Calling All Customers

Last year’s Gitex was packed with companies extolling the virtues of mobile and wireless technologies. Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) was unveiled by Etisalat as the latest and greatest in mobile technology, but it has so far failed to make any real impact in the region. Hampered by ease of use issues, the service has failed to ignite the demand it had hoped for.

  • E-Mail
By  Zoe Moleshead Published  September 26, 2001

Mobile movers|~||~||~|Last year’s Gitex was packed with companies extolling the virtues of mobile and wireless technologies. Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) was unveiled by Etisalat as the latest and greatest in mobile technology, but it has so far failed to make any real impact in the region. Hampered by ease of use issues, the service has failed to ignite the demand it had hoped for, and nor has it assumed the role of a vital business tool.

Although (short message service) SMS messaging has begun to establish itself in the region, it is still underused in comparison to Europe and other parts of the world. With this year’s Gitex expected to showcase General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), developers and analysts alike are anticipating that mobile services may finally be able to establish themselves in the market.

Overall mobile phone penetration for the region is still languishing at a lowly 7.4% according to the Arab Advisors Group, but this is still higher than both PC and Internet penetration, suggesting that the mobile phone offers a more direct and effective channel for both targeting customers and servicing them.

“The mobile phone provides an effective delivery channel — it’s available all the time and it’s immediate. If you target customers through other channels you are not sure when they are likely to see the message,” says Simon Clements, National Bank of Kuwait’s (NBK) general manager, e-business group.

NBK has proved to be one of the region’s foremost innovators when it comes to adopting m-technology. The bank introduced an SMS service in June last year and has already signed up 12,000 subscribers.

“Customers can select from an array of message types including account balance, credit card balance, [and] credit of incoming funds. We also use it to send alerts regarding overdrafts, loan repayments and deposit maturities,” says Clements.

The SMS service, however, is strictly a ‘push’ service, meaning that once users have received the information they can’t automatically do anything with the message information.

However, following the launch of its WAP services in March this year, NBK is investigating the possibility of integrating its SMS and WAP services.

“One of the things we’re looking is the integration of SMS and WAP, so that when you get a message, you press a button and you get routed into the WAP applications. Customers can then actually do something with that information,” adds Clements.

NBK is not alone in the banking and financial sector when it comes to recognising the potential of mobile services. Emirates Bank Group (EBG) introduced its BankGSM service nearly two years ago. Again, a push SMS service it notifies subscribers with details of account movements and transactions.

Mohammed Al Jallaf, senior manager of electronic banking at EBG, says its mobile services are part of a customer relationship management (CRM) strategy aimed at satisfying and maintaining customers, while staying ahead of the competition.

“In this highly competitive market, the pressure to retain customers and attract new ones is [always] increasing. The only way to ensure you maintain customers and attract new ones is to adopt a CRM strategy. CRM correlates with BankGSM and other ongoing [EBG] services to provide better customer service and increase market share,” he comments.

||**||Dubai Police|~||~||~|Sheikh Mohammed’s e-government initiative is also providing the impetus for Dubai’s government departments to deploy both Internet and mobile services.

The Department of Health and Medical Services (DOHMS) is currently in the middle of an ongoing implementation of a hospital information management system. The project team — a combination of people from solution provider Al Babtain Trading and DOHMS — is examining the benefits of mobile services in enhancing patient care. SMS appointment reminders are one example of how DOHMS is looking to utilise mobile services, and minimise wasted time and staff resources.

Dubai Police has already m-enabled its officers with WAP phones. The department, working in conjunction with local wireless application developer, has delivered a range of ‘push and pull’ SMS services. The service received over 1200 subscriptions in the initial weeks of service.

The SMS services distribute information for both the Police and the general public. Police officers are able to send an SMS containing a car number plate, and will receive information regarding the owner. Officers are also able to access information on the criminal investigations division’s (CID) servers regarding stolen cars, missing persons and wanted people.

At the same time the public can subscribe to services online at the Dubai Police web site, and receive traffic information. “If there is a traffic jam, we can SMS you, and tell you there is traffic, so you can use another road,” says Captain Ahmed Bin Subaih, head of specialised section, Dubai Police. “There is also an SMS service for any new traffic violations.”

According to Ducont’s managing director and CEO, Ivan Fernandes, the SMS push service is proving a huge success averaging 2500-3000 messages a day. The ISV is also working with Dubai Police to develop applications for PDAs. The use of PDAs should overcome one of the main problems with regard to mobile phones — the small screens and limited content capacity. The applications installed on the PDAs will eventually enable officers to fill out forms, and even take digital pictures and transmit them to the operations centre.

