Forging ahead

The Arab Advisors' Conference brought together the top telecom executives in the Arab world to discuss the defining issues surrounding the industry today.
Forging ahead
By Administrator
Thu 17 Jul 2008 04:00 AM

The Arab Advisors' Conference brought together the top telecom executives in the Arab world to discuss the defining issues surrounding the industry today.

With multiple operators, a laissez-faire regulator and pro-liberal sensibilities, Jordan's mobile sector has been allowed to flourish into a low-cost, ultra-competitive landscape. The international brands of Orange and Zain have been reaping the rewards, while Batelco's Umniah enjoys its share of the market.

It is a good stomping ground for operators, content providers and infrastructure giants. And this is also where one of the region's most respected analyst groups resides - the Arab Advisors Group.

The equity of the telephone call plays to compensate for a lack in infrastructure to a big degree, hence people are willing to pay a bigger percentage of their disposable income on their telephone calls.” Saad Al-Barrak

Every year, Arab Advisors gathers the top brass from the industry to discuss pertinent challenges and issues facing their businesses. This year's 5th Annual Media & Telecommunications Convergence Conference stuck to its billing - with rigorous talk about convergence and new threats the industry faces.

From the outset, the conference made clear that the Middle East and Africa region has its own unique challenges. With the MENA region covering such a wide and diverse geographical area, including many politically turbulent countries, as well as areas with high levels of low-income households, the meaningful deployment of communications infrastructure is problematic. This doesn't just mean telecom base stations and other equipment directly related to telecoms; it also includes proper tarmac roads, which are essential for any company to set up shop and work effectively.

"If you come to the emerging world, we suffer from a lack of infrastructure," says Zain Group CEO Saad Al-Barrak, in a colourful keynote address. "If you look at countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, with a population approaching 70 million people and [spread over] a huge area. The total amount of constructed roads is no more than 5km - so you can see how difficult it is to operate in such areas," he added.

Essential device

But, he continued, where the region lacks in infrastructure, the equity of a traditional voice calls is much higher. Many people who don't have access to banks or basic services see their mobile phone as an important and must-have tool - arguably more than any citizen in a developed country.

"The equity of the telephone call plays to compensate for a lack in infrastructure to a big degree, hence people are willing to pay a bigger percentage of their disposable income on their telephone calls," Al-Barrak says.

He argued that this was one of two fallacies in which industry perception and forecasting for this region have been based on. The other is that the size of the addressable market has been grossly underestimated. With populations in the MEA region experiencing huge growth, while their Western counterparts experience stagnation - there is a real drive to look more earnestly at the youth segment in emerging markets with fast growing, young populations.

Bo Erik-Dahlstrom, head of the market unit, Ericsson Middle East & Africa, sounded out the importance of this demographic, referring to them as ‘digital natives'. "These are people born after the 1980s," he explains. "As opposed to people like myself, ‘digital natives' are more into using the Internet, digital technology and network technology. For them, it is not only a technical capability - it is how they work and interact with friends," he said.

Indeed, for Erik-Dahlstrom, these people are primary users of technology, and a therefore the greatest contributors to ARPU, whether it's on broadband, mobile or TV. According to Dahlstrom, a typical user is 21 years old, has exchanged 250,000 emails and messages, either instant messaging or SMS, played about 5,000 hours of video games and racked up 3,500 hours of social online networking.

To be able to capture this type of end-user holds the key to success at large.

Fighting off the competition

Another recurring theme discussed at the event was the idea that the convergence of telecoms, broadcast technologies and the internet is opening the door to new entrants and more competition. Telecom operators will have to revise their strategy in order to fend off these new players. Internet companies such as Google, YouTube and Facebook are the names that will strike fear into any traditional telco's mind.

"For these new players, advertising is the main source of their revenue. They are giving away content for free, and yes they are attracting more people to their sites, because their revenue is based on how many people they attract. This is extremely dangerous for an operator," Dahlstrom warns.

But operators know they're greatest asset is their customer bases, and the information they keep about them. "For the operators, vendors and network providers there is a lot of competence and knowledge about the end-user," Dahlstrom adds.Ross Cormack, CEO of the Omani operator, Nawras, agrees. "We have presence, we know what people are purchasing over their mobiles. We can aggregate a tremendous amount of information. I do agree that there is a tremendous competition for advertising, but actually our business isn't there yet," Cormack says.

