As a former lieutenant for John Malone, Mauricio Ramos served as president for the cable honcho’s Liberty Global LatAm business for almost a decade. In April this year he decided to up sticks and take on a very different challenge.

Joining ambitious mobile and cable group Millicom as CEO, and based in Miami, Colombian-born Ramos came to the company with a clear vision, trumpeting data consumption in emerging markets as key, with a strategy that is focused on building up both the mobile and cable businesses.

Driving this, Ramos told Mobile World Live that smartphone usage among its customers will increase to three out of four users in the next three years.

“We want to drive mobile data penetration in our markets and build a significant fixed cable footprint under our mobile footprint in LatAm,” he said.

The company operates directly in six African countries, including Tanzania and Ghana, and eight LatAm markets, including Paraguay and Colombia.

Ramos talked through some of the ways Millicom sees the drive towards more data uptake, which include the development of tailor made content services, as well as its successful mobile financial payments arm. He also warned of the dangers in building cable and mobile through M&A, suggesting seamless integration between the two comes with “significant hurdles”.

He describes his family as “boat people” as they now live near the sea in Miami, but maintains a soft spot for the ski slopes in both Colorado and Chile.

MWL: You’re over six months into the role at Millicom. What is your ambitions in the emerging markets for the company?
Ramos: Emerging markets are the DNA of our business. We already have a strong presence in eight Latin American and six African markets and there is plenty more opportunity for us there. What matters to us right now is building scale, consumer demand and offering the right products in the markets where we are already present. Through this, we hope to further drive mobile data penetration in our markets and build a significant cable footprint under our mobile footprint in Latin America.

We feel the key to success in emerging markets in particular relates to understanding the customers we serve. Our core focus on mobile, data, cable and mobile financial services is a massively important part of our growth opportunity. We’re already widely becoming acknowledged as one of the leaders in MFS (mobile financial services) and have around 10 per cent of the world’s e-money wallet.

Tailored content is also a major factor in our growth story, with our highly successful football app in Guatemala and Tigo Music as prime examples of how we are tailoring content to the markets we serve.

MWL: In a recent interview with the Financial Times, you said a key focus of Millicom’s growth strategy is driving more data adoption in emerging markets by offering select internet services for free. Do you see an increase in smartphone uptake at the moment?
Ramos: All GSMA statistics point us to the direction that smartphones will continue to surge, and we see the demand every day. Today, just over one in four of our customers has a smartphone, and in three years’ time, we believe this will grow to three out of four… it could actually be even higher. Our challenge now is to drive data consumption on these handsets. I strongly believe we are at a tipping point in affordability and penetration. In the last quarter alone we added 1.6 million smartphone users to our mobile base.

To that end, we also see a strong focus in our MFS brand, which is enabling upgrades to smartphones. For example, so far this year, 30 per cent of smartphone sales were done through MFS financing.

MWL: With a keen focus on emerging markets, what can companies like Millicom do to drive demand for data in countries where the phenomenon hasn’t quite taken off yet?
Ramos: This is a data centric world, and where people are connected to the internet, we of course see that demand rocket.

But, there is a wider question around unconnected markets, and what to do about it. While smartphones are indeed getting cheaper, and network coverage is increasing, the UN research suggests the growth of internet uptake in emerging markets is actually slowing down.

In order to succeed in increasing this stat, and thereby developing infinite development opportunities, government industry, private sector and society all need to work together to tackle connectivity. No individual or institution can solve the connectivity challenge alone.

MWL: Give us some examples of what Millicom is doing to help the issue.
Ramos: Well, we are working hard to encourage demand and one of our great strengths is how we localise content to meet market needs.

We are undertaking several projects to reach our offline customers and introduce people to what we call the Digital Lifestyle. And we are responding directly to responding to their demand for digital products and services that are directly relevant to them and in local languages.

One example of this is our Telecentros project in Paraguay, which is specifically targeted at future internet users. The project saw the deployment of more than 100 shipping containers, fully equipped with IT services and internet to rural schools across the country. This has now reached thousands of teachers and pupils, who will form a new generation of digitally savvy users and can in turn share their knowledge of the internet with their communities.

MWL: As a cable and mobile operator, how important is it to develop and offer bundled offers across the wider telecoms ecosystem?
Ramos: The opportunity lies in better understanding what consumers want and make connectivity a seamless experience from home to mobile, and from one device to another. It’s also about making sure the offer is very simple, hence bundled, to enhance our customers’ experience and ease of use.

MWL: Your former company Liberty Global has been linked with a large mobile acquisition for some time. Do you believe the industry will see more consolidation between mobile and cable going forward?
Ramos: In our industry, the two key issues are the explosion of data traffic and convergence. Yes, we believe there will be more consolidation between mobile and cable groups going forward, but acquiring is one thing, integrating and making the services seamless for the customers is something else. So, there are significant hurdles that will need to be overcome for such a strategy, whether growth is via organic routes or M&A.

MWL: Talk to us a bit about your background. How did you get into your role at Millicom? What do you see as your biggest challenge in heading up an emerging markets player?
Ramos: Coming from Colombia, and from my time in charge of Liberty in Latin America, I got to know Millicom very well, so when the opportunity came up, it was a natural fit for me.

We have a tremendously inspiring and energising vision to help our customers advance and enjoy life, and the focus for the whole organisation is to make this vision a reality – to deliver on our promises and monetise on the digital lifestyle.

MWL: What do you do away from the day job? Any hobbies or interests?
Ramos: I’m totally focussed on two things, my job and my family. As you’d expect, I travel extensively so when I am at home, family time is pretty special. I am very lucky to live near the ocean in Miami where I go out on the water all the time with the gang. My family loves skiing, a legacy from our days in Colorado and Chile. Unfortunately, there isn’t much snow in Miami, so here we are boat people, but we still get to the mountain and hit the ski slopes at least twice a year.