Change makers

Grahame Maher, CEO of Vodafone Qatar tells CommMEA about the company's progress towards a full launch and possible models for a fixed-line operation.

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By  Roger Field Published  June 8, 2009

Grahame Maher, CEO of Vodafone Qatar tells CommMEA about the company's progress towards a full launch and possible models for a fixed-line operation.

Being the first private telecom operator to enter a former telecoms monopoly is seldom easy.

Apart from raising brand awareness and gaining the trust of a population accustomed to one operator, the second operator all too often has to contend with a far bigger, better established rival averse to the idea of a newer player bringing change to the market.

Grahame Maher, CEO of Qatar's second telecom operator, which is busy preparing for the full commercial launch of its mobile network, is familiar with the challenges. Speaking on the sidelines the Mecom exhibition, Maher was keen to stress the progress that Vodafone Qatar, which is currently testing its network with more than 1000 users, has already made in Qatar.

Certainly the company has made strong progress in recent months. At the start of May, the company announced that its QAR3.38 billion ($928.6 million) initial public offering had been fully subscribed, making it the second-largest IPO ever in the Gulf.

The company has also achieved 98% coverage by population and is now serving an initial 1000 customers, and recently invited shareholders to take a subscription.

"We're going in stages," Maher says of the launch. "The next stage will be more online and it will be a broadening up beyond shareholders. Feedback from the first 1000 has been extremely strong."

Despite this, the company still faces problems indoors, where it has yet to set up infrastructure to cater to people in buildings such as large offices and shopping malls. There are also a few gaps in the network between cities, Maher says. "I think it will take another year before we get the coverage like we want it to be."

Vodafone Qatar had hoped to share its rival's indoor infrastructure, but as with previous attempts to share outdoor cell towers, the plans have gone awry, with Maher accusing Qtel of moving too slowly.

Network share

For Maher, the idea of network sharing is a no-brainer. It is something that Vodafone does in many of the countries it operates in, but Maher is not surprised that his plans have faced resistance.

"It is stupid not to do it. It is definitely the incumbent trying to delay someone coming in - which is allowed and is common - I am not complaining but the only reason not to do it is to delay us.

"It's normal and in every other country in the world I've been in, the second player doesn't get it [to share the incumbent's infrastructure] either. It's usually the third or the fourth, when the other operators decide to share infrastructure."

Instead, Vodafone Qatar will deploy its own infrastructure, including femtocells and picocells to establish indoor coverage, although Maher admits this could be costly, with the landlords of many buildings likely to charge the company to carry out the necessary work. "It wastes money in the meantime which could actually be given back to customers," he says.

Vodafone Qatar, which aims to gain a 40% market share in Qatar within 10 years, intends to place a firm focus on service. Maher stresses that running a successful mobile network is not about the technology but "services, services and services."

"Our future is to be a customer service provider. It could be the quality of customer service. It could be bringing in international services such as mobile internet applications

"Other services could be the network services, mobile internet services combined with fixed, this whole concept of WiFi and VoIP combined with cellular. It's about customer services, services that are delivered on the network, and then network services."

In terms of developing services that are tailored for Qatar's population, Maher is adamant that Vodafone Qatar will listen to its customers and remain focused on the country's needs, rather than attempting to "force the world into one shape".

He adds that the company will create products and services and develop the Vodafone brand in a way that is sensitive to Qatari culture, and also tailored for the diverse population of the country.

And for Maher, the experience of establishing Vodafone in Qatar is also likely to bring value to the group beyond the revenues and profits generated by the company. "This is about the Middle East and Qatar.

"We see our entry into Qatar as an opportunity to do many things. Countries like the UAE and Qatar can be the new Singapore's and lead the industry," he says.

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