Local scout

Bashar Dahabra has been producing content relevant to the Arabic world and in Arabic for nine years, overseeing everything from servers to cartoons. Christopher Reynolds talks to the man behind one of the Middle East's leading content providers to discover the challenges and potential of providing compelling mobile-based content to the MENA region.

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By  Christopher Reynolds Published  February 1, 2007

Info2Cell's platform currently interconnects 28 mobile operators, totalling 85 million subscribers across the entire MENA region, and handles between 300,000 - 350,000 users across four major verticals at any given time. However, when the founder of Info2Cell Bashar Dahabra began operations in 1998 to address the growing demand for value added services in the MENA region, there was little structural support and a severe lack of solutions available to him in the market place. From overcoming operability issues with mobile networks to learning operator billing systems, to the production of the content itself, Dahabra, aided by a background in engineering, has built Info2Cell from the bottom up.

"It is like saying, if you want to start a magazine, you need to start with building the actual printer first, then write out the words. We just had a bunch of servers and we had to develop our own software and that is what we had to do, we developed everything from the bottom up," says Dahabra.

Today, Info2Cell is a 100% owned subsidiary of Italy's Alcotel Group and employs 75 people, 30 of whom focus purely on developing localised Arabic content. In the realm of B2B services the content provider works in conjunction with operators, launching co-branded - or operator branded - services powered by Info2Cell, comprising chiefly of SMS and MMS news alerts. In everything from business to consumer applications, Info2Cell works with multiple content providers, as well as in-house development teams, in order to supply consumers with games, ringtones and multimedia via its own WAP portal onto mobile devices.

Info2Cell has also expanded into providing third party infrastructure solutions, working with major news television content producers such as BBC, CNN, Associated Press and Al Arabiya, as a conduit to deliver content packages directly to mobile subscribers. Billing systems and interactive services is another area covered by Info2Cell's expanding portfolio, which has seen the company provide mobile interconnection to media companies to enable interactive elements to TV shows, and provide short codes for media entities ranging from radio stations to newspapers.

Although the Info2Cell's major market remains in Saudi Arabia, where a high average revenue per user and low average mobile subscriber age has allowed value added services to prosper, Info2Cell has its sights set on Africa and Dahabra is planning to capitalise on the growing potential he sees on the continent, by following major regional operators MTC and Etisalat's expansion there.

"Africa is a very important market for us. Etisalat and MTC are moving in there and we already provide services to these two operators today on a regional level, so it is only natural that we now follow the groups," says Dahabra.

In the Arab world Dahabra believes demand for 3G services will increase but only if a region specific content strategy is adopted. The adoption of multimedia mobility is not as dramatic here as it is in Europe or eastern Asia, where a considerable amount of users make use of mobile devices and content while commuting on public transport. "No one in this region is sitting bored on the way home. So you need to think out of the box, it is a totally different market place here," he says.

Although Info2Cell is currently pushing ahead with 3G based services, MMS and SMS are still the primary mediums for Info2Cell's content delivery, and Dahabra likes to keep an open mind about the parameters of this format.

"I don't know if many people actually appreciate it but MMS is essentially an envelope, in which you can put in what ever you like within the 100Kb file space limit. It could be anything, it could be a video clip; it could be a picture with a voice over; it could be an animated Gif and this is where the creativity component comes into play," he says.

Its parameters may be wide, but by far the most common usage for MMS in the MENA region remains the transmission of localised text-based news content, due, according to Dahabra, to regional political instability leading to growing customer demand for up-to-date reports. The two biggest service peaks in Info2Cell's history being September 11, 2001 and July 2006, following the Twin Towers attack in New York and the attack on Lebanon, respectively.

However, Dahabra points out that any news transmitted to the Arab world has to be relevant, regional and, most importantly, in Arabic. Despite the well educated and relatively prosperous demographic that constitutes the majority of Info2Cell's customer base, Dahabra says the vast majority of subscribers want their MMS and SMS in Arabic.

"You have to remember that this region is full of conflict and turmoil. So the killer application today is news. Everybody wants the breaking news and that is where most of the subscribers are going. They want news that concerns the Arab world, they want it quickly and they want it in Arabic: 90% of our content is consumed in Arabic," he reveals.

The overwhelming demand for localised Arabic content has created certain technical problems for Info2Cell as the coding of Arabic on mobile handsets uses double bytes; meaning an Arabic SMS can hold up to 70 characters as opposed to its Latin-based counterpart, which can handle up to 160. In order to circumvent this problem Dahabra has had to rely on concatenation, a technique that allows two messages to be glued together, allowing the character count of an Arabic SMS to reach 140. Handsets receiving concatenated messages need to be properly equipped otherwise the two messages would arrive separately and possibly in the wrong order.

