Man on the line declares 'yebo' to competition
COMING second is failure, says Alan Knott-Craig. There is no hype, no hoopla, no histrionics about the head of one of South Africa's two cellular network operators. He is straight down the line.
"I like my work to be my life," he says.
Knott-Craig has been involved with telecommunications most of his life. At 16, he earned R120 a month with Telkom, which had awarded him a bursary in electrical engineering.
"I was involved with data and new business development, holding the positions of director of telematics and later senior general manager mobile communications," he says.
It was Telkom which asked him to do a study on the potential of cellular technology in SA in 1992. What started as an investigation into the viability of a cellular telephone industry in SA grew to be the country's largest cellular network operation with more than 1.2-million subscribers.
SA's first two cellular licences were awarded in 1993, dashing Telkom's hopes of having a monopoly. The state-controlled telecommunications operator did retain a 50% stake in Vodacom, however.
But even after the two cellular licences were awarded, the ANC threatened to revoke them. An agreement was hammered out and, as a result, the unions hold 5% of each network, explains Knott-Craig.
As a midwife in the birth of SA's R12-billion-a-year cellular industry, he has seen the industry outperform the predicted 250 000 potential subscribers and mature enough to embrace another two operators next year.
"There is no substitute for competition," says Knott-Craig.
"We should not try to shy away from it; we should also not try to regulate it.
"If it looks promising, everyone wants to get a cut of the action. But the great thing about cellular is the competition."
Aside from the R6-billion to R10-billion that the new operators will spend on providing network building blocks, one of the largest expenses will be marketing campaigns.
No one can tell whether the entry of the new operators will create a price war, but the pressure to win and keep subscribers has never been as challenging.
"The new licences are the best thing I've ever heard of," says Knott-Craig. "I even think the industry should not be limited to another two licences but opened to carry as many networks as possible."
Brazil is going to issue 10 licences, and it is also seen as an emerging economy, he says.
And yes, he says, Vodacom is looking at Brazil as its first move offshore.
In another surprise move, Vodacom announced earlier this month that it planned to become an Internet service provider, which will see the company competing for Internet subscribers against SA's other 70 ISPs.
YeboNet will be targeting the home-user market which it believes is vastly under-serviced with only an estimated 60 000 subscribers on line.
Knott-Craig says the move into the Internet industry forms part of Vodacom's strategy to become a "communications" company. It is also planning to offer satellite-based services by mid-1999.
Vodacom will be using the satellite services of GlobalStar, with the technology partly owned by Vodacom's UK partner, Vodaphone
Rival network MTN launched its satellite service last week.
"The thing that has changed as regards Vodacom's vision is the scale - everything is bigger," says Knott-Craig.
But "bigger" doesn't frighten the Outshoorn-born dreamer who played with electronics kits at the age of eight.
Working a 12-hour day on average, Knott-Craig says he has little time to pursue his love of sailing and skiing.
And he has no idea what he will be doing in the future - he doesn't think beyond the next six months, he says.