three years into her tenure as regional CEO of Digicel Pacific and Shally Jannif is already making waves. From being named as one of Capacity’s 20 Women to Watch back in March, to the mission-critical work of her team during the Tonga volcano eruptions that severed subsea cables in the region.

Probably one of the biggest stories as of late, however, was the news that Digicel Pacific is to be acquired by Telstra Corporation for approximately US$1.6 billion. With new ownership comes new opportunities that Jannif and her team are excited for – but for the most part, it is business as usual.

“For our side, there’s very little that’s going to change,” she says. “The decision to buy our business makes sense in terms of what Digicel has been doing in the region, but our day-to-day operations will remain the same.”

There will undoubtably be some synergies from the deal, which is still ongoing, leveraging the many years of experience Telstra has in the Australian market and its advanced portfolio – “and I know they share the same values as us,” adds Jannif.

Continuing the good work

Leaning on their own local knowledge and expertise, ultimately the plan for the Digicel team is to continue to invest in its different projects and “continue to do all the good work that we’ve been doing”.

At the start of the year, Tonga Cable, the only subsea cable to the South Pacific Island group, was cut owing to significant volcano eruption that caused separate breaks in the cable. As part owner of the system, Jannif and her team were pivotal in efforts to repair the system and get connectivity back online.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the often-remote locations that needed to be accessed, the Digicel Pacific team worked with local government agencies to get the repairs done.

“Within five days we were one of the first ones to get connectivity back up, but it required a lot of support,” says Jannif. “We only have backup via satellite, which is only about 150Mbps, so that in the case of small outages you can make SMS and voice calls.”

This wasn’t the case this time round, due to the effects the volcano was having on the company’s microwave links, such as from the ash clouds it produced.

Jannif says the answer to avoid repeating situations like these is diversity.

“We should not have to rely on just one cable,” she says. “After this incident and with the government leading the space in Tonga, we are in discussions about this and what other types of connectivity we need.”

One example, she says, is satellite connectivity such as that provided by SpaceX’s Starlink, which has started providing links into Tonga.

“We have partnered with them as well to allow us to have that connectivity in case of outages,” adds Jannif.

“What we’ve also done from our own infrastructure perspective is we have deployed terminals for SES and Intelsat across the other three islands. So that in case this ever happens again, we have connectivity across the other islands.”

To date, only the international Tonga Cable has been repaired, with the domestic system still undergoing works, with an estimated nine months until it will be completed.

Increasing demand for connectivity

Demand for connectivity as a whole, but particularly subsea, stems from a few places. The first, Jannif says, is that “people are opting for more cloud-based services and so the demand is for high capacity and low latency links across the region.”

From a residential perspective, she says: “We’ve seen an increase of roughly 80% growth in traffic volumes from the likes of YouTube, Netflix and Facebook. We’ve also seen some good growth in apps like TikTok and WhatsApp.”

In addition, general demand has risen for reliable and fast cloud-based solutions for daily work, as more people choose to work from home.

Getting that much-needed redundancy through submarine networks is often driven by commercial factors. As a result, smaller islands tend to have their systems driven by government bodies, sometimes in partnership with local telcos and vendors, but it’s often limited to one or two.

“We can’t be compared to the likes of the US or the UK in terms of scale,” says Jannif. “The demand is extremely small comparatively and the majority of businesses are government led. That’s where the challenge lies, getting governments and organisations like the Asian Development Bank to fund more reliance.”

With so many innovations and new buzzwords popping up across the space, it may appear as though AI, the metaverse and quantum technologies are at the forefront of all telco development, but regional players like Digicel Pacific are sticking to core business operations, in line with customers’ needs.

“We need to ask ourselves, what do our customers want. We could bring them these fancy things but is that what customer needs right now?”

Top of the list of customer demands are prepaid services, mobile connectivity as well as fixed connectivity for governments, cloud backup and disaster recovery.

“We will get there, the good thing is, we’re still growing while we see what everyone else has done. So that helps us eventually plug and play into our system and leverage the learnings that we see going on.”

Across the five markets that she’s charged with, Jannif selects Fiji as the most developed, and the greatest interest she’s seeing from the country is for AI – largely on the customer-service side of things, with chatbots and the like.

AI and connectivity aside, another big request from the Digicel Pacific market is for network security.

“We provide services like end-point security partnering with IBM, Firewall as a Service partnering with Fortinet, SD-WAN, cybersecurity is big right now, and then we do penetration testing.”

Supporting women in leadership

With a self-described “finance brain”, attributed to her years of experience in financial roles, Jannif says it has been an “interesting and exciting” journey for her.

Starting off her career as a financial analyst, a role which bridges finance and commercial, she was able to engage with everyone from the networking team to the commercial and HR teams, an experience she recommends for everyone. “It gave me great experience and knowledge of various parts of the business,” she says.

“But since joining Digicel everyone was so helpful and the amount of training I received was phenomenal – it was like ‘telco for dummies’, which given my CPA [certified public accountant] background was an amazing opportunity to learn and get to grips with the jargon.”

Being involved in board meetings and all of the key decision-making about plans for products, or when it comes to budgeting processes or strategic plans, Jannif says she has been fully seen and encouraged, which has been instrumental in her success.

“I was chosen for this role; I didn’t apply for this role. I was handpicked by my chairman, Denis O’Brien, who came to me and said, ‘I’ll give you this role’,” she says.

“He’s been the most supportive leader I’ve ever worked with. He understands that I have a 10-year-old son, I’m a single mom, I have commitments but at the same time, of course, I’m managing five markets. It’s a big role, so he understands where my boundaries are, or where I need mentoring.”

Taking from these experiences, Jannif is now committed to offering the same across her markets and trying to get more women into leadership.

“Over the last three years, I’m happy to say that my CFO is a female, my head of marketing is a female, my head of HR is female, as is my director of shared services,” she says.

“From only one female in our senior leadership team, we’ve gone to four across the region. I have 53% female senior leaders at this point, meaning we have a very balanced organisation.

“Over the last few years, we’ve been working to ensure that we we’re not just paying lip service, that we actually have diversity,” she continues.

Whether it’s 12, 18 or 24 months into the future, Jannif and the Digicel Pacific team are guided by three basic pillars.

The first involves “making sure we are absolutely ahead of the journey when it comes to customer experience and how we continue to provide exceptional services to customers,” says Jannif.

Next, she says, is about investing in line with the company’s three-year plan, both in terms of network and product portfolio.

“The final piece of the puzzle is my staff, making sure that we continue to empower them to do the best job for the company,” says Jannif.

“It really is important, making sure you put the right people in the right roles and supporting them in any way we can.”