“The devices that we provide to them also have digital cameras, so they can go into a site and enter photographs. But currently they cannot transmit them over the air because the GSM bandwidth is [too] small, but we are seeing whether this could be done online with GPRS,” explains Ducont’s CEO.

||**||WAP problems|~||~||~|Although Dubai Police department has found benefits in WAP services, a year on from its launch WAP is still struggling to establish itself in the mobile arena. Bandwidth limitations combined with the cost of mobile surfing is one factor. However, small screens, limited content capacity, and the difficulties of configuration are arguably more significant stumbling blocks to WAP deployment.

WAP services have remained largely within the corporate arena, with services developed specifically for businesses or industries. Surfing the Web using a mobile phone is simply inefficient and impractical.

“On a case-by-case basis for the application side [WAP] has been fine, but if your talking general for the basic [web] content — no,” explains Ducont’s Fernandes. “I don’t expect people [to be] logging into the phones every morning and reading the news on WAP. But if I want to do a secure transaction on the move and don’t have access to the Internet, then one of the best options is WAP.”

WAP’s use has remained restricted, proving successful only with simple information delivery Info2Cell, has been developing its mobile services with a more consumer-centric approach. The mobile information service provider has established links with five of the region’s GSM operators, including Jordan’s Fastlink and Egypt’s Mobinil.

“We have a 24 x 7 operation,” says Info2Cell’s CEO Bashar Dahabra speaking of the company’s hosting facility at Dubai Internet City. “We provide 250 categories of content ranging from breaking news, trivia, crime, jokes to horoscopes.”

Users can customise their services to suit their individual requirements using four channels, SMS, WAP, VOXML — audio text-based systems — and the Internet.

Although, according to Dahabara, mobile services are only attracting 3-5% of the overall telecom operator subscription base, he remains confident the mobile phone will become a necessary and indispensable tool in daily life.

“The [mobile phone] is going to be a way of communication and performing basic logistical things during your daily life — you might activate your car with it, you might pay your bills with it, you might communicate with it, and you might do your work with it,” Dahabra claims.

Although Dahabra predicts a great future for the mobile services market, according to most companies and developers the key to current success is the value add proposition of services. The 24 x 7 nature of mobile phones combined with the ability to access users in any location are obvious. But services must have real-time value if customers are to gain benefits and subscribe to services.

“You have to have a decent value proposition for the customer to want to use it,” explains NBK’s Clements. “This is where you see applications that provide information that has a real-time value. Equity prices are an obvious one. It’s a lot better for me to give you an alert on a share price over your mobile phone that you can receive anytime, anywhere, than me putting it on a PC or an Internet PC-based application. It’s the ability of the consumer to receive the information anywhere at anytime that provides the value.”

||**||Future Plans|~||~||~|The most successful value-add mobile services appear to have been restricted to the business segment. Developers suggest the next wave of mobile services will bring success for location-based services. “The next range of services will be a lot to do with location-based services, for [people like] tourists, which are roaming customers connected to the local mobile network,” says Fernandes.

Ducont is developing a range of services for this target market, encompassing information such as car rentals, hotel offers, and restaurants.

However, the high cost of roaming services for Gulf residents in the region must be reduced or addressed if location-based services for tourists are to provide and viable and cost-sensitive solution for subscribers.

If mobile services are to witness significant development and growth in the region, certain constraints also need to be overcome. One of the prime drivers for development is a healthy sense of competition, pushing companies to excel and expand their offerings. While the customers benefits from greater choice and competitive prices.

“When there is competition, innovation drives. When there is no competition you often lose the drive to be the first,” says Ducont’s Fernandes.

The monopolistic nature of the region’s telecoms are also guilty of hindering the development, and acceptance of mobile services. For them, mobile services offer no great impetus for investment, and they have no real interest in content provision.

“All these telecoms are monopolistic, secondly they are all cash rich, by doing [something that] will gain an extra 10% margin, it makes no difference to them in their bottom line today,” continues Fernandes.

This is a view shared by Mansour Mansour, CEO of Javna wireless software solutions, who believes that for mobile phone penetration and services to grow the region’s telecoms must undergo some form of deregulation or privitisation.

“As the threat of competition increases due to deregulation and privatisation, carriers are faced with the challenges of reducing churn, driving usage volumes, creating new services and preserving long-term investment,” explains Mansour.

Mobile services are also still in the first-generation of development and deployment, but with GPRS and 3G technologies in the pipeline, much-needed improvements to mobile technologies and services are set to be addressed.

GPRS will boost data capabilities from the current 9.6 kbits/s to 56 kbits/s, offering faster and more cost effective access. “GPRS uses packet switching [and] you will be charged for the volume of data you transmit or receive, very much like the Internet, whereas WAP or GSM is basically on air time, so whether I access data or not I’m charged as long as I am connected,” explains Ducont’s Ivan Fernandes.

With the launch of GPRS, more sophisticated services can be opened up to the customer, but the ultimate key to success still remains in the value of the content to the customer.

