By Sarah Townsend
Managing director said the UAE's newest mobile brand aims to develop value-added services 'better than Skype'
The UAE’s third mobile brand – the youthful Virgin Mobile UAE – has long-term plans to disrupt the telecoms industry with products including its own versions of WhatsApp, Skype and other ‘over-the-top’ (OTT) services, its managing director has hinted.
Karim Benkirane, managing director of Virgin Mobile UAE, told Arabian Business that the business was best described as a research and development unit of Du owner Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company (EITC), and would aim to constantly innovate to improve services to customers.
“This is our model. We are an innovation lab,” he said. “If we get feedback from our customers that something is high priority, then whatever the need we will plug it into our roadmap and develop it for them.”
Asked for examples of new products, Benkirane said: “We don’t have a clear idea of what’s next, but for sure, value-added services could be a lot of things. It could be content, it could be VoIP [voice-over-internet-protocol] services, it could be a lot of stuff.”
He said the company would go beyond developing its own version of Skype, for example, and seek to corner the market with new, as-yet-untested products.
“We can do better than Skype,” he said. “If the feature or any other value-added service would make our customers happy and stay with Virgin, we will do our best to create it.”
Traditional telecoms operators have long been concerned that companies offering OTT or VoIP services, such as Whatsapp, Viber, Skype and Messenger, are ‘cannibalising’ data networks by using telcos’ infrastructure to turn a profit for free.
In the UAE, state telcos Du and Etisalat have blocked many of these services from mobile networks, including Messenger’s video chat and WhatsApp’s Calling.
However, Benkirane suggested Du’s owner may be willing to introduce similar services to its network in time. “At EITC level, the aim is to bring new innovations and features through Virgin Mobile UAE, whatever those value-added services may be. We will listen to the market,” he said.
Virgin Mobile UAE launched this month as the country’s third mobile brand, operating as a subsidiary service provider of EITC under licence from Virgin Mobile Middle East and Africa.
Benkirane was hired by EITC in January to head up the new division, while Virgin Mobile continues to have an office in Dubai to oversee the company’s broader regional operations.
Virgin Mobile is targeting millennials with a fully digital service based on an app available to download on Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store.
The app – the first of its kind globally – enables customers to handpick their own mobile number, build a customised 30-day mobile plan and cancel it at any time, scan their ID and have their SIM card delivered anywhere in the UAE within an hour, the company claims.
Customers can also use the app to track their data and minutes usage in real time and set up monthly spend limits. The subscription-based model means that there is no need for a contract, giving customers the flexibility to decide how they want to manage their mobile usage.
EITC CEO Osman Sultan said: “We believe Virgin Mobile’s fully digital offering is ushering a new era in connectivity and customer-led service never seen before in the UAE.”
In an interview with Arabian Business at the unit’s office in Dubai Design District (D3), Benkirane added: “This is really big news for the industry. Virgin Mobile UAE is bringing to the market something completely different from what is here already – not only at UAE level but worldwide.”
He said Virgin Mobile and EITC had chosen the UAE to launch an app-based mobile provider because of the country’s reputation for testing out new things, epitomised in the UAE’s 2021 Innovation Strategy.
Virgin Mobile UAE has 100 staff at the D3 office, in addition to outsourced service providers for delivery and customer services, and a “dream to make this app the best app in the world”, Benkirane said.
As soon as a customer downloads the app and signs up, the delivery team brings the sim card to wherever the customer is – a beach, restaurant, office or home (“We have stories of delivering to someone in the swimming pool or the middle of the desert”, Benkirane said) within an hour, which is a constant challenge for the company’s technology systems. “It was just one click for you but it is thousands of clicks in the system.”
However, the app gives customers unrivalled flexibility, including to choose their own six-digit number – “In the GCC people love numbers, numbers mean a lot to them” – and design the most cost-effective subscription based on various combinations of minutes and data.
Benkirane said: “The plan has a 30-day cycle so you can choose to change it next week and we’ll update the plan by the end of the cycle. This flexibility and simplicity via a digital format will make a huge difference to [customer satisfaction] and this is all without a contract.
“We believe that if the customer is satisfied and happy, that is the best contract.”
He said Virgin Mobile UAE is a niche product aimed at millennials and other smartphone users, and that it would make money purely by traditional voice and data telecoms services, not through other channels such as third party advertising on the app.
“We are a small organisation – let’s say, an innovation lab – and we are not targeting the mass market or offering corporate payment plans and so on,” he said.
EITC could therefore choose to launch other business units in due course to target different segments of the market – and further expand its reach within the fast-shifting Gulf telecoms industry.
How much does Virgin Mobile UAE cost?
1) Virgin Mobile UAE: Cheapest plan is AED79 for 50 minutes and 1GB (gigabyte) of data. Most expensive is AED365 for 300 minutes local, 200 minutes international, and 7GB of data. Each category is adjustable and the business is offering a one-month free trial.
2) Du: Offers pre-paid bundles starting from AED25 per month, with 35 minutes and unlimited use of wifi-enabled chat services such as WhatsApp. There is the option to add a 1GB data bundle for AED100 per month. Cheapest post-paid is AED150 per month on a two-year contract, with 6GB of data and 300 minutes.
3) Etisalat: Offers a post-paid monthly plan with no contract for AED50 with 100MB and 50 minutes. A pre-paid bundle of 3GB costs AED149 per month. Cheapest contract is AED150 per month for two years with 6GB and 300 minutes.