24 Sep 2008

Etisalat to do battle with Zain in Iraq?

Much as Iraq is rarely out of the news, the country is rarely very far from my thoughts at the moment as we gear up for our GSM>3G Middle East event in Dubai this December.

I was prompted to think again about Iraq this morning by a call confirming a meeting tomorrow with Bob Fonow, now working with broadband service provider Trivon, which operates under the Virgin Connect brand in Russia. Bob has lately been an enthusiastic and high-value speaker at a number of Informa Telecoms & Media conferences, including some of our Com World Series gatherings. In a previous role, Bob was a Senior U.S. State Department official responsible for telecommunications reconstruction in Iraq, acting as a Senior Adviser to the Minister of Communications and Chief Executive of the Communications and Media Commission. In this role, Bob managed a staff of US State Dept technical experts and was responsible for funding decisions and program management of US funded telecom programs. Following that assignment, Bob was hired to mediate a dispute between the Iraqi shareholders of Zain Iraq and Zain's executive management in Kuwait concerning the provision of physical security for Zain's combined MTC Atheer and Iraqna GSM networks.

I am looking forward to learning a lot from Bob tomorrow. I think my questions will focus on two areas. Firstly, as my thoughts turn to our 2009 Russia & CIS Com conference, I'll be keen to get some fresh insights on the Russian broadband market and the currently high level of hype about the prospects for WiMAX in Russia. Secondly, ahead of the Dubai event, I'll be keen to get Bob's thoughts on the potential and the challenges of the Iraqi market. It will be good to get a solid briefing before meeting the several high-level execs who will be representing Iraqi operators on the panel of speakers in Dubai. These include Suleiman Lamaani the CEO of Itisaluna (an emerging nationwide operator providing fixed-line voice services, broadband, and VAS via CDMA 1x-EV-DO Rev. A) and CxOs from GSM operators Korek Telecom and Asiacell. Looking ahead to the future development of our event, it is my theory that vendor interest may become very sharply focused on under-connected, under-penetrated markets such as Iraq and Iran, whose incumbent mobile operator MCI will be represented at this year's conference by CEO Vahid Sadoughi. This may become a matter of urgency for network tech vendors as the oil-rich Gulf states' mobile markets all reach saturation point and 3G networks there achieve wide coverage.

Certainly, the Iraqi market is already a priority for giant rival Middle Eastern telcos. Zain is already present and I read today in a Cellular news story the UAE-based Etisalat is reported to be in talks to acquire an Iraqi mobile operator by the end of this year. The story quotes Etisalat COO Ahmad Julfar: "Iraq has a lot of potential because of the unavailability of fixed-line telephones because of war conditions."

Given the strong interest in Iraq from around and beyond the region, I am really glad that we've managed to get the Iraqi market so well represented on our panel of speaker for the Dubai show.