London — biNu has gone from being was a successful content platform with optimized data access for featurephone with significant numbers in several African countries to being a B2B platform with reverse billing agreements with MNOs. Users get "data free" and corporates can use the platform to communicate with existing customers and market to new customers. In the phrase they use on their Twitter account, like WhatsApp but no data costs. Russell Southwood spoke to its new CEO Stephen A Newton about what he's got planned.
biNu has three big pieces of news. A new CEO with a background in digital advertising has taken over from Co-Founder Gour Lentell, who has become Executive Chairman. It has signed an exclusive agreement with MTN to use the product for its data reverse billing customers. And last but not least, it is laying the ground to launch next in Nigeria.
The new CEO Stephen A Newton was General Manager EMEA, Hitwise UK - Business and Marketing Intelligence (which was subsequently acquired by Experian) and then worked for Google as Head of Google Analytics and Checkout, EMEA before becoming Head of Google South Africa. He was CEO, eCommerce platforms, Naspers/MIH and an advisor to Clicks2Customers. He was running his own consultancy company before he was approached by Lentell to come on board in February 2019.
He is determined to take it places:"biNu is a great group of people and has good technology. I'm looking for the next Hitwise or DoubleClick. I'm surprised it's not yet commercialized for an organization that's been going for so long. I see the potential".
He has put in place a team to spearhead the commercialization of the platform. He's focused on two routes to profitability: helping corporates connect with customers and their employees and getting brands to use the platform to acquire new customers:"The platform is like an 0800 number. It lowers the barrier for customers to interact with the company. The challenge is to engage with brands who want to reach an audience."
In terms of reach, the platform is now available on all MNOs in South Africa. In Nigeria, it's signed up with MTN and Airtel and is in active talks with Glo and 9Mobile. It won't launch in Nigeria until it has all the MNOs on board:"We provide one billing point for access to all operators for our corporate clients".
In May 2019, biNu signed an exclusive partnership with MTN and together they will sell the solution together. MTN is interested in growing its access to reverse billing data for corporate customers and getting aggregated reverse billing revenues. MTN can sell the biNu service to its corporate customers:"All revenues will be shared and the lion's share will go to the organization that makes the sale".
In South Africa, MTN has moved its existing clients on to the platform. In Nigeria, it has transferred existing enterprise clients who have expressed interest but some are holding back, waiting for all four 4 MNOs to sign.
Newton sees Nigeria as a far bigger territory than South Africa:"Lagos alone can easily surpass South Africa. Data prices are quarter of what they are in Nigeria. Every smartphone has got WhatsApp on it so that that's 20-25 million people. That's bigger than any TV show or billboard. Our end goal is that. Corporates in Nigeria are a fertile market. There are many companies that need effective internal communications platforms and that will be a big part of the B2B side. FMCG is big in Nigeria. To succeed, you have to be there physically".
There 800,000 active users in South Africa who use the app at least once a month. Of these, 500,000 are daily active users up from 150,000 in January 2019. According to Newton, for the purposes of comparison, the top website in South Africa has 5 million monthly uniques and 420,000 daily users.
So how fast will things happen?:"It will take 3-4 months to get the South Africa machine going and then we move on to Nigeria. In the longer term, I want to look at this as an emerging markets start-up, not just for Africa. We want to flesh out and prove the model so that we can take it to other markets.
But isn't this the road on which the car wrecks of Mxit and 2Go are still very present?:"Unlike Mxit and 2Go, we have a different set of revenue streams. Also Mxit existed before WhatsApp. No-one has yet challenged WhatsApp".
"Status pages in on WhatsApp are widely used to communicate in South Africa. There are already ads on Facebook and Instagram the data costs of these ads are already proving too costly for some users. If most data in emerging markets is spent on WhatsApp, when it starts putting ads on it, it will start eating users' data".
"The recent WhatsApp outage in South Africa sent visits to our sites rocketing up so we're recognized there as an alternative to WhatsApp".
