July 13, 2009

Why Jordan will (unintentionally) be the needle that will deflate the 3G bubble

Perhaps I made some clunky predictions in the past that proved premature to a certain extent, but the fact of the matter is that whether 3rd generation mobile services are being offered or not, consumer behavior haven’t changed, and thus them benefiting from the advanced features entailed under the umbrella of 3G is and will continue to be limited into certain niches.

Mobile network operators paid and will continue to pay mad sums on acquiring 3G mobile service licenses, frequency spectrum and infrastructure, because they benefit on three different fronts:

Technically, the WCDMA which is the underlying technology adopted in our region and most of the world to offer UMTS services (aka 3rd generation services); WCDMA technology is far more spectrally efficient and with an arguable superior voice quality and data-session fidelity.

It also inherent the advantages from 2nd generation technologies at the switching level, but I wouldn’t want to annoy the two or three readers with the techie details. The bottom line of it is that the biggest beneficiary of adopting 3G are the operators in their black-box that concerns no one but themselves by being able to handle far more calls and traffic than they used to at a much lower cost than in traditional 2G networks such as GSM.

From a commercial perspective, the network operator deploying 3G services will in fact be able to offer new services and value-added services (VAS) that is otherwise unavailable or not feasible to offer over legacy 2G, 2.5G or 2.75G networks, such as video calling, mobile TV streaming and mobile broadband internet connectivity.

And from a marketing and positioning perspective, a 3G network operator can brag about its cutting-edge or state-of-the-art network technology, the operator can position itself as a market leader as opposed to lousy 2G and co operators, and on that particular front, I think Jordan will prove to be an interesting arena because of the very unique composition of our “telecom industry”

To start with, we’re late to the 3G party, in fact too late that some operators around the world already started field testing of even newer technologies in the field of mobile communication that nicely fits into the G series as being labeled 4G technology (something Zain claims to offer through its e-go service, but that’s a totally different story); chiefly a technology called LTE (Long Term Evolution) and LTE+.

Being late to the party have its disadvantages of course (mostly the loss of the assumed image of being a mature and dynamic telecom market), but as with everything, there are advantages, because we have the chance (as a telecom industry) to take a deep breath and contemplate the necessity of following the madness over 3G, unfortunately, I doubt any telecom executive or investor have it what it takes to and come up with something other than what the mainstream opinion dictate!

Add to the mix the early introduction of WiMax service in Jordan compared to neighboring markets before 3G services, though limited to fixed-wireless or nomadic deployments, yet WiMax is still considered as a 3G service, heck… some (including myself) finds it fit to be considered as a 4th generation mobile technology...

Add to the mix the reality of 3G services in neighboring countries such as Egypt and the Gulf. People are still talking the same talk and walking the same walk, with the exception of the unprecedented adoption of USB dongles and modems offering mobile broadband that took the whole industry by surprise. But will we as Jordanian consumers change our behavior and live up to the expectations of 3G patrons who envisage us watching TV on 2 inch screens and video-calling each other while simultaneously checking our email? I think not, we’re too lame to change habits.

Mix the above together and what have you? An intriguing telecom market landscape. What is the novelty of any of the operators being the first to offer 3G services while Zain already proclaim itself as offering 4G services? Isn’t that backwardness? How would any of the operators that will be the first to delve into the 3G waters proclaim leadership if already 4G services is claimed to be offered?

I honestly believe that Jordan with all the issues that hindered the deployment of 3G services will be the arena at which the reality of 3G will be uncovered. I can imagine the operators who will not get the 3G license at start (eventually everyone will have access to 3G license); they will not even bother with the whole fiasco, they will continue offering the services that is and will continue to be the king of communication; voice and SMS, the undisputed bread and butter of the telecom industry.

Though I expect the latter will need to work on keeping their image sharp since they will practically lag behind as a 2G operator, but still, it isn’t a game over, it is far from it. At the end, all the 2G 3G or 4G are all marketing BS, what matters is voice and SMS, even if delivered by pigeons!