“Ultimately GSM and GPRS are just the underlying technologies on which to build applications. What you ultimately sell will be applications not technology,” concludes Fernandes.

||**||DOHMS plans SMS appointment reminders|~||~||~|Government departments in Dubai have been quick to recognise the benefits of mobile services in recent months. The police department has already begun using SMS messaging to target wanted cars and suspects and has plans in the pipeline to integrate PDAs into the policing process. The civil aviation department enables mobile phone users to check the status of flights using SMS messaging. Users can send an SMS message to a particular number specifying the flight number, and a SMS message is returned to them providing details on either the arrival or departure of the flight.

The Department of Health & Medical Services (DOHMS) is also investigating the benefits of SMS messaging for patient care. As part of its Dhs 33 million hospital management information solution, the department is planning to provide patients with an SMS service, reminding them of appointment details and health card renewals.

“Currently we are focusing on how we communicate with our patients,” says Sina Khoory, director of the IT department at DOHMS. “We are concentrating on communicating to patients a reminder of appointments, [such as] ‘you have an appointment tomorrow at this time and in this location’. We are finding various channels for this type of communication, fax, e-mail, and in addition to that an SMS message through the GSM telephone.”

Users will be able to subscribe to this service through the department web site and also by registering for the services at their hospital or community health centre. For online registration users will be asked “to enter simple information that is printed on their health card,” explains Khoory. Users will then be sent a user name and to log into the system with. Then they can opt for their preferred method of communication.

The introduction of the SMS solution aims to reduce the number of ‘no show’ appointments and utilise the time and medical staff resources more effectively.

According to Khoory, the percentage of ‘no shows’ for clinics and hospitals can reach as much as 20-30% of all appointments.

“We have certain specialist clinics, which are very expensive, and allocate 50 appointments a day. Out of that 50, [if] 20 or 30 people do not show up to their appointment we are wasting the resources of that clinic,” comments DOHMS’ IT director.

The SMS service is slated for introduction in the first quarter of 2002, but first certain details need to be ironed out before completion of the services, one of which is the charges of the SMS services to the department.

“Etisalat charges a good amount for every message that we send, and every day we have about 6000 patients with appointments visiting DOHMS,” says Khoory, explaining the budget constraints of such a service.

However, Khoory is hoping that once the technical issues, including improved communication links with Etisalat and an SMS server in the department itself, have been finalised, DOHMS can come to an arrangement with the UAE’s PTT “to either reduce the charges or find a different way of charging the department of health.”

One of the other key issues for DOHMS regarding any type of mobile or Internet service is patient confidentiality. “Before taking any service online we have to survey our customers — the public — about whether certain services would be a benefit or not, whether confidentiality is a concern and so on,” adds Khoory.

Once the SMS solution, developed by Al Babtain Trading, the distributor for Siemens Medical Service (SMS) in the region, is up and running DOHMS will also have a better idea of patient response and uptake, and therefore enable it to consider the next stage of development for mobile services.

||**||Low mobile phone penetration stifles services growth|~||~||~|The low mobile phone penetration rates in the Middle East region mean businesses and operators are missing out on a key marketing channel, particularly in relation to SMS messaging.

According to figures from the Arab Advisors Group, the UAE and Bahrain have relatively high phone penetration rates, 52.59% and 31.21% respectively. But large markets such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia are languishing well behind with rates of 4.39% and 8.78%. Though these figures take into account population size, in both countries the penetration is still quite low.

The slow uptake of mobile phones also means that mobile services have been limited within the region. Even though the UAE has a large number of subscribers, users have remained quite basic in their use of the mobile.

“Although the UAE has nearly 2 million subscribers they are still voice more than data,” explains Ivan Fernandes, managing director and CEO, “Their usage of data is still very low, the average number of messages is in the range of three to five SMS per month.”

Ducont is aiming for users to up their text messaging to a range eight to 10 messages a month, which Fernandes reveals will “generate a million messages a month, just with our applications.”

The Arab Advisors Group also believes the region’s limited SMS messaging is ignoring a simple way to target customers and improve services. “SMS-based services do not require any substantial infrastructure deployment since the operators already offer the service,” states a report by the group. “Furthermore, the existing handset base is already SMS-enabled, which gives SMS an immediate edge over other services like WAP.”

Although many countries in the region are striving to develop GSM lines, the rush to mobilise shouldn’t be at the cost of service support. Ensuring the correct infrastructure is in place is essential to provide quality mobile services. “Saudi is literally adding a million GSM lines every year, and they are trying to manage it. To install a million GSM lines is an amazing engineering feat in a country like Saudi Arabia, as is trying to provide coverage and manage the expectations of the subscribers,” says Bashar Dahabra, CEO of Info2Cell.

The introduction of GPRS should provide a more stable platform for WAP services. With many countries still to introduce pre-paid service there remain untapped markets, which will fuel the mobile phone penetration rates in the region, and with it improve the quality and range of mobile services.


Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code