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Once, 3G was the future. Now, we're loving LTE and looking forward to 5G. What's next? As Vodacom's innovation guy, Jannie van Zyl, Executive Head of Innovation at Vodacom, is constantly analysing trends and developments that may impact Vodacom and the telecommunications industry as a whole.
At this year's MyBroadband Awards, Jannie received an honorary award for his contribution to broadband in South Africa. Previous winners include former Vodacom CEO Pieter Uys and former MWEB CEO Rudi Jansen.
We chatted to Jannie and asked him what he's working on.
You were recently honoured for your contribution to broadband in SA. What have the big moments been for you?
I was fortunate to be around when Pieter Uys, our previous CEO, saw the future and decided to drive 3G as a new network technology. At the time voice was king, and our competitors claimed there was no business case for 3G. This was a statement they sorely regret, as it gave us a lead we still hold today.
But part of being a leader was, and is, predicting where we should be in the short to medium term and then driving towards those goals. This is made much easier when you work with a team like Andries Delport’s Technology Group, who know how to execute a strategy and never miss a target date. We’ve enjoyed countless firsts, from 3G to LTE to LTE-Advanced (proper 4G). In more than a year of trying, MTN still couldn’t launch a commercial LTE service. We did it in five weeks!
Digital tech is growing so fast. What's can we look forward to?
Vodacom has built its reputation and capability over the past 20 years on the back of a world-leading network and this’ll continue. In the short term we’ll expand our 3G and LTE networks to connect all South Africans with ever-increasing speeds. Placing an affordable data-capable device in every pair of hands will help fulfil Shameel’s vision of giving everyone access to the internet.
These networks, including the upcoming 5G technology, will ensure data becomes a service we take for granted. The real future of Vodacom lies with on- demand HD video on your phone, mobile money, 3D video calling and the next generation of social media.
As a practical example, soon all Vodacom staff will use their mobile phones for security access and to pay at campus canteens. In future this’ll be available anywhere in the country to all our subscribers. Services such as m-pesa point the way to our digital future.
But the biggest change for consumers will be the disappearance of traditional cellphones. Smartphones with small, power-hungry screens will eventually be replaced by direct retina-projection giving full field of view. Voice recognition will be the input method.
When we get into the ‘Internet of Things’, every device will communicate on the internet. We’re talking billions of connections and we must develop and deploy new networking technologies to make this possible.
Tell us about your job.
We analyse new – and often crazy! – ideas to see how they might apply at Vodacom. Ideas may come from our staff, via the Innovate! Programme, customers, partners, or from my team. Many concepts are long term and include disruptive innovations that might put Vodacom at future risk. Others could really benefit Vodacom.
We analyse them to see which we can use and, if disruptive to Vodacom, develop strategies to counter or de-risk them. At the same time we look at how Vodacom can disrupt other industries to create new growth and revenue opportunities. We also provide support functions to the business units.
How did you get where you are now?
In Grade 8 I developed a passion for electronics, which later led me to study electronic engineering via the SABC, where I had a bursary. From early on I was involved with small technology companies supplying computer systems, networks and software. Vodacom was one of my big customers before I joined. After I sold my last software company, Vodacom approached me to consult on strategy and various process and systems projects. At this time Vodacom launched 3G, and I got involved.
About four years ago I became CEO at WBS, a company better known for its iBurst network, but eventually decided to rejoin Vodacom. After ‘coming back home’ I was responsible for the data portfolio in the Consumer Business Unit until we created my current role.
What do you love about working and living in South Africa?
South Africans have a unique culture of innovation. We’re can-do and often multi-skilled – something seldom seen in the US or Europe. This lets us see opportunities where others see problems. With large multinationals developing and building networking equipment globally, it recently took a Vodacom team in the DRC to develop a low-cost base station that saves 80% of the capital costs to deploy a traditional base station.
As an avid cyclist, I must mention that living in Cape Town is a highlight as well!