From a consumer perspective, acceptance of 3G services wouldn’t be a problem; a recent statistic I read once said that the penetration of 3G-ready handsets in Jordan is almost 35% of the total mobile users, that’s too high for a country that does not run a 3G network yet. But there will be a hurdle which is the compatibility of the old SIM cards with the new 3G networks, depending on the operators of course. Something that hindered the adoption of 3G services with operators such as Saudi’s STC-Jawwal, who had millions of customers who have 3G-ready phones but with old SIMs, yet most can’t be bothered having their SIM changed to benefit from the new services!

Even Mobily (STC's compitator) who had all their SIM supporting 3G networks from day one had an issue of getting their users to setup their 3G handsets and motivate them to start using the new 3G services, given that there was a 6 month separation between launching of their 2G and 3G services.

The usage of services such as video calling will also be limited, even in a country such as Saudi were one would expect a thriving video calling usage because of the nature of the gender-segregated of its society, yet the numbers aren’t impressive, because there are very limited real-world and practical usage of video calling, throughout my limited observations I had; I only came across these:

The first was when I saw a mute person holding the phone against his face and using sign language to talk to the other party. The other was when a colleague of mine called his parents back in France over a video call, international video calling is very that was interesting. And the third is a service that I think will do will which is remote monitoring of kids through customized handsets. Where one can dial into his home mobile phone or fixed handset that is overlooking the kids or his house while away.

As for mobile TV, I still have mixed feelings about it, on the one hand, I can see myself watching a news bulletin or a sports clip and what have you if I was waiting somewhere or stuck in transit. But otherwise I don’t think it will have wider audience, beside the technical hurdles of setting up mobile TV on the handset or the probably confused pricing structure of the service, because it’s not as quiet quantifiable as legacy pay-tv such as Orbit and Showtime.

And I wouldn’t understand why I will even bother paying for mobile TV while I can watch video on demand through a mobile broadband connection and stream content from sites such as Youtube? It will be free (beside the monthly internet charge) and it will be on demand, it can’t be any better.

Finally, and this is where I think I was premature in my predictions earlier, mobile broadband internet is a killer app for sure. If the operators manage to pull it off in terms of network infrastructure readiness, backhaul capacity and coverage along with solid ADSL-like flat-rate known-cap/uncapped offering while making it as vanilla service as possible, meaning no unreasonable restrictions of bandwidth and the applications that will run through it, even if it was things like Skype that can be argued to eat from the operator’s voice revenue.

It will be far more interesting to see the WiMax operators of Jordan lobbying the TRC to deregulate the restrictions over their licenses in terms offering “mobile” broadband access as opposed to the currently allowed “fixed” wireless broadband access, which limits the capability of the customer’s modem or CPE to be used while the person is moving. Despite the fact that Zain (technically Mada Telecom) seems to have violated its FWBA license by offering a USB-dongle that is capable (or advertised as such) of seamless handover from one tower to the other at least that was the experience I had.

To close it with a positive note, the TRC can take a very courageous step by tackling the whole 3G affair from a totally different angle, by actually allowing the operators; all the operators to acquire technology-agnostic frequency spectrum that will allow them to deploy 3G technology while deferring the decision on how to license the unique 3G services itself to a later period.

This way the REAL benefits of deploying 3G networks will be accessible while differentiating it from the 3G services it enables, which the TRC might want to captilize over it through new licensing.

On the other hand, the TRC should deregulate the FWBA license and convert it into a regular mobile license and open up competition to its fullest! Allowing them to offer mobile broadband, and even voice… why not? The market will work its magic and reach equilibrium and will iron out the anomalies while serving the government objectives of increasing ICT penetration and decreasing the “digital divide”.

An interesting take on the same subject by the Telecominteralist can be found here.

July 06, 2009

The case against being taken for granted by Jordanian-ish establishments (Second installment): Zain Jordan

I have previously written about Zain, or the entity it used to be “Fastlink”, those who know me, and know my background usually dismiss my critique as being subjective and impartial. Never the less, I have a valid case to present and here’s my humble yet pyroclastic flow:

The Promiscuous “Free Minutes”

I will start with the dishonest offers and terminology convention Zain adopts, where the term “free” is used and abused over and over again with no restrictions or restraints from the TRC (the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission); as Zain offers “free” calling minutes to a preset super numbers against a fixed charge.

