D Murali

‘India and China have incredible people resources'

D. Murali | Updated on September 25, 2011

Mr Tony Poulous

A  tête-à-tête about the challenges, growth and potential of the telecom industry.



Tony Poulos, Market Strategist, TM Forum, Thailand , is someone you need to see in action, especially at telecom conferences. Having sat through one of Tony's energetic presentations at a recent event on mobility, organised by Amdocs in Singapore, I was curious to know what excites him the most in telecom conferences.

“I get excited hearing success stories from innovative operators or any new ideas or theories on generating revenue,” replies Tony. “I particularly look forward to hearing from people that have worked on projects, the challenges they faced and how they overcame them. It's a real shame we don't see more ‘inside' stories because, sadly, PR and legal departments want to sanitise everything that goes out into the public domain. How sad is that?” We continue our conversation over the email. Excerpts from the interview.

Governments shutting down telecommunications , at the slightest hint of political or social unrest annoys you. Is there an argument both for and against the action?

Governments have always had a keen interest in developing telecommunications infrastructure to promote national security and growth. That, plus the tremendous costs involved, is why they funded and operated the early fixed-line PTTs. They were the only ones that could afford to and they wanted to ensure control of a key national resource. In today's supposedly deregulated markets, private enterprise has taken over the reins and any government intervention not only affects the profitability of these operators, it also impacts the lives of those that have come to rely on them. We have now seen how people react to governments that have tried this method of control to quell social uprising – it just makes the people more determined. The shutting down of communication channels also puts many lives at risk in case of emergencies.

As an industry veteran, what are the most critical issues that have the attention of telecom CEOs these days?

CEOs have many critical issues to deal with but their primary tasks these days appear to revolve around appeasing their boards and stakeholders. Growing profitability by lowering costs seems to be the most popular way of achieving this, but savvy CEOs are constantly looking closely at heavy investments in network and IT technologies unless they cannot guarantee a viable and speedy return from that investment. Surrounding themselves with skilled people in the C-suite is critical to keep the operations moving forward and allowing the CEO to concentrate on keeping the ‘outside' forces happy. Maybe it is a confidence thing but we don't seem to have many telco CEOs that are media celebrities or shine as great leaders and motivators. Great CEOs create corporate personalities that customers and investors are attracted to but I fear they are a rare breed in our sector.

Your suggestions on how countries like India should take telecom development forward.

The era of the mass subscriber grab is drawing to a close. It's now time to concentrate on retaining valuable subscribers by offering them unique and value-added services that they are willing to pay for. This requires a major shift in corporate and staff thinking but countries like India have the advantage of seeing how more developed markets have fared and can be selective on what they decide to invest in.

Internet access is certainly a key factor and will be the major driver for growth moving forward. Knowing, even guessing, what customers want can be a very time-consuming and expensive exercise. Most don't know what they want themselves, so second-guessing individual markets is the real challenge. Operators should not be frightened to invest in innovation for themselves; after all, markets like India and China have incredible people resources that can be called on.

Much is talked about entrepreneurship and innovation. Do you feel that the telecom industry is having enough of these? Are there areas where the industry can do better in terms of innovation and entrepreneurship?

You've touched on a subject I am obsessive about. We have moved from the days of innovative internal IT departments to an era where almost all innovation comes from the vendor community. The only ‘internal' innovation I am seeing is coming from marketing departments and I am not sure if this is always desirable, deliverable or even sustainable.

Almost all the innovation that has affected our industry dramatically in the last ten years has come from outside, sometimes from totally unexpected quarters, and they are almost always disruptive. The Apple iPhone and iPad are good examples. We seem obsessed about innovations in network speed and bandwidth rather than maximising investments already made. Lack of innovation results in our services becoming commoditised and control being ceded to the OTT (over-the-top) players who directly access our customer base.

As for entrepreneurs, well, they are few and far between in this multi-million dollar industry. Anybody showing entrepreneurial tendencies is either bought out or moved out as soon as the operation reaches a size that investors deem is in need of an ‘experienced' manager. Killing off entrepreneurs is almost a sport in telecoms and the only ones we tend to see today are in the supporting industries supplying business applications.

Looking ahead, say 3-5 years, what are the minefields that the industry should watch out for?

The next 3-5 years will see margins being compromised further as growth steadies. We could see further disruption with non-Telco players starting to enter the market and probably purchasing networks to ensure they have unfettered supply paths for delivering digital products to their own customers. Smaller operators will certainly feel the squeeze and this will result in considerable M&A (mergers and acquisitions) activity as home markets become saturated and the bigger players will look outside for investment and growth potential.

We have only seen the beginning of the mega-carrier era. M2M will grow exponentially and create a series of unique challenges of its own, including massive numbers of connected devices, massive data traffic along with very low cost plans. Smart grids, eHealth and monitoring/surveillance will be prolific M2M users. The analysts will tell you that video is set to explode but if the experience is not seamless and jitter-free it won't be taken up.

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Published on September 25, 2011
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