Surrounded by Malaysia and tropical rainforest, Brunei in Southeast Asia lies directly on the South China Sea. The small state in the north of the island of Borneo has a population of about 440,000 and an area of 5,700 square kilometers; it is the fifth-richest country in the world, enjoying a per capita gross domestic product of more than $31,500 (per 2018). Brunei lives primarily from income generated by the sale of oil and natural gas. Citizens pay virtually no taxes, and the education and health systems are free of charge. The government subsidizes fuel, housing, and food. Brunei is the only absolute monarchy in Southeast Asia. The sultan is simultaneously the head of state and the religious leader of Brunei. He holds public authority and judicial power. The coronavirus pandemic reached Brunei in early March. During the video conversation with Ronald Conradon the Detecon project work, however, the team leader and Managing Consultant at Detecon appears relaxed when talking about the crisis. The large Detecon project in the sultanate seems to be the greater challenge for the communications engineer.
Ronald, you have been living in Brunei for some time now and know the country, one that is largely unknown to most people, from the inside. What can you say about the current situation there?
There has been a very small number of infections in the country, only 141 (per 25/05), and 137 of them have now recovered. As there have not been any passenger flights since the start of the crisis and all people determined to be infected as well as persons who have been in contact with them are immediately quarantined – which is possible thanks to contact tracking – the virus has not spread any further for several weeks.
Meanwhile, the first flights to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Hong Kong are again taking off, some of them on a regular schedule. We work alternately from home and in the office. Our lives have changed little since the first confirmed case on 9 March in comparison with the time before. A major restriction is that we are not permitted to leave the country at the moment. There are a lot of attractive holiday destinations that can be reached in just two hours by plane from Brunei – Bali, Thailand, the Philippines, or Vietnam. Some colleagues have been working on the project for a very long time and had planned one or two trips, but they had to cancel their plans, I’m afraid.
Detecon in Brunei has been conducting an important project on behalf of the government for about one and a half years and has at times had more than 30 employees on the site. Is the team now working from locations scattered across various countries?
The core of the project team works in Brunei. In specific situations, we receive support from Bangkok and Germany. We all had the option of leaving the country in March and we notified everyone of this chance, but none of the colleagues with a long-term contract decided to leave. On the contrary, we were able to fly two experts important for the project to Brunei at more or less the last minute. The two undertook a strenuous 48-hour journey that almost came to a sudden end at Manila Airport. The experts, who are very important for the project, were allowed to board the plane to Brunei solely because of the support of our most important contact on location here, who placed a direct call to the boarding gate. That was one last nerve-wracking moment just before crossing the finish line.
So Detecon’s major project in Brunei has continued without any disruption. What has prompted the government to classify the project as such a high priority?
It is more than a classic consulting project. We are talking here about the overhaul of the telecommunications infrastructure for the whole country. The company Unified National Networks (UNN for short) was founded at the end of 2018 expressly for the purpose of achieving this goal. Our job is to build up this company, to modernize the entire network infrastructure of Brunei, and to lay the groundwork for innovative telecommunications services. Detecon provides both the complete management of the company and competent know-how sources and experts who cooperate with local colleagues in mastering the enormous number of tasks involved.
Was the previous network infrastructure so outdated?
The previous infrastructure was in the hands of three telecommunications companies, all of which invested in different networks parallel to one another. But this is not profitable for such a small country as Brunei. Furthermore, mobile network-only or fixed network-only providers are limited in their ability to provide innovative services. The portfolios of the three companies were underwhelming, and the end customer prices were very high by international standards.
The situation prompted the government to launch a transformation program that is completely revamping the ICT industry. While UNN is responsible for the operation of the network infrastructure as a whole, the three previous network operators have been transformed into sales-only companies, so-called “SalesCos.” These “SalesCos” purchase wholesale services from UNN and resell them to private and business customers in the country.
Detecon was engaged to consolidate the network infrastructure at UNN and to renew it from the ground up and prepare it for the future, taking Singapore as an example. The general vision of Brunei Darussalam – the country’s official name – aims to secure a more tightly interconnected and digitally integrated future. Achieving this goal will not be possible for the country without a modern and cost-efficient digital platform.
But the project was started before the crisis?
UNN was officially founded on 4 December 2018. A small team developed the so-called “Establishment Plan” in December and presented it to the Board. The official project start for us was 5 January 2019.
We began by defining the mission, vision, and values of the UNN. At the same time, the fundamental structures of the company were put into place. On 1 September, we were ready and able to celebrate the first major milestone – “Operations Day” – when we took over the entire existing network infrastructure. From one day to the next, we were in charge of over 600 employees and the ongoing (stable) operation of all networks. “Go Live” followed on 24 January of this year, right before the start of the pandemic, and marked our next major milestone.
“Go Live” means that all SalesCos can now offer both mobile and fixed network services from a single source. We are now still concentrating on the consolidation of the existing infrastructure so that everyone here has acceptable access to telephone and data services. However, we have already begun modernizing the networks in some areas. Depending on market developments and the related demand, we want to have a 5G-ready mobile communications network poised for operation and to have connected fiber optic to the majority of households in Brunei by 2022, and we will achieve these targets.
Is the crisis hindering the progress of the project? Are the country’s revenues declining, for example, because of the drastic drop in oil and gas prices?
This hasn’t had a direct impact on us. Our project, or rather UNN’s task, is a part of the country’s vision to become less dependent on oil and gas revenues by 2035. Digitalization is an important component of this economic transformation. We are not wavering from our milestones, and work is going on almost as usual despite the coronavirus. We have drawn up a schedule that regulates, among other things, who works where and when. Teams take turns in the office on a weekly basis. For example, if there are four people on a UNN team, two work from home and two in the office. After a week, they trade places. This works smoothly and does not impair our work.
How much information about the spread of the virus is available?
I feel totally confident that I receive adequate up-to-date information. There is a daily press conference when the ministers of health and economics report on the current situation and – if called for – announce new measures. Everyone remains completely calm. The country is doing a lot of testing and has the situation under control. That is what the official figures show, anyway.
By rigorously tracking and isolating people who have had contact with carriers of the infection, the government has prevented the spread of the virus. UNN employees were also called by the Ministry of Health and told to enter quarantine immediately and await further instructions. After the circle of friends of our employees tested negative, this order was immediately revoked and the employees returned to their jobs.
Less drastic measures are now part of everyday life; for instance, everyone’s temperature is measured at the entrance when they enter the office building. Measurements are also taken at supermarket entrances. In the meantime, the restrictions have been relaxed again – mosques, restaurants, gyms, and other public facilities are open again and can be entered/visited provided that certain minor conditions are met.
So you’ll be staying in the country for a while?
My wife has been with me in Brunei since the beginning of 2020. As planned, our lives will be centered in this country for the next few years. The project is incredibly exciting, we have been warmly welcomed by the Bruneians, and we have now adapted well to the culture, which is quite different from that of Europe. As soon as the borders are re-opened and the situation in the project allows, we will also be heading for the one or other holiday destination, there are so many different ones to choose from in this region. There is absolutely no reason for us to leave Brunei at present.
The interview was conducted by Ingrid Blessing.