"Thankfully most new handsets have concatenation, which is why we are launching concatenation with most of our services, and hence we have additional characters to address the news and alerts," says Dahabra.

Developing original content alongside its popular news service is high on the agenda for Info2Cell and Dahabra is increasingly looking at how current internet trends can be transferred to the mobile sphere.

The recent promulgation of user-generated content by websites such as youtube.com has, in particular, caught Dahabra's eye. He predicts 2007 will witness the mobilisation of streaming content - from live TV to on-demand video services, a development vital to the establishment of a mobile content portal that could allow users to record media, upload their content onto a web-based portal and download content posted by other users, all on a single mobile device.

The fact that such a large amount of user generated content on the web already derives from mobile-phone-based applications leaves no doubt in Dahabra's mind that the service will be a success, and Info2Cell has already set a tentative end-of-2007 launch date for the addition of user generated content to its mobile portal Alwan; an Arabic term meaning a variety of colours. The portal is still in its preliminary phase, with users able to access Info2Cell's own multimedia content, and will progress through two more phases, seeing the addition of user generated content and user profiles, blogs and friend groups.

However, creating the necessary platforms for such services will be a challenge as streaming content requires a markedly high bandwidth. Furthermore, the limited size of an MMS (the format through which content will be uploaded) will likely feel prohibitive for users, leading Dahabra to suggest such a service will require a considerable trial and error phase, as customers adjust to the boundaries a mobile-based portal carries.

Dahabra has also turned his attention toward the other online trend that has recently gripped users on the web: social networking. Sites such as Facebook, Myspace and hi5 have enabled individuals to establish, maintain and grow a network of friends across the world by creating their own personal online profile.

Such websites have become a phenomenon - with Myspace recently bought by Newscorp owner Rupert Murdoch for reportedly US$600 million - and Dahabra sees massive potential in using the ‘Facebook' blueprint for a similar, mobile-based, service, particularly in the MENA region.

"It is all about the economies of scale. In the UK for instance, BT, Virgin or Orange have a minimum of 10-12 million subscribers to their services but you have operators in this region with 100,000 subscribers. Info2Cell is interconnected with all of these regional operators, so why not create a regional service on top of all of those operators in which the kids can interact," says Dahabra.

"So the person in Jordan can interact with the guy in Saudi and he can introduce him to the kid in Bahrain. What is important is that they have a common ground. It is not like Germans talking to English, the guys in this region have a common language and a common culture," he adds.

Almost half the number of Info2Cell staffers work purely on producing content and the provider is pushing ahead with the growth of its own in-house production unit with the recent creation of Haridi: its own Arabic language cartoon series. However, Dahabra believes that as the market matures and 3G services take off, independent mobile dedicated production entities will emerge.

Dahabra sees this as essential to the success of the industry, as mobile-based productions will eventually need to be big enough to be able to attract media personalities and franchises in order to appeal to users (the few mobile-centric productions that have been made are overwhelmingly in cartoon format in order to overcome this issue). Furthermore, according to Dahabra, the creation of content for a mobile device requires a high degree of specialisation.

"You cannot just say I am going to edit the news that appeared on TV today and send it out on mobile. You are dealing with a very small screen size and different sound and behaviour compared to TV," says Dahabra.

The main difficulty for Info2Cell when it comes to regional content is the, at times, strict cultural boundaries of the Arab world that have to be respected. This is a perennial issue for all content producers in the region, however it is particularly pertinent for mobile content providers, as Dahabra explains.

"The major issue for us in this region is the cultural boundaries. Our content cannot be recalled. If I post something on the web and there is an issue with it, then it is easy for me to quickly edit the site and take down the offending content. But if someone sends out an MMS with the wrong video clip then that is it - it is out there - I cannot command people to delete it from their mobiles. Also, if you are sending out news, you better get it right because this news causes repercussions," says Dahabra.

Info2Cell certainly sees content production as the way forward, and while it has found a comfortable niche for itself, Dahabra believes that someone in the industry needs to take a firmer lead. He refuses to think of associate companies in the Middle East as competitors, preferring the term "partners" for fellow regional providers. Dahabra wants to draw together the creative resources and knowledge of the industry, stating that without collaboration the industry will not succeed.

"There needs to be some kind of convergence under one umbrella, bringing other content production units together. We are trying to entice people; we are always trying to invite people to work with us. Someone needs to take the lead."

“You have to remember that this region is full of conflict and turmoil. So the killer application today is news”

“Human beings like to share by nature and I think that youtube.com and other user generated sites are proof of that, and what I want to do is integrate a mobile component into this”

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