The mobile sector has seen more than its share of change in the past decade, with numerous players — from vendors to device manufacturers and retailers — failing to evolve quickly enough to survive in an industry that has become renowned for its rapid pace of development.
As CEO and founder of Axiom Telecom, the UAE’s biggest mobile retailer and distributor, Faisal Al Bannai is all too well aware of the need to adapt to meet the latest trends and the often fickle tastes of mobile users. But while Axiom has made numerous innovations to its business, including an online store, micro distribution and mobile finance, the company is set to make what could prove to be its most audacious move to date when it launches its first mobile operation — a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) in Saudi Arabia – this year.
Indeed, the company won one of three MVNO licences up for grabs in Saudi Arabia in June last year. Axiom, which is preparing to launch services using the network of Zain KSA, will compete with each of the country’s mainstream operators as well as the winners of the other two MVNO licences, Virgin Mobile MEA, and Jawraa Lebara, which will operate on the networks of STC and Mobily, respectively.
As CEO Middle East went to press, two MVNO licences had been handed final approval from Saudi Arabia’s telecoms regulator, the CITC, to launch services, although Axiom was still waiting. Once the CITC has checked the final documentation and issued the licences, each company will have 12 months to launch services, according to Al Bannai. “Everyone has expectations. Everyone is watching in anticipation and also preparing. From our side we are preparing things so we can get off the ground quickly,” the CEO says.
Al Bannai is optimistic about Axiom Telecom’s potential to prosper as a virtual operator. The company certainly appears to have some early advantages, not least an existing retail presence in Saudi Arabia that includes 120 branches and selling points, as well as 4,000 indirect sales channels — 2,000 of which are dealt with through direct distribution.
Furthermore, with the experience gleaned from its combined retail and distribution network in the region, Al Bannai believes that Axiom has a keen understanding of the needs of mobile customers.
“Looking at the market we have run numerous customer engagement services. We have the advantage of having our shops so we interact on a daily basis with a lot of customers,” Al Bannai says. “These customer inputs are definitely going to improve our customer service proposition.”
He adds that even when expanding in other areas, such as micro distribution, the company has focused on offering a differentiated service, and this is something that Al Bannai hopes to achieve with the MVNO. “Even though there is a good size market in the channels we launch in, we can’t rely on that. We have to rely on being differentiated from the others; offering an extra value added service that would make the customer say, ‘I would like to take this product from Axiom because they are doing it in a different way or they are giving me something different’, and we intend to continue that in the telco industry.”
As Al Bannai points out, when a regulator gives the go-ahead for MVNOs to launch in a market, the primary reason is to cater to segments of the population that may have been overlooked by the main operators and improve customer service. Certainly Al Bannai’s perception of the role of MVNOs could offer a few clues as to what Axiom’s aims will be when it enters the market as a virtual operator. “The name of the game for us is we need to come in and change the tone of the market and change how things are done, so we definitely will not plan to come in and be one of the others, we want to add our flavour to the game and add a unique layer of differentiation and customer experience,” he says. “We know it’s a high bar to cross but at the same time we think we can bring new levels of innovation to the telco industry with an Axiom flavour and hopefully the market will get to experience that soon,” Al Bannai adds.
In terms of the launch date, Al Bannai says that he would prefer the actual date to “stay a surprise”. “We would like to launch at the earliest possible while making sure that we launch with the right proposition for the market,” he says. “At the end of the day it is not about when you launch, it is about making sure you launch with enough juice in your proposition to the market. We are trying to balance an as-fast-as-possible launch with making sure there is an interesting proposition to the market.”
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