16 Sep 2008

Vodafone on the convergence trail in Qatar?

I am back in the UK, having spent much of last week at our annual Americas Com conference in Brazil. My marketing folks need me to write up the stories coming out of that gathering for our post-event press materials. Much of that can be re-purposed for this blog, so I'll share some of what I heard in Rio later this week.

I've returned to an interesting snippet of news from the Middle East.

We've known for some time now that Vodafone will be entering the Qatari mobile market. I understand that this is on track to happen in March 2009, despite reports earlier this year that a 2008 launch was on the cards. This week's news item concerns Vodafone's acquisition of a fixed-line licence in Qatar, breaking the monopoly of state-controlled QTel, whose mobile business has also owned the whole market in the cellular space up until now.

Vodafone and its consortium partners prevailed over a number of other interested parties, including AT&T, Verizon, Batelco (Bahrain), Jordan Telecom and BT.

According to these reports, fixed-line services from Vodafone Qatar should come on line at some stage next year. I am not clear on whether there will be a significant gap between this and the launch of mobile services, but I will certainly be interested to see if Vodafone exploits what looks like a great opportunity to build a fully integrated FMC player from scratch. With no hard data to back my hunch, I minded to guess that plans could well be in place to build a single core network, an integrated billing system and all the other elements needed to offer services seamlessly across fixed and mobile networks. I wonder if from the very start the business will also be structured such as to avoid creating distinct fixed and mobile silos within the organisation. Having heard so many telco execs describing the myriad challenges around integrating previously distinct fixed and mobile business units, it would seem to make sense to avoid all of that from day one.

Whatever route the new Vodafone operator takes, the man at the helm is certainly someone I know to be a highly charismatic leader. Grahame Maher got the CEO role back in April this year, having previously led Vodafone's Czech Republic operator. Maher was in this role when I had the pleasure of meeting him last year and in 2006. For both my previous company and here at Informa Telecoms & Media, I was charged with developing and hosting CEE region conferences. Prague was the venue in both cases. Maher was a very persuasive and innovative speaker at these events, notably in 2006, when he eschewed the use PowerPoint slideware. He chose instead to work the room dressed in the jeans-and-a-sweater look seemingly still favoured by the top management at Vodafone CZ, this being something of a trademark kept on when the giant cellco acquired the former Oskar-branded operator from Telesystem International Wireless of Canada. Maher wanted to make the point that customers don't want to get their heads around complexity or to understand how services work. They want it all cheap and simple. To demonstrate this, Maher had plucked a young Vodafone customer from the streets of Prague and placed him among the grey-suited telecoms executives in the conference room. The young man was asked to stand up and was then bombarded with questions about his tariff, about access network technologies and more. Naturally, he failed to answer any of these questions in detail. But he did say he cared about price and didn't want to think too much about his Vodafone service.

Maher's new role in Qatar means we have had to look elsewhere for exciting speakers at this week's CEE Com conference (again in Prague), which kicks off tomorrow. I was not able to be there this year but know that our team at the event will be working hard to make the delegates' time in the Czech capital enjoyable as well as productive.

I am hopeful that Mr Maher may be able to join us at our Middle East event this December. I know he's great value on the panel of speakers so we will try to make that happen.