With responsibility for ensuring the quality of service for Qtel’s group-wide subscriber base of almost 90 million people across eight countries, Paul Salmon, the company’s chief technology officer, is no stranger to the demands placed on telecoms infrastructure.
And with demand for data services soaring across Qtel’s footprint in the Middle East, Africa and South East Asia, Salmon says that the main challenge is satisfying the customers’ broadband needs.
“For us, the active challenge is getting that coverage and capacity and experience out there cost effectively across the group,” he says.
Qtel is currently working on what Salmon describes as “quite a radical plan” to upgrade, modernise or replace 15,000 of its base stations over the next few years to deliver the level of mobile broadband services that its customers expect. This involves taking the old 2G and 3G base stations and equipping them with multi-standard radios to re-use spectrum as efficiently as possible. “To do that cost effectively - that really is the big challenge,” Salmon says.
With LTE rapidly becoming a mainstream technology for mobile broadband, especially in the Middle East, Salmon also highlights the often-cited issue of spectrum resources as a key challenge. While some markets are proving tough, with ministries and regulators slow to free-up the required spectrum, Salmon remains upbeat and points to a positive relationship between Qtel Group and the ministries and regulators in most of the countries in which it operates.
“Spectrum is very important for us. We have worked very well with our regulators where we can, and in Oman the regulator has allocated additional spectrum to permit LTE in 1800 megahertz band. We weren’t previously allocated that. We had 2300 WiMAX standard and we can do LTE there if we wish. We’re committed to moving forwards with other bands as well.”
However, Salmon admits that Kuwait, where Qtel operates under the Wataniya Telecom brand, is proving more difficult. “We have been allocated the ability to do LTE but without any spectrum specifically allocated to doing it,” he says. “That is going to be tough for all the operators there. I think it is something that has to be freed up. There is a lot of spectrum available in the low bands and high bands to support that.”
In the Indonesian market, which Qtel entered in 2009 through the acquisition of a stake in PT Indosat, the regulator has taken a more flexible approach, allowing operators to be more technology agnostic in terms of how they use their spectrum, according to Salmon.
“We have had some great luck with the regulator in Indonesia [allowing] us to become a bit more agnostic in how we use our spectrum.” Salmon says that in Indonesia, Qtel will use the 900MHz band for 3G and intends to use spectrum in the 1800MHz band for LTE. It also expects other bands to become available.
In the Middle East, Salmon points to the 800, 1800 and 2600MHz bands as being particularly important. He adds that while the 1800 MHz band has been significant for initial deployments of LTE globally, there have been problems with availability. “It is currently occupied by 2G services. So it actually risks, from the industry’s perspective, disappointing some customers if they aren’t able to get the full speeds because the operator hasn’t been able to allocate all the spectrum to LTE,” he says. “It can be a disappointment, and we would like very much to avoid that. We strongly encourage our operators to work with their regulators to get additional spectrum for LTE in the 800 band in the Middle East, the 700 band in Indonesia and Malaysia…and in the 2600 band as well.”
While Salmon says that it is difficult to predict patterns of LTE uptake in Qtel’s markets, it is clear that demand for mobile broadband is growing across its footprint, and this is something the company is acting on.
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“It is hard to predict that kind of future because it is much dependent on device ecosystems and affordability as well, he says. “But what we are seeing, and this is why we are acting now with significant changes in our networks, is that 3G is becoming very affordable. So what we want to do is give coverage where people want to use it – hence the upgrades. We have seen a very significant shift towards smartphones, particularly when they come down in price. There are many below the $100 mark which is very significant. So we are seeing a very sharp uptake in smartphones in several markets, and if we have got the network, it takes off very quickly.”
He adds that within a few years, Qtel Group will see customers shifting rapidly to 3G while the price of LTE devices will also fall leading to a greater uptake of the new technology as well.
Qtel has also been investing heavily in upgrading its OSS and BSS to complement investments made in the network. This is critical to raising ARPU as it allows the operators to offer more flexible packages.
“It is something that we actually started a long time ago. We have converted to very flexible convergent billing systems in our markets. We have taken that step in multiple markets and we continue to take it where we have to,” Salmon says. “It is actually a very important part of the equasion because delivering customer experience is about the coverage and the performance, but also about being able to be clear about what they have used, what the charges are and giving customers the options to change plans. We have put in place the systems to do that in some of our markets already.”