But in reality, the term “free” does not work will when there is a monthly or weekly charge, because the customer have paid for this “free” minutes, and “free” can’t be paid for by definition, the proper industry term is “bundled minutes”, and the importance of this term comes when the customer actually stop being a sheep and read the “fair usage policy” of the said offer, where Zain state the weekly maximum allowance of “free minutes”.

Then comes the illicit technical measures that Zain take systematically to tackle customers who may “abuse” the free minutes offer, such as preempting (disconnecting) lengthy calls to avoid customers using their mobile phones as baby monitors for instance (such cases where recorded). Although it’s an accepted practice for mobile operators to take similar measures even if the call was billed (not free) when it exceeds 2 or 3 hours in length as a fraud-protection measure.

In my humble and blunt opinion, Zain shouldn’t offer something it is incapable of whether technically or commercially, and instead of resorting to illicit (and probably illegal) technical measures or commercial manipulation to shunt the drastic effects of heavy usage due to the incorrect use of the term “free”, they should try to be more honest and openly cap the usage under straightforward terminology such as “bundled minutes” or whatever creative terminology that comes along with psychedelic colours and wonderful-world themes!

Similarly, under corporate offers the term “free” is used to describe the unlimited or bundled CUG (Closed User Group) calls made within the same account of a given company, in which a company pay an “extra” fee on top of the monthly charge to have unlimited calling between its employees. The proper term again is definitely not “free”, one can’t buy “free” stuff, “free” is given for free, but one can buy “bundled” minutes.

To the discredit all other operators and the TRC (along with Zain), “Free minutes” is everyone’s whore… but two or three wrongs don’t do a right, and as an acclaimed industry leader; Zain should “lead” the industry and trail behind cheap and dishonest communication techniques.

Blunt corporate sales

This is the least that could be said about the four ecorporate sales encounters I had with Zain personnel in the past year, twice was me approaching them, and twice I was approached; actually stalked by the Zain personnel.

The most visible trait across all four encounters was an arrogant display of unjustified superiority as a market leader, sometimes to the point where I no longer felt I’m a prospective customer who’s appreciated, but rather a dodgy s-list who is trying to linger into the mighty Zain lounge while not observing the proper attire.

Despite the fact that in my second encounter, I was representing an account of 400 potential lines with an expected growth into 1,000 or more… but an arrogant sales man or woman (in that particular case) couldn’t see beyond my beard and affirmative (read: dry) communication skills.

The other visible trait I observed was this deliberate obliviousness to the fact that Zain tariffs are expensive compared to the other operators while dismissing the price difference as “you wouldn’t notice the cost difference, because everyone is on Zain.. Sir”. Which works along very well with another drastic trait of not trying to understand that sometimes (just sometimes) potential customer might have specific needs that are beyond the assumption that all of us have the same needs that is catered for by Zain the greatest and largest network and that Zain knows what’s best for me and you more than ourselves!

At one point, the sales woman totally dismissed my business requirement (of GPS tracking and instant group communication) altogether and tried to convince me of opting for the “free” 3,000 minutes every month offer AND she didn’t know what GPS is and tried to save her facial water (an Arabic expression) by reiterating that “Zain offers GPRS service”!

If only I don’t have the courtesy of exercising patience with people; I would’ve been very rude with her and shut her up after making her feel miserable about her poor choice of career as a sales woman.

And in my final encounter with one of them sales men, who should be more appropriately called a Zain stalker, the individual was rude enough to discredit me because of my current choice of mobile communication provider, and even rudely laughing it out that “is there anyone left on that network with their stupid and big phones?”.

If Zain truly believes that it’s in the business of professional mobile service capable of delivering professional mobile communication solution to the corporate sector, or if they try to position them as such, there are basic things that they need to get their sales reps to master first (along with updating the corporate section of their website to reflect that image with appropriate info)!

Say I was after a fancy German car and popped into a BMW showroom where a blunt sales rep starts demeaning Mercedes and make it look inferior to BMW; I wouldn’t have mind slapping him in the face, and that works the other way around too (if I was in Mercs’ that is), good brands compete with each, but also they sell one another by benchmarking themselves out from the rest of the competition.

