2 Sep 2008

Iraqi operator CxOs join speaker panel at GSM>3G Middle East

As my colleagues and I work to develop the Com World Series, one of the real pleasures of the job is getting the opportunity to meet people whose daily efforts are bridging the digitial divide in some of the most challenging markets imaginable. Anyone who has encountered Karim Khoja, CEO of Afghan mobile operator Roshan, will have been impressed by his passion for his company's contribution to the development of that troubled country. To my mind, Karim is rightly proud of running the one of Afghanistan's largest private employers and of the fact that a fifth of his workforce are women, something which was prohibited during the seven-year rule of the Taliban.


I have been fortunate enough to meet several members of Karim's management team, and have been interested to hear about the security and logistical challenges of living and working in Afghanistan. I have also met executives from Roshan's competitor Afghan Wireless. Their experiences are naturally pretty similar. As a daily communter into London, I am naturally in the habit of exchanging horror stories about travel delays and overcrowding with colleagues. The daily challenges faced by good folks at these two MNOs really do put my little travel problems in the shade.


Thus far, I have not had the chance to learn from telecoms people in the other country most associated in the popular imagination with conflict and a perilous security situation - Iraq. Today it looks as though that is set to change.


I recently asked my colleague Emily Cottam to assist me with gathering CxO-level speakers from a list of operators and countries that have traditionally been under-represented at our annual GSM>3G Middle East conference in Dubai (this year 15-16 December). Emily today received the welcome news that two of the mobile operators in Iraq have confirmed their participation. So, in December we be joined by Dr. Diar Ahmad, CEO of Asiacell and Dr. Hameed Akrawi, Deputy CEO of Korek Telecom. We are encouraging both to focus their presentations on the matter of rapidly expanding network reach and service availability in a cost-effective manner.


Both of these companies started their operations in Iraqi Kurdistan. Asiacell is the older business, first established in 1999 by Iraqi businessman Mr. Faruk Mustafa Rasool. Initially, network coverage was primarily around the Kurdistani city of Sulaimaniya. Wataniya Telecom(40%) and the United Gulf Bank (9%) have since become shareholders. Since October 7, 2003, the Iraqi Ministry of Telecommunications has allowed Asiacell to operate across Northern Iraq and expand into the rest of the country.


Korek Telecom, meanwhile, has continued to confine its operations to its home territory of Kurdistan. However, this looks set to change. Korek now has a national license but a network still limited to Iraqi Kurdistan. We understand that to maximise the value of the licence, Korek Telecom will need to expand to national coverage, maybe as part of a JV withEtisalat, which would give Korek access to the UAE incumbent's resources and international operating expertise to roll out a countrywide network that could compete with Zain and Asiacell. Given that both Korek Telecom and Etisalat will both be present at our conference in December, we get some clarity on that then if not before.