"Many of our ATMs are in deep rural areas or small towns where the transaction volumes are very low - as few as 500 a month," says Spark ATM founder and MD Marc Sternberg. "If the cost of communicating with a site like that is R1,000 a month or more, it's simply not viable to put an ATM there - it's too expensive. A good 20-30% of our network falls into that category."
What has made it possible to put ATMs at these sites, says Sternberg, is Spark ATM's partnership with industrial communications specialist Metacom. "Using Metacom's devices and network we're able to keep our communications costs below R200 a month at each site, whilst not compromising on quality - and that makes all the difference."
Metacom's modems and routers enable seamless connectivity to the full spectrum of GSM cellular communications, as well as ADSL or satellite. "We build the devices into our ATMs at our factory in Cape Town, so we arrive on site with the full communications solution already installed - all we need is a power supply," says Sternberg.
At about 10% of Spark ATM's sites, says Sternberg, there is no other way for residents to get access to cash; in many others, there is only one bank branch, which is closed at night and on weekends. "We believe we're playing an important role in keeping economic activity within rural communities - and the demand is growing with the number of banked consumers, especially Capitec and SASSA (SA Social Services Agency) card holders."
Seamless communications through Metacom also enables Spark ATM to keep maintenance costs low, adds Sternberg. "Metacom's service includes remote monitoring and control, which is critical. So far this year we've rolled out 10 versions of our software - with 2,500 machines the only affordable way you can do that is remotely. Our contact centre staff can diagnose and fix problems, change configurations and settings and reboot machines anywhere in the country, all without leaving the office."
"The Spark ATM network is currently growing by 50-60 a month," says Sternberg, and the company is looking beyond the borders of South Africa. "We have just under 40 machines in Zimbabwe already, and plan to be represented in another five African countries within the next 36 months."