"The corporates are beginning to understand they have the ability to get to customers through the app. For example, offering training materials to employees. We're like a shopping mall. We're able to open "new shops". If we put up something new up, the user base will check it out. The users are highly responsive. Last week we did a 24-question survey, exposed in Moya Discover and we got 4,000 responses without having to offer any incentives. That's the way users engage with content and we have high levels of engagement".
Response to Ugandan Government and regulator want to take control of local IXP - the latest in a disturbing pattern of regulatory interventions, 12 July 2018
I read your article on "Ugandan Government and regulator want to take control of local IXP - the latest in a disturbing pattern of regulatory interventions". However, I felt there was some information regarding the facts on the ground that may not have been considered nor review done of the document being discussed. In this respect, please find attached a copy of the document that was put out for consultation and some information to provide context to this matter:
The Uganda Internet Exchange Point (UIXP) started as a project to get existing internet service providers (ISPs) in the country to interconnect and exchange traffic locally, and therefore keep local internet traffic within the country.
Uganda Communications Commission (the Commission) convened a meeting of existing ISPs in 2001, and this was followed by a series of other meetings held in two categories; one was a managerial/executive committee and the other a technical committee.
After extensive discussions, an operational model was agreed, and a grant from the United Kingdom's Department for International Development (DFID) enabled the purchase of various equipment that included; uninterruptible power, equipment rack, cabling and office supplies. The Network Start-up Resource Centre (NSRC) based in the University of Oregon also donated a switch to be used to interconnect all the providers.
Despite this intervention, the UIXP did not commence operations mainly due to differences among stakeholders over the way the UIXP would be managed and how to make it viable and self-sustaining in the long run. Leveraging on the experience of persons such as Bill Woodcock from the United States, the consensus was achieved among members on how the UIXP would be managed and operated.
It was agreed to eliminate charges for peering and the Commission graciously offered rent-free space inclusive of utilities (power, cooling, equipment and security). Accordingly, there were no membership dues for connecting to the IXP or payment for the exchange of traffic. Members were each responsible for maintaining their link to the IXP. The technical issues were to be handled jointly between the members of the IXP.
The ISPs at the time proceeded to register the ISP Association (ISPA) as a non-profit organisation to oversee the operations of the UIXP. The UIXP was to operate under self-regulation with the Commission as an observer member, ensuring a balance of interests of all stakeholders in the internet community (government, ISPs and the consumers). The first team of directors to oversee the operations of the UIXP were Charles Musisi, Badru Ntege, and Hope Mugaga.
A Memorandum and Articles of Association were developed with a governance structure that was never fully implemented due to financial and other administrative constraints. The UIXP has for a period, depending on volunteers that are not necessarily representatives of ISPs and maintained using donations from members and well-wishers.
Over the years, the traffic carried, and the number of ISPs connecting to the UIXP has grown. There has also been an expansion in the types of peers to include content providers and academia. It is important to note that only five of the original directors of the ISPA are among the current 28 peers at the UIXP. The growth experienced by the UIXP has, however, constrained the facilities and resources available. The Commission has continuously supported the growth of UIXP by hosting and powering its technical infrastructure at no cost. In this vain, the Commission has provided space, security, power, switches, racks, server, and cooling requirements.
The UIXP was later registered as a limited company managed by four Directors; Kyle Spencer, Simon Vass, Mike Barnard and Robbins Mwehaire who oversee its administrative and operational requirements while also maintaining the day-to-day operations.
The UIXP grew to become a critical resource in the local internet infrastructure and for the fulfilment of the obligations to licensed internet service providers in Uganda to peer locally.
It is interesting to note that in 2001 when the UIXP started with five peers, it was exchanging 5MB per second of data. It has now grown to 28 peers who are transferring about 8GB per second of data.
