Telecoms duopoly needs time to dial in a better service

This is going to make me incredibly unpopular but I agree with the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority's (TRA) decision not to allow any new operators into the country for the next three years.

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This is going to make me incredibly unpopular but I agree with the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority's (TRA) decision not to allow any new operators into the country for the next three years. I know there will be readers of this column who may have experienced poor customer service from Etisalat and du and are just waiting for the entry of a third operator to shake things up a little. But I'm behind the TRA on this one. We need to give the duopoly more time to up their game.

There is also a socio-economic argument in support of the TRA position. Etisalat pays 50 per cent of its annual operating profit to the Federal Government; funds which then go towards vital projects such as health and education. Last year Etisalat made a contribution of Dh8.8 billion (US$2.39bn) and in the previous year it was Dh9.6bn, equivalent to a quarter of the Federal budget. While other duopolies around the world are cracked open with a crowbar by their respective regulators, Etisalat and du are being given the opportunity to secure their own backyards for the next three years. This period of insulation and marginal competition between them should be a time for innovative investment.

So let me propose to the management of both Etisalat and du the creation of a "Customer Innovation Charter". The concept of a charter between an organisation and its customers is not new and has been implemented by the likes of ANZ bank, Virgin Atlantic, even our neighbours QTel in Qatar as well as charitable organisations such as the National Library of Scotland. However, a charter which places innovation at its centre is, well an innovation. The Customer Innovation Charter could become a very long list, so I've taken the liberty of choosing what I believe are the most important elements.

Let's start with services for businesses. Reliability is at the core of any relationship between a telecoms operator and its business customer. The way to cement this bond is for the telecoms operator to draw up a written and enforceable commitment to their business customer through a Service Level Agreement (SLA), in effect a service contract. The SLA specifies the following types of detail for any critical service that a business subscribes to. For example, minimum bandwidth provided; "burst" bandwidth available over the minimum; service uptime (availability) of 99.99 per cent; and, most crucially, penalties to be paid by the operator if the SLA is not met.

The SLA is the bedrock of the relationship. If the operator consistently fails in meeting the standards set in the SLA they should not have the audacity to attempt to sell any new services to the business customer. It would be like trying to obtain a licence to drive a Formula 1 car without having one to drive an ordinary saloon. In addition, businesses need to have broadband services and prices provided at rates similar to, if not superior to, the most progressive telecoms equipped nations, such as those in northern Europe.

Finland, which has a very similar population size to the UAE, has made it a legal right for every person to have a 100 megabyte connection by the end of 2015. We can only hazard a guess at what infrastructure undertakings are being made for the business sector if consumers are going to get 100mb. The UAE is keeping up with other nations as a pioneer in industries such as renewable energy, so why not in telecoms?

For the small to medium-sized enterprise (SME) sector, resource whether it be financial or manpower, is always a major issue. Both operators must invest more in providing "on-tap" services and applications to this sector. This may mean hosting services in a data centre so that the SME does not need to buy applications outright. Instead, they can use these online resources as and when required. The SME is effectively outsourcing their information communications technology from the telecoms operator in return for a flat monthly fee for a managed service.

A close-knit ecosystem of partners operating along the entire value chain needs to be put together for an endeavour such as this, from networking companies such as Cisco, to application providers such as Microsoft and systems integrators such as Hewlett-Packard. In terms of consumers, or non-business customers, there are three items that must head up the Customer Innovation Charter. The first is the deployment by Etisalat and du of a competitive Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service that allows households to take advantage of making cheaper International Direct Dialling (IDD) calls. Currently, for expatriates living in the UAE, this is an unwarranted cost.

The TRA has blocked access to services such as Skype. There are ways to get around the block but why should customers have to find a scam to keep in touch with their loved ones back home. Phone number portability between mobile operators is a second element. This means that if an Etisalat customer wants to take their number and move to du, or vice versa, then it should be possible. And finally, the continued roll out of fibre-to-the-home so that services such as on-demand TV can be more cost effectively provided. Etisalat has made some positive moves in this space but price competitiveness is not one of them as yet.

Some of these suggestions might sound mundane. But these are the basics. So, it's over to the management at Etisalat and du. Rehan Khan is a business consultant and writer based in Dubai