Content is also key to retaining customers and gaining new traction in an increasingly slippery marketplace. Aggregators like MBC are trumpeting their expertise, saying operators need to outsource this segment to content providers, given their experience in this field. For the user, brands can play a significant role.

"The brand, particularly in the Middle East, comes as a mark of quality, a stamp of security," said Sam Barnet, COO, MBC. "People want to know that they can watch content with their families without being exposed to some of the more extreme channels that are on Arabsat, Nilesat and Eutelsat. Branding is the way forward in the Arab world."

As opposed to people like myself, ‘digital natives’ are more into using the Internet, digital technology and network technology. For them, it is not only a technical capability – it is how they work and interact with friends.” Bo-Erik Dahlstrom

Telecom co-operators

From an operators' perspective, it is important that they can learn to co-exist with other parts of the wider sector, including content providers. While this may not appear easy, it is a must given that most operators face the threat of falling ARPUs and increasing competition. Operators that develop strategies to co-exist with content providers are more likely to be able to concentrate more on core operations. It is a challenge that Peter Kaliaropoulos, CEO of Bahrain's Batelco is familiar with.

"We are still struggling to deliver base stations on time and on budget, let alone playing a game that we don't understand very well," he said. "We don't really understand how to create a package and deliver content very well. We need to coexist - we are part of the same ecosystem. We need to make our customers more loyal to us, where it has to go through other doors.

We need a partner whose core business is content creation to help us answer the very question of what content can we deliver. We need the capability to keep generating new content to keep our customers interested," he added.

According to Kaliaropoulos, an operator embarking on a strategy of content creation is taking a "big gamble". "A small telco may try to create scale to catch up with the big guys so that they can leverage that customer base. There is a question in terms of when: do we want to be leading edge and maybe risk a lot of investment, or do we really want to focus on taking content from a range of providers and deliver it as quickly as we can," he explains.

"We need to work out how to get the right returns from a business model. In my opinion, there is a compelling case for cooperating with people who understand the content game. We then leverage our relationship with customers; we know customers and we can create the virtual shopping mall," he said.

Content challenge

Others aren't so agreeable; Mickael Ghossein, CEO, Jordan Telecom Group, said content providers need to keep up with the fast-moving trends, or give up. "Media companies need to work fast for the operators, otherwise the operators will decide to create their own business space," he warned.

But what is certain is that the path ahead is uncharted - and operators need to address their strategy. Osman Sultan, CEO, du, said operators need to lean less on the equity of voice calls and concentrate more on so called "new wave revenues".

"Today, it's not obvious where the money is going to come from," Sultan says. "Telco operators lived for decades with the time and distance - you talk more, you pay more. These two parameters are now shifting radically; the monetising coming from voice is becoming more and more a question mark.

"We're moving from what I call the unshared certainties, to the shared uncertainties. The good news is that everyone feels like they have to share, but the bad news is that there are still a lot of question marks in what we have to share," he said.

Power of televisionAlong with mobile telephony, television is a another growing force. With broadband technologies becoming more commonplace, TV is set to evolve into a more interactive affair. There are many new ways of viewing television content. In the U.S., the scriptwriters' strike that took many primetime shows like Lost and Heroes off the air last year turned viewers to the Internet to satisfy their appetite for content.

Elsewhere, personal video recorders (PVRs) is another option, giving consumers premium, customisable options. But PVRs are not prevalent in the GCC. "In the U.S. 86% of people are still watching TV on a normal video format. In most markets, what's pushing this new technology is the pay-TV operators.

In the Middle East, the pay-TV market is fairly small, with less than 2 million subscribers out of the total population," explains Sam Barnet, COO, MBC. "Only a few thousand have got the Showbox, which is the only set-top box that is still around in a non-linear format. So I think people will continue to watch linear TV for a long time," he continues.

Jawad Abbassi, founder and CEO, Arab Advisors Group, highlighted the prevalence of free-to-air (FTA) channels. "The boom continues in FTA satellite channels; by the last count in August 2007, we had 770 channels added, broadcasting on Nilesat and Arabsat systems. Eighty channels have been added in the last month," he says.

But there is a reluctance to fork out for premium content, highlighted by the level of piracy. In Egypt, 43% of households have pay-TV, says Abbassi, and three in four households get it from their neighbourhood satellite pirate. With piracy rampant, pay-TV faces prolonged difficulty in the region.

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