It's all about convergence, say telecom experts

Annelle Sheline
6 Min Read

CAIRO: After focusing on expanding the coverage and speed of existing technologies, the second half of last week’s North Africa Com telecom conference moved into the future of mobile communication.

Speaking at the conference, Vodafone CEO Hatem Dowidar emphasized that mobile technology “is no longer high-end, it belongs to everyone.

He predicted a future where internet access is equally available, citing Vodafone’s commitment to “subsidize data, for example by selling modems at basement prices in order to facilitate higher internet penetration.

The day’s first panel tackled the broad question of convergence, bringing together regulator Olfat Abdel Monsef of the National Telecommunications Regulatory Agency (NTRA); Stanislas Leridon, the internet and new media director for the global satellite channel, France24; and Hassan Kabbani, the CEO of Mobinil.

Monsef praised convergence for its tendency to increase competition between providers and drive down prices.

Charles-Henri Levaillant, director of telecommunications sector monitoring for the French telecom giant, Vivendi Group, described convergence of technologies as “the convergence of worlds.

“You combine communication with navigation by putting GPS on a cell phone, or you converge telecom with the realm of media, Levaillant continued.

Panel moderator Matthew Reed asked for examples of convergence specific to a North African context, directing the question to Kabbani of Mobinil.

“Before we can fully address the question of convergence, we must discuss regulation, Kabbani responded. “Second, you need network coverage, third you need the product to be available and affordable. Although converged technologies are possibly beneficial, the customer always asks if it is worth the investment.

Kabbani explained that current services do not always cater to a local context. “As an Egyptian, I don’t want a digital map of Europe, he laughed. “But Egypt has historically played the role of ‘Arab-izing’ European services. I think we are in a position to do that again.

Leridon responded that while localizing products is important, communications technology is about connecting customers with the world at large. “Clients want news: local, regional and global. He warned the telecom sector about the “internet disease of information provided for free.

“The mobile can become a payment terminal. I’ve never downloaded so much music as with iTunes, [even though it’s not free] because it’s so easy.

Kabbani agreed, illustrating a future when “telecom money could be used as general currency and phone credit could “buy a newspaper or a bus ticket.

“The mobile is already a highly personalized device. You can’t leave home without it. You can’t use someone else’s because it doesn’t have your contacts or your applications, he ended, seemingly jovial about a future when his company’s product becomes even more indispensable.

Vodafone CEO Hatem Dowidar echoed these statements. Daily News Egypt asked him to explain the turning point at which telecom suddenly became one of the main engines of the Egyptian economy. “It’s about individualism, he explained. “Suddenly people had a product that reflected their personality, down to having a personal ring tone. People who cannot afford a house could suddenly achieve the status of a new cell phone.

Prior to his interview with Daily News Egypt, Dowidar spoke with Mikkel Vinter, CEO of Friendi Mobile Group, the leading regional provider of MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operators), or highly specialized mobile services now available in Oman.

Daily News Egypt asked whether he foresaw MVNO coming to Egypt through partnership with Friendi or another provider. “It’s not coming to Egypt anytime soon. I don’t see it appealing to Egyptian consumers in the same way as in the Gulf, where it currently targets the large expat population from sub-continental Asia.

However, he did express optimism that sophisticated iPhone-like devices will soon be as widely available as mobiles are currently, potentially allowing internet access to all Egyptians in the near future.

Questioned about the impact of exposing low-income populations to unlimited information without providing means for them to work for higher quality of life, he acknowledged the responsibility of telecom companies to poor communities. “Vodafone takes seriously its corporate obligations. It is involved in efforts to equip 350 low income schools with basic materials and trains teachers.

Other companies at North Africa Com are looking to expand the reach of networks such as Vodafone into areas they do not currently reach.

Suraj Chaudhry, head of business development at VNL, addressed the conference. Daily News Egypt spoke with Senior VP Craig Hall about VNL, a micro-oriented telecom that provides equipment and services to remote areas outside an electric power-grid. With its motto, “Are you ready for the next billion mobile users? the company was recognized with the Wall Street Journal’s prize for “Best Wireless Innovation for its solar powered GSM.

Hall pointed out that “Half the people in the world have never made a phone call, and stressed that although cell phone use in Egypt is widespread, large networks are unable to extend their reach into areas where the government has neglected to provide the necessary infrastructure.

Private companies like VNL are stepping in to fill the void.

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