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You could be forgiven for believing that providing cutting edge communications and technology services in remote locations presents something of a quandary. How can a business remain profitable when it is making significant investments to stay ahead of the curb in markets with limited scalability?
While the global telecoms giants are reluctant to properly penetrate the likes of the Isle of Man and Channel Islands, this is exactly what Sure and Sure International has been doing for 120 years, and with notable success.
The company delivers mobile, broadband, fixed line, data centre and enterprise solutions, including cloud services and igaming hosting, to more than 100,000 consumers, corporate and public sector customers, connecting islanders and island businesses to each other and the rest of the world. Sure also has the global might of parent Batelco to back up its local knowledge following the acquisition by the Bahrain-based company in 2013.
The frenetic speed of change, combined with sparsely populated remote jurisdictions, is a fascinating and exciting challenge that CEO Eddie Saints oversees every day. He explains: “It poses a real challenge for us alongside the speed at which technology is changing. When technology becomes obsolete you have to refresh networks which is what we are having to do every year.”
“We have had to be clever,” adds Chief Technology and Information Officer Cyrille Joffre. “Historically we have been quite innovative because we are constrained by the domestic market and its size. It's a small volume but you can design niche, specialist products and services, and if done carefully you can generate good margin.
We operate in some fairly predictable jurisdictions, and given the uncertainties created as a result of Brexit, we can foresee opportunities for international and local businesses to expand or/and redeploy assets.”
Sure International’s modus operandi revolves around four principles of simplicity, trust, one team and customer driven, the latter being a particular fuel of innovation in the company.
“When we talk about customer driven it is about the partnership we foster with our customers,” says Saints. “It is about embedding ourselves in the customer's business and being part of the business. We want our customers to say wow, we didn't expect that’.
“We believe the optimisation is also about understanding that we're not just a telecom operator providing voice and broadband access and basic data services. We're beyond that. Yes, that's a foundation of our business today but we're very much into the advanced applications, tied into understanding and managing customers’ networks and protecting them.”
Where 10-15 years ago new developments in network engineering were the catalyst for transformation, today it is very much deriving from customer demand. As a result, Sure reviews its organisational structure every two years and now has a dedicated customer experience division. The company also evaluates its internal processes every three months to ensure continued strategic alignment.
Recent investments and projects are all geared towards fulfilling a five-year transformation plan designed to bring high-speed ultra-connectivity to consumers. Sure is already providing VDSL network speeds of 40 Mbps in average and is planning to test 100-150 Mbps speeds towards the end of the year.
Last year Sure International rolled out a brand new 2G-3G-4G network across its markets with its strategic partner Huawei including an IMS platform for fixed-mobile convergence and new SIP services. We also worked closely with Vodafone on joining a submarine cable asset that links the Channel Islands to France and the UK, a project named HUGO. “We call it HUGO because it’s High-capacity, Undersea Guernsey Optical-fiber, as well as a reference to the French author and poet Victor Hugo who spent 15 years in exile in Guernsey from 1855. The island provided the inspiration for many of his fine works,” Joffre explains.
“We worked with a company called Xtera in submarine networking infrastructure and it was the first industry deployment of what we call a ramen based submarine repeater. It brings a lot of resiliency and performances to our network that we didn't have before.”
This year Joffre has been working closely with Cisco to consolidate multiple networks onto one network, reducing the amount of equipment needed and again increasing resilience. Cloud is another area of focus following the acquisition of Foreshore in 2014, and Sure is working with partners to optimise managed services offerings and gauge what is best developed in-house and outsourced to specialist suppliers.
These numerous upgrades and investments would be futile without robust security processes. Sure International’s data centres are ISO/IEC 27001:2013 certified and the company draws on the expertise of parent company Batelco, while also working with BT. In acquiring Foreshore, Sure took on a working relationship with Mimecast, an email security service which it promotes and sells across the Channel Islands, Isle of Man, Caribbean, Middle East and Indian Ocean markets.
“The end game is to make sure that if we have an attack, we can detect very quickly and we can fix very quickly,” says Joffre. “We are PCI compliant and we achieved that last year. It look a lot of time, thought and energy from the team to reach that position and we need to maintain it because we need to be recertified every year. Security is something we are extremely focussed on.”
As well as leveraging the resources of global partners like BT, Cisco, Huawei, Safran and Vodafone, Sure International makes the most of suppliers with local expertise and a similar size to itself.
“We work with niche vendors for different value added solutions,” Joffre adds. “Smaller companies grant us more attention and focus on our business.”
Sure works with a number of vendors with presence regionally and around the world, including Comfone, Veeam Software and Mitel, respective providers of GRX/roaming, virtual infrastructure and traditional/IP telephony solutions.
Saints is eager to express that none of Sure’s continuing success and culture of innovation would be possible without a dedicated and engaged workforce. The company engaged specialist consultants Invigor8 to design a bespoke employee engagement programme and carried out a number of surveys, innovation competitions and training initiatives.
“Three to four times a year depending on the workload, we give our staff a challenge and the challenge can be anything that we feel would seek to get an improvement in the way operate, the way engage, the way we think, the way we provide value to customers,” Saints says.
“We have used this program for the last four to five years and it's had a remarkable impact. Staff feel engaged, they feel they're able to make and shape the business. They contribute to the transformation that we are all seeking to achieve. We're making sure we’re focusing on the right things and not on the wrong things.”
Sure also runs an extensive wellbeing programme three to four times a year to make sure staff continue to be happy coming to work, which usually involves a specific question like defining company values and making sure the company adheres to them.
Another staff engagement initiative in the pipeline is an innovation competition. This will involve targeting 20 employees who will attend a two-day workshop to come up with a business case for a particular idea they have developed, which will be tested across six stages.
Not only is Sure intent on improving the lives of local communities by delivering affordable and effective connectivity, but also through charitable support. The Sure Community Foundation donates anywhere between £20,000 and £30,000 a year, plus income generated from recycling obsolete equipment.
“We commit to supporting the communities we operate in by supporting the vast array of charities who make a difference in the quality of life in the markets we serve,” Saints says. “We're looking at expanding the principles of the Sure Community Foundation to facilitate a more entrepreneurial, innovation type concept. It's almost like the Dragon's Den. We want to encourage young entrepreneurs, young people straight out of school who have a great idea but don’t know where to start or have the resources to get going.”
The Sure Academy also gives young people an avenue to pursue a career in technology with the company. Launched roughly five years ago and now rolled out in Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, the programme offers a two-year experience in engineering, marketing and retail, with the aim of fulfilling long term skills requirements.
Saints continues: “We initially took in eight young students for a period of two years on a recurring basis each year. About 90 percent of our Academy graduates have found employment in our organisation with many of them going on to achieve qualification in network engineering and information technology.”
Continuing to enrich lives is the overriding motive and vision for Sure International in years to come, and Joffre’s five-year picture is based on a choice between being like the aviation or healthcare industry.
“They are very different in embracing mistake and failures and if you look at the statistics of the number of avoidable fatalities, you can see the big dent between aviation and healthcare,” he explains.
“I want us to be the aviation and not the healthcare. Why? Because four or five years from now the telecoms infrastructure will be of critical importance for applications like healthcare and connected cars. Lives will be in our hands and we must have a plan to embrace mistakes and failures and make sure that the network is strong and 100 percent available.”
Joffre finishes by describing his motto of the good, the just and the beautiful. “We help our customer to be more efficient in their operations so they can reach customers they couldn't have reached before, so that's the good. The just is because we have a social responsibility to connect the customers whether it is through is a 4G mobile or DSL or modem. The beautiful is about the innovation and what we can design.”