Sri Lanka's telecom market is vibrant and competitive. Mobitel, one of the country's largest mobile network operators, has yet again embarked on a large-scale network expansion drive. Nalin Perera, CEO of Mobitel, spoke to ZTE Technologies about the company's successful 2018 and what he wants to accomplish in 2019. As a veteran of Sri Lanka's mobile industry, he also shared with us his management philosophy.
Looking back on 2018, what do you think were some of Mobitel's greatest achievements?
If you look at Mobitel's commercial operations for the last 25 years, we have been revolving around many technologies. Initially we were with AMPS, and then we went to TDMA and then into GSM. So from GSM onward, every time when there is a new technological improvement, we have always been ahead.
We crossed the threshold for becoming a strong brand and established ourselves as one of the most popular brands in Sri Lanka. With our commitment to 4G as the de facto standard for mobile communications, we rolled out over 1,000 eNodeBs in 2018. This was the fastest 4G roll-out in the market. We won the prestigious SLIM service brand of the year award for 2018. We recorded the historically highest revenues and profits in 2018. We also had the highest net additions to our network last year.
How has the telecom landscape evolved in Sri Lanka? What are the key trends?
There were five mobile operators in Sri Lanka. Now we can see the market is consolidating, which I think is good. The market growth has been tremendous within the last few years. With Etisalat and Hutchison merging, the industry landscape has changed from five to four operators. I think in terms of technology and user experience, all the operators face huge challenges to make sure that they meet user expectations. The industry is going through digital transformation aided by intense 4G rollout by the key operators. At least two operators, including Mobitel, have done 5G technology testing.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing Mobitel today?
One of the biggest challenges we have is taxation. In the mobile industry, spectrum is the life blood. There are limitations in terms of technology relating to the spectrum. With the technology advancements happening in the industry, in order to reap the benefits in a timely manner, we should have the most appropriate spectrum portfolio at any point of time.
Another challenge is that increasingly broadband traffic is becoming dominant out of the total investment and effort. As Sri Lanka has the lowest mobile broadband pricing, we need to transform mobile broadband business to yield sustainable profits.
Unlike the voice era, in the mobile broadband era, we cannot depend on the commoditized data revenues. As a mobile company, we need to become the value-added platform connecting various communities in the society, and generate multiple business lines to supplement the MBB infrastructure. For that we need to bring in a culture of innovation where we bring to life many propositions and face out if not successful. For that to happen, this type of products and services should take place with minimum time and cost. Establishing such ecosystem is one of the prime success factors in today's context.
As an industry veteran, could you share with us your management philosophy?
I think you have things that you have no control over. Within what is controllable, one thing we strongly believe in is customer centricity. When you make an investment decision, you need to understand what your customer expectations are. Your customers are the most important in the whole ecosystem, so your management philosophy should revolve around user expectations and market demands.
I believe to achieve any strategic progress there is a window of opportunity, so I urge everybody to act with a sense of urgency and purpose; a series of strategic wins propel you out of the pack, towards success and leadership.
Also I urge everyone to do the best within one's capability at any given task at hand. That requires a number of actions by the individuals such as learning new skills, seeking help for the task or even changing the context if it’s adverse to the achievement of the task.
In which market segments do you see short-term and long-term opportunities?
I would say that mission-critical applications, monitoring analytics & big data, high-end premium quality video services, and real-time gaming are some of the promising market segments. Also I believe, as the National Mobile Service Provider, we have a serious obligation to assist through mobile technology and drive the government's digital transformation projects by providing the thought leadership and implementing national-level platforms. So we believe the government sector would be a focal point in our future business.
Video on demand is going to be the one of the biggest challenges and one of the long-term things you will have. In addition, we may be investing in some smart city projects. But currently, it is difficult to identify an exact business model. In such situations, if government funding or some assistance can be provided, then I think there is some kind of model for the operators to look at in the long term.
What is your strategy on 5G? How do you prepare it in current network deployments and operations?
For an economy like Sri Lanka where scale and cost is a challenge for any industry, the promise of 5G is impressive; to that even 4G/LTE can enable a lot of such critical value addition into the network. So I believe with advanced technologies like 4G/5G, mobile companies become the catalyst for the growth of a host of other industries. Therefore, for the success of the era of new technologies, partnerships are the key. We should have strong backward integration with our technological partners and forward integration with our value chain partners and end-user entities.
Technologically, I understand that with the concepts of network slicing and DevOps we will be able to cater to the specific needs of various industry segments quite effectively in the 5G domain. Our first step is to exploit the 4.5G/LTE Advanced to deploy 5G like services in areas like mission-critical applications.
How do you assess ZTE's solutions and team?
ZTE is one of the biggest telco equipment vendors in the international market. As a challenger to more established vendors I believe ZTE has a high degree of hunger to reach further heights and is also perceived as a dominant challenger in the market.
All in all, we are extremely happy with the local support that we get. It's not just like a vendor who provides some pieces of equipment but who collaborates with our teams and shares its global experience. In that sense, we are very proud and happy that we have made ZTE our partner. You are a part of our total ecosystem.
What do you expect for the future?
I think one of biggest issues that we have in a technology-driven organization like Mobitel is that technology is so dynamic. So we need support from our vendors, mainly to keep the cost low and go for better technology. In that sense, what kind of a roadmap you have for your product is very important for long term planning.
Do you have anything to add in the end?
2019 is going to be a very crucial year for Mobitel because we have just embarked on one of the biggest expansion programs. 90 percent of our network will be 4G/LTE. It's going to be a really hectic exhilarated expansion program. We need every possible resource to complete our project as fast as possible.
Mobitel, customer-centricity,Sri Lanka