25 Sep 2008

Middle East face European competitors at home and go hunting for new markets worldwide

I expect the discussions and the audience profile at our annual GSM>3G Middle East event in Dubai to reflect the flow of strategic telecoms investment monies into and out of the Gulf region.

Vodafone is entering the Qatari market and is set to offer both mobile and fixed-line services. Turkcell has been interested in extending its footprint into the Middle East for some time. After an abortive attempt to enter the Iranian market in 2005-06, the Turkish MNO has more recently been rumoured to have an interest in Syria. Both of these companies are represented at CxO level at our conference.

Telcos headquartered in the Middle East, meanwhile, have been shopping for opportunities in emerging markets in other regions. For example, the African mobile scene is now dotted with subsidiaries of Zain, Etisalat and Comium.

The next target looks to be India. Telecoms.com yesterday reported Etisalat's agreement to buy 45% of Indian mobile operator Swan Telecom for $900m in cash, with the UAE telco's Chairman Mohammad Hassan Omran, commenting: "Our entry in India, one of the largest and fastest growing mobile markets in the world today, marks an acceleration of our expansion strategy and brings to us an opportunity which matches the scale of our ambitions."

Etisalat, leading sponsor of our December conference and exhibition in Dubai, will doubtless field many questions from participants about this and other elements of the company's international expansion strategy.

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.

22 Sep 2008

Russian telcos heading for Africa?

While I still have my hands full preparing for our GSM>3G Middle East conference in December, I will shortly be turning my attention more fully to Russia and the CIS. We host two gatherings in the first half of the year which are designed to draw together telecoms execs from markets across the former Soviet Union. The first, Eurasia Com, takes place in Istanbul in March, a natural travel and business hub for the Caspian and Central Asian regions the event serves. Further, Istanbul-headquartered Turkcell is a major player in these markets. The Turkish cellco is co-owner (with TeliaSonera) of Fintur Holdings, a company which manages MNOs in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan as well as Moldova. It's therefore important for the event that we get high-level support from Turkcell. In 2008, the company's Chief Strategy Officer Tayfun Cataltepe was among our speakers - and has gone on to become a valued supporter of the wider Com World Series. The previous year, we welcomed Turkcell's Chief Investment Officer Ms. Tulin Karabuk.

Coming up in June, we have another CIS-focused meeting: Russia & CIS Com in Moscow. This gets a different crowd - delegates mainly from the Russian Federation itself, as well as from Ukraine and Belarus. Regarding the latter country, we really boosted the level of the participation. Belarus's incumbent carrier Beltelecom was represented by General Director Konstantin Tikar, who made some very kind comments abou the usefulness of the trip.

At the last two iterations of Russia & CIS Com, we've heard more and more about the plans of some Russian cellcos in terms of exploring the growth potential of markets outside their usual CIS footprint. Earlier this year, a delegation from Iran was very visible, clearly hoping to remind prospective strategic investors of the impending sale of a 3rd national mobile licence in the Islamic Republic. We've also seen Russian telco people showing up at a conference we used to run in Vietnam, clearly interested in that particular market.

It wasn't, therefore, a big surprise to see a news item this morning which indicates that Russian telecoms investment firm Altimo has expressed an interest in Nigerian operator M-Tel/NITEL. We'll encourage Altimo and other Russian groups to get involved at our huge annual pan-Africa event in November: www.ComWorldSeries.com/africa.