Capacity Big Interview: Liquid Intelligent Technologies CEO

Liquid expands into a cloud company

12 April 2021 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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Liquid Telecom began as a carrier providing services across Africa. Now, CEO Nic Rudnick tells Alan Burkitt-Gray why they’ve changed the name to reflect the group’s new business.

African carrier Liquid Telecom has become Liquid Intelligent Technologies to show that it is now a one-stop-shop technology group. The company, which operates a 73,000km fibre network, said it wants to show expansion of its cloud business, cyber security services, and other technologies added to its existing telecoms and connectivity capability.

CEO Nic Rudnick explains: “Yes, it’s a longer name, but we wanted to reflect the fact that we’re a technology company, not a telecoms provider. I’m not sure we ever were a simple telecoms company: we were always more Silicon Valley than a utility company.”

The new name first appeared in South Africa in October 2020. The company said at the time that the move did not affect other operations in the group, but clearly that test-drive has been successful.

Since then Liquid has a $40 million investment from UK government-backed CDC group, on top of an earlier $180 million in 2018. In February 2021 the company raised $840 million in dollar bond sales to pursue its growth strategy. IFC, part of the World Bank Group, subscribed $100 million of this, describing itself as playing “an anchor role”.

Rudnick says: “Our ongoing investment in our networks and data centres across Africa have uniquely positioned us to utilise our infrastructure to accelerate the availability of new intelligent technologies including the high computing power of the cloud, artificial intelligence and cyber security to our customers.”

He adds: “We are now excited to be executing our vision of bringing new technological opportunities to the market with a highly differentiated product set supported by our existing infrastructure and digital innovation.”

The company, which is part of Zimbabwean businessman Strive Masiyiwa’s Econet Global group, has expanded into new countries, including Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Rudnick is based in London, where the company has its administrative offices. In normal times he used to travel around Liquid’s operations for most of his time. “Before, I was travelling three weeks of every month,” he says. “For the last year I’ve been unable to travel at all. It’s been frustrating.”

He used to spend his time meeting CEOs and other staff of Liquid’s operations across Africa. As with almost everyone, he’s relied on the technology for his regular meetings. “We were already doing a lot of video conferences and online collaboration,” he says. “People [outside the company] thought that was miraculous. But over the last year other people now take it for granted.”  

Infrastructure for technology

That’s almost been a lesson for the future of Liquid: “The future is in the technology that we’re delivering. The technology needs our infrastructure and will always be part of our infrastructure.” The idea is to use the technology without worrying what the infrastructure looks like, he adds.

He looks back to the early days, when Liquid started as a satellite company. “In those days everybody knew how many megabits a second they were using, and how much it cost. People don’t care about that anymore.”

And, in the early days, “people had a very high tolerance for outages”, but no longer. “Things have moved on.”

We reminisce about calls from those days, including to mobile base stations that were backhauled via a geostationary satellite 35,800km over the equator. “Who remembers the double-hop call now?” asks Rudnick. That would mean a call went 35,800km up to one satellite, 35,800km down, and then back again to another — a round trip of 143,200km. That’s almost half a second at the speed of light.

The network is still important to Rudnick and Liquid Intelligent Technologies. “We will always continue to expand the network to where our customers need it,” he says. “It is the underlying technology, our underlying infrastructure.”

But the new Liquid has changed. “Our objective is to expand the cloud business and the cybersecurity business on top of our existing telecoms capacity and infrastructure.”

The aim is to put “the technology in the hands of people”, and “it’s about as profound as the arrival of the mobile phone”, says Rudnick. “African entrepreneurs are providing solutions that will have a profound impact.”

He lists start-ups in Kenya, “creating apps and solving problems” — including seat-booking systems for notoriously overcrowded and erratic rural bus services. “Bus companies can see the demand, and passengers can pre-book, and there will be seats available when they get there. It will make a manifest difference.”

Liquid is working on projects for agriculture and fish farming, “and we’re starting to see the impact they’re having”.

Fibre expansion

Liquid Intelligent Technologies’ fibre network covers 14 countries now, “and there may still be a couple more to come”, though he resists the temptation to say which. But there’s no plan to expand into anything like all 54 African countries. “We have never wanted to reinvent the wheel,” he says, pointing to Nigeria.

“We are scaling up our presence there but not seeking to build infrastructure.” The company can deliver technology without needing fibre all the way, “so long as we can deliver at a good quality”.

And where there is no fibre, the company is looking at low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. “We are close to the rollout of the new LEO generations,” he says. “We are looking forward to LEO being a reality in Africa.”

Liquid is “starting to work with a number of the LEO operators”, though he is cautious enough not to name them. “It’s going to be very competitive, and the price point is a crucial area. I’m looking at the bulk of the system cost. We are looking forward to LEO.”

What he doesn’t know is the speed available, perhaps as high as 3Gbps or 4Gbps, though people are talking around 300-500Mbps. “We believe [LEO] will be faster and more cost effective that current satellites,” he says. “But the speed of a network when there’s one person using it is different from when it is full of users. I’d rather wait and see what it is.”

On the fibre network side, one change that he’s welcoming is the arrival of new subsea connections. “There’s enough for now but there are a lot more coming,” he notes, citing particularly 2Africa and Equiano. There’s also the Peace cable coming along the east coast of Africa. “We have set up a division, Liquid Sea, that is working specifically with sea cables.

“What we’ve done is have a balanced load, with full redundancy on multiple cables,” to minimise the effects of outages. “We’re looking forward to these new cables: they will have phenomenal capacity.” Will those three new cables be enough? “Enough for a while, but never say never. They will create a ring of capacity that will work wonders for the continent.”

Liquid has just added a 2,500km terrestrial link to its network, across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for the first time.

The new cable runs from the coastal city of Muanda, 12km north of the Congo River, which marks the border with Angola. Muanda is also the landing point — or planned landing point — of four subsea cables, 2Africa, ACE, Equiano and WACS. The terrestrial fibre connects Muanda to cities as far as Cape Town in the south and Dar es Salam in the east.

Technology front and centre

So, what is Liquid going to be like in this new cloud world? “To some extent it is not such a change,” he says. “It’s technology we’ve been working on for a number of years. We’ve always been filled with IT professionals rather than — how shall I say? — telecoms engineers. We are putting the technology front and centre, ahead of the telecoms capacity.” Within the group, “it doesn’t feel like a change”, he adds. “It’s a repositioning of what we’ve had.”

Its data centre sister company, African Data Centres (ADC) has operations in a number of countries, including Kenya, Lesotho, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe. “Ultimately we will have more than ten countries with data centres in the near future,” says Rudnick. How near? “Within this year,” he smiles.

There have been some changes in the skills of employees — and they’re used to working collaboratively across Liquid’s different centres of excellence. “People don’t have to be in one country.”

He lists the main centres as Kenya, South Africa and, of course, Masiyiwa’s home country of Zimbabwe, as well as the UK, which is mainly for administration and support.

“We’re likely to get an office in Nigeria,” he adds. “It’s one of the big markets. It’s competitive and dynamic, with lots of skilled people in it.”

The main cloud provider that Liquid works with is Microsoft, but there’s also Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google in the mix. “We see ourselves as a multi-cloud provider, with a strong relationship with Microsoft as the cloud service provider across the continent.” All the operators “are on our network”, he says, so that customers get “the service they want”.