Data push

Mobily CEO Khalid Al-Kaf spoke to CommsMEA at last month's MECOM conference in the UAE about the KSA operator's plans to capitalise on the high demand for mobile broadband

Tags: Etihad Etisalat CompanySaudi Arabia
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Data push Al-Kaf insists operators must collaborate with developers to win. (Khaled Termanini/ITP Images)
By  George Bevir Published  June 7, 2009 Communications Middle East & Africa Logo

Mobile operator trade body the GSM Association recently branded KSA operator Mobily's network as "the busiest mobile data network on the planet".

The CEO, Khalid Al-Kaf, says the operator now has half a million people using Mobily's mobile broadband network, with 30 terabytes of data passing through its pipes and base stations every day.

"That is huge, compared to any operator in the world," Al-Kaf says. "That tells you how people are driving this mobile broadband. We have to leverage on that and we have to build services and products around that."

He says that Mobily can capitalise on the surge in interest in mobile broadband. "We know more information about customer's behaviour; we know where they are and we know what they want, so we can deliver services on the fly. We can build value around this."

Al-Kaf explains that each customer's usage pattern is unique, which makes it possible to identify what kind of products and services they are likely to be interested in. Value added services can then be developed for specific segments of the market.

Although operators will be in control of the information about the user and in charge of accessing that information, Al-Kaf says it will not be the telecom operators that will be able to develop such a massive number of services.

"Operators should be partnering with developers. They should set up an open platform inviting developers to use the contextual information to develop services, and then partner with them to share the revenue. This is a completely different business model than that which is traditionally used by the mobile industry. But it will be important for the mobile operator because of the high usage of mobile broadband services," he says.

Double data

Although Apple's share of the mobile device market is still small, the impact of its iPhone on the mobile sector has been significant. The touchscreen device prompted all major handset manufacturers to release similar, internet-friendly handsets with large touchscreens. And operators who signed deals with Apple to stock the handsets have reported an increase in mobile internet usage among iPhone users.

According to Al-Kaf, its effect on customer behaviour in KSA has been immense.

"It's a completely different behaviour and usage pattern. iPhone data usage is almost double of the normal data usage," he says. In particular, the iPhone has helped Mobily to addresses KSA's large youth segment, partly through the platform Apple uses for application downloads.

Al-Kaf will not predict how many customers will be using the network this time next year, but he says that uptake is "exponential". And he admits that although such interest provides opportunities, it also presents some considerable obstacles, and he describes the strain on the network as "a challenge".

"We are approaching it by installing a huge fibre network in KSA, and a fibre network that will also connect us to the rest of the world," he says. "And we have a huge metropolitan network connecting all our base stations. We are providing another umbrella of connectivity with a WiMAX network for the condensed areas, and we are doing that in multiple phases of fibres, and resolving the issue of the backhaul and actually enhancing our access network of HSUPA."

He adds that HSDPA+ will be launched "soon", and that a trial for the fourth generation technology LTE is taking place with a live commercial trial to take place by the beginning of next year.

Al-Kaf claims that the KSA has so far been utterly immune from the effects of the economic slowdown that has seen many operators around the world report lower than expected usage of their networks. Precautions have been taken, Al-Kaf says, but he fully expects subscriber numbers and usage to continue to grow.

When asked what needs to be done in order to catch market leader and incumbent STC, Al-Kaf says the aim of the company is not just to amass the most subscribers.

"It's not an issue about number one. We want to have our finger prints in changing the mobile arena by itself in the region, the behaviour of the customer, the brand concept of it, the communication of it, and the services. We want to be a trend creator in the region."

Porting problems

Mobily has asked the telecom regulator in Saudi Arabia to step in to resolve the "technical issues" that are slowing down the porting process that allows mobile users to switch operators while hanging on to their mobile number.

"We are in continuous communication with the regulator in order to resolve it permanently and have smooth mobile number portability (MNP) implemented between all operators," Mobily CEO Khalid Al-Kaf says.

"At the moment, people are able to port, but it is a very slow process.

"We have thousands of complaints coming in to us communicating a delay in the process. [STC] claims that it is a technical issue. I think the regulator has to step in, in order to resolve it."

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