I’m not asking for the BMW sales rep to praise Mercedes, that would be inappropriate, but being indifferent or discrediting, that means that the sales rep neither respect his brand, the competition or the intelligence of the prospective customer in front of him. And that’s exactly how I felt after these encounters with what should be Zain’s elite salesmaniyih.

Oh, and of course I didn’t pass on the opportunity of having a mellow kick out of tangling those poor sales personnel up with technical jargons and telecom concepts they’re not even close to comprehending, but still they kept insisting on reflecting an image of knowledge that only result in even worse and desperate sales cries such as “man what do you want? Do you want to buy Zain or not?”

… and finally; the illusive One-Network offer!

"The end of competition" as it was once marketed when it was launched, the offer that even inside Zain is not properly understood nor would you find a general consensus among its employees of what it stands for or how it works, yet alone the customers who are expected to use and benefit from it.

And I must admit; the one-network offer is a great one in theory, and it is revolutionary in all aspects, and if I was ever a Zain customer, I would have definitely opted for it and even paid money for accessing it, but the way it was implemented was dishonest.

First, I will take the liberty of explaining what Zain’s one-network offer stand for as I understand it: Zain as a pan-Arab and pan-African operator; it owns/operate 20 something networks around the middle-east and Africa; as a Zain customer of any of these networks (with the exception of the mother network of Kuwait) you as a valued Zain customer of any of these network will be treated as if you are a local customer in anywhere you “roam” as long as you roam to a Zain network in the country you travel to.

So if you receive your calls for “free” while in your home network (which is the normal way) then you will receive your calls for “free” while roaming in foreign Zain networks. You will pay local rates for the calls you place, and you will pay “regular” international rates if you call abroad, you will be able to access your home network customer care for free without paying international calls, and if you are a prepaid customer, you can use local recharge cards to benefit from all of that.

These five features are packaged as the one-network offer, but how is it really used (or abused) and what did Zain do about it?

To start with, it takes the innovativeness of an 11 year old to figure out that one can start making international calls with local rates (fraud in my book) by sending a Zain SIM from his home network to roam on a foreign Zain network: Take for example Ali who works in Saudi Arabia and his fiancée Reem who’s in Jordan. (fictional characters).

Ali sends Reem a Zain Saudi line, Reem have this line roam on Zain Jordan’s network. Ali rings up the Zain Saudi line he sent to his fiancée using his local Zain line, Reem will receive the call on the zain Saudi line roaming in Jordan, and she will not pay for receiving the call, and Ali will pay local rate in Saudi, hence a local rate international call.

Reem could have done the same, and even better, because Reem could have sent Ali a Zain Jordan line that is added to her super numbers that she can call for “free”, and then make free international calls even…

I believe this is fraud, and I am certain Zain anticipated that this scenario was going to happen in masses, and this is exactly what happened, to the point where Zain sales even advocate this fraudulent usage of the one-network offer, including the smart sales reps I encountered when they knew I was living in Saudi and my company is in Jordan.

I can imagine an imaginary situation where Zain executives are battling one another over this fiasco: On the one hand, the cost of offering one-network is substantial, given the fact that despite the increase of revenue due to encouraged usage while abroad, the subsidized cost of receiving calls while abroad is sizable, Zain pays third parties international carrier rates per minute of those unbilled or “free to receive” calls while their customers are roaming outside their home network.

The skirmish among the executives would be between the commercial/marketing front where they saw customers flock into Zain because of this offer, especially their troubled mammoth operation in Saudi, and they’re flocking-in because of the ability to abuse the one-network offer as described in the previous scenario.

And on the other hand, the financial executives going against this surge in cost for offering the service, a low-ranking and unreliable Zain employee once told me that the one-network offer is generating some 180 million US dollars (combined across the 20+ operations) quarterly against a cost of 240 million USD dollars! I don’t believe the numbers but I wouldn’t dismiss the ratio.