In 2015, the Commission initiated a governance review process towards having the UIXP operating under a multi-stakeholder governance model. This resulted in the amendment of the UIXP Memorandum and Articles of Association to include licensed operators in the governance structure. The process was, however, not concluded by the membership.
A situational analysis of the East African exchanges that was carried in June 2016 under, the East Africa Communications Organization (EACO) towards having the East African Internet Exchange Point, recommended that the governance structure of the UIXP needed to be reviewed to include peers (networks) as part of the management and governance structure.
On 25th January 2018, the Commission received a petition from some of the Internet Service Providers over the introduction of peering charges at the UIXP. Consequently, the Commission organised a meeting on 7th February 2018 with the petitioners and the UIXP management.
On 21st Feb 2018, the Commission held a joint meeting of the peers, content providers and the current UIXP directors. Participants at the meeting agreed that the implementation of porting fees be halted until the Commission guides on the issues of governance and that the Commission carry out public consultation on the matters of UIXP operations and management.
On 23rd April 2018, the Commission issued a UIXP stakeholder consultation document aimed at collecting stakeholders' input on the governance and management of the UIXP. Additionally, the Commission created a multi-stakeholder focus group committee (comprising persons drawn from among the ISPs/peers of UIXP, current UIXP directors, local internet community, academia and the sector ministry) to discuss the same consultative document.
On 24th October 2018, the Commission organised a general multi-stakeholders meeting to consider the outcomes of the UIXP stakeholder consultation document and review the report on the different IXP governance and management models. At this meeting, the focus group committee was tasked to propose a governance structure for the UIXP for discussion in a subsequent stakeholders meeting.
On 21st February 2019, the Commission convened a stakeholder meeting to review the proposed governance structure. At this meeting, stakeholders approved the structure proposed by the focus group with some amendments.
Having concluded the review of the governance and management of the UIXP, and to facilitate realization of the technical and economic benefits of the IXPs as recognized under the National Broadband Policy of 2017, the Commission developed draft guidelines on the establishment of IXPs in Uganda. This was circulated to the various stakeholders - Ministry of ICT & National Guidance, the UIXP management team, operators engaged in the provisions of internet services in Uganda, content networks, academia, professional organisations, and other stakeholders in the local internet community for their input. The responses shall inform final determination.
In doing so, the Commission seeks to address the issues relating to:
fostering the development of a digital economy in Uganda,
the disagreements between some of the peers and the management of the UIXP;
Government concerns including those outlined in the National Broadband Policy;
reliability of IXP services by introduction of performance and cybersecurity requirements in recognition as IXPs as an essential facility in the sector;
and providing clarity on the establishment of other IXPs while still maintaining a national IXP .
The suggestion that government of Uganda or the regulator for that matter wants to take control of the IXP are not contrary because the governance structure put forward was not dictated by government and is multi-stakeholder with private and public sector rather than being wholly government.
Furthermore, the eligibility criteria in the proposed framework for a person to set up an IXP under the proposed guidelines provides for different legal persons whether these be private or public.
As a country, we are keen to develop the local internet infrastructure and foster the realization of the growth of the internet in Uganda. We do recognise that the internet is a global network of different networks and continue to work with peers in East Africa, IGAD, at the African level and in other jurisdictions in this respect.
There were claims made earlier that the Commission has not consulted. However, proof is available in the form of letters, proof of delivery of these letters, emails and minutes of meetings to show that consultations with the various stakeholders has been done including the current UIXP management team.
Contrary to the claims that the Commission is going against international common practice of not licensing IXPs, what is proposed in the guidelines is only a registration process deemed necessary in light developments in the industry. The guidelines also clarify the oversight role of UCC as agreed by stakeholders during the discussions on the governance of the UIXP.
The Commission remains steadfast on the realization of the objectives of the Uganda Communications Act of 2013 and seeks to work with all stakeholders interested in furthering this cause.
Irene Kaggwa Sewankambo
Director, Engineering and Communications Infrastructure
Uganda Communications Commission