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Mon 4 Jan 2010 04:00 AM

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Show of strength

Value-added services are high on the agenda as Qtel focuses on consolidating its position as a telecoms powerhouse in the region.

Show of strength
Dr Nasser Marafih says Qtel will focus on value and data in 2010.

Value-added services are high on the agenda as Qtel focuses on consolidating its position as a telecoms powerhouse in the region.

While many operators could be accused of stretching themselves too far during the past couple of years, Qtel is firmly among the group of regional incumbents that have managed to grow their businesses at a healthy pace, at home and overseas.

But for CEO Dr Nasser Marafih, plenty of work remains to be done. With a growing portfolio of operations abroad, including a mobile network in Palestine, a new fixed licence for Oman, and serious competition in its home market, there is no room for complacency.

After Qtel's expansion in markets including Tunisia, where it now holds the number one spot after doubling its customer base, and heavy investments in Algeria and Indonesia, a priority for 2010 will be consolidating and building on the achievements of the previous year.

"2009 has been a good year for us. A lot of people look at the financial crisis as a problem but we view it as an opportunity to strengthen our position in our markets.

"Our growth was very good in 2009. We have achieved almost 22% growth in revenue and 28% in profits in the first 9 months of 2009 and we expect to end the year on a positive note."

Marafih adds that international markets now account for over 75% of revenue, and this is likely to grow in the coming years, as the company continues to add subscribers in markets far bigger than Qatar.

Qtel has already gained 46% of the mobile market in Oman, and is now focusing on deploying a fixed network using a combination of fibre and WiMAX, with the intention of launching in 2010.

In Palestine, Qtel has already gained more than 70,000 subscribers after launching as the second mobile operator in the fourth quarter of 2009.

These investments, which were made when many other players across its geographical footprint were cutting back on investment, have given the company a significant advantage as it looks to 2010.

"Maybe some of the operators have shied away from putting in the investment and that was good for us because we were geared up to invest in those markets," Marafih says.

While 2009 might have been defined by rapid subscriber acquisition, Marafih says Qtel intends to focus increasingly on attracting higher value customers and services, and loyalty in 2010.

"It is important to have a good relationship with customers, but also to strengthen that by pushing value added services and bundled services wherever possible," he says.

Marafih adds that he sees data as a major opportunity in the coming years, not least because broadband penetration in most of the company's markets is relatively low. "Raising ARPU can be improved by pushing new services especially on data, where we believe there is a huge potential."

But one of the main challenges of increasing data services in the region is a lack of local content. "That has been a major challenge for the region, not only on the mobile side but also on the PC and internet side," he says.

"What customers want is data, applications and services that are available on line, so that people can do transactions on line. That is going to be key to encourage broadband to increase beyond the level it is at now," he says.

He points out that about 80% to 90% of the internet use in the region at the moment is to access content from countries outside the region.

"That is where the investment is going to be needed, and that is where we as an operator need to encourage third parties and content providers to support that, because that will support our business in the end," he says.

Key to content

Qtel already works with organisations such as Qatar Science and Technology Park and various universities to encourage the development of new content-based applications.

"In parallel we are talking to international content providers in the entertainment and internet space to find the right business model, because we believe we have over 50 million customers that could be available to be accessed by those content providers," Marafih says.

"Developing a business model that will be beneficial to both parties to deliver content is key." "Developing a business model that will beneficial to both parties to deliver content to the customer is key," he adds.

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