The technical executives (in my imaginary scenario) either got pushed to or voluntarily offered (with an evil wink or laugh) yet another illicit technical remedy to this pocket hole, including limiting the number of international trunks available for transferring incoming calls that will be terminated at a foreign Zain network, resulting in the party calling a Zain number roaming abroad on another Zain network getting the deceitful message of “All international lines are busy now” while they aren’t, and subsequently the gay-happy Zain customer who should be enjoying the fruits (or colourful Umbrellas) of the one network offer end up missing some calls while roaming abroad.

The other techniques is to systematically degrade call quality for the calls that eventually get received for free, and in other cases deliberate disconnections of the call after it exceeds 10 or so minutes. Of course if I was a camper; meaning that I’m using the Zain line in the manner described earlier, I deserve this crappy service.

but if I was a legitimate Zain customer travelling abroad, this would be a rip-off, because as a mobile customer; I have the right to receive all the calls distained to me as long as it is technically possible and within reason (within coverage, within roaming agreements, within network resources availability …etc); and as a business user, I would rather pay for receiving ALL my calls rather than having SOME of my calls not terminated because Zain want to control its losses due to dishonest or offers.

Zain Jordan now came forward half-honest towards its customers who are supposedly benefiting from the one network offer. That is in introducing two new charges: the first is when a Zain Jordan customer attempts to call another Zain Jordan customer roaming on a foreign Zain network, The caller gets prompted that he or she will be charged an additional 6 piasters per minute for the call on top of the per minute rate paid regularly (including adding 6 piasters to the originally free-to-call numbers!).

This way Zain can still deliver the call for “Free” to the roaming party, but penalize the calling party for it. On the other hand, as a Zain Jordan customer roaming on a foreign Zain network, if I happen to receive a call from a non-Zain number, I get prompted to accept or decline a per minute charge for receiving the call, which totally contradicts the concept of one-network, but at least it is half honest.

Half honest is good, but in my book it is as bad as is being dishonest, I once pulled the following statement from a senior Zain employee handling the one network offer in one of Zain’s operations; he said “In order to receive all your calls while roaming abroad, you must select another network than Zain”… and this is what I would have done if I was a Zain subscriber roaming abroad in a country where a Zain network is available.

I would have happily paid a fixed monthly premium for the one-network feature, and I honestly believe that heavy travelers in the middle-east (or Africa I guess) would do the same, a flat rate charge for receiving their calls and accessing local rates while abroad whenever a Zain network is available.

This offer could have been a great selling point, but when it got introduced to the mass market it was prone to abuse, and with inappropriate technical measures to curb usage in a dishonest way and the reactive measures taken later on; turned the whole thing into a nightmare, while competing operators benefited from the concept and replicated it in a more subtle manner and made solid and happy customer base who benefit from roaming.

I don’t think those behind the one-network offer even intended for it to be what it is today, which is basically a very long short-cut to offering local-rates for international calls! There’s a much more feasible and regulatory-friendly way for this. And even if there wasn’t, I would have spent half the money burnt on the one-network to date and subsidized straight-forward international call charges into local-rates level WHILE keeping the one-network offer in its pure form serving those who would have been ecstatic about it.

A Closing note…

Not all Zain operations are equal, but I can’t help feeling rather hostile against Zain Jordan in particular, despite the fact that I was honored the other day to be introduced to its president, I think Zain can lead the market not out of consumer arrogance and the customers’ laid-back thinking patterns, but through by honest and cutting-edge market leadership met with quality network service and customer care.

I always enjoy the reaction of people when they find out that the perception of Zain in Saudi is in the same order of Umniah in Jordan, though I don’t subscribe the “general” perspective or positioning of network operators in any market except through what is dictated by my inside knowledge of their technical competence and customer service, yet it’s really amazing to see the difference between Zain the premiere network of Jordan neighboring Zain the troubled and somewhat low-class late-entrant network of Saudi.

I hope (though it will be hard) that this will be taken as a sincere and positive criticism by a humble telecom professional if it is ever read by a Zain insider in Jordan or otherwise.

And yes, selling Africa operations is a good move! It wasn’t homogenous with the rest of the operations despite its geographical contiguity, though I petty the loss of the money spent on rebranding!