Charting the Course

by Clayton Vallabhan | February 10th, 2015

thurayaThuraya Telecommunications Company is a mobile satellite communications company that started off in 1997. The company believes in empowering people with tools to bring the organisations and communities they serve closer together.

Its global customers include industry leaders from a variety of sectors including energy, media, marine, military, government and NGOs. With a network covering two thirds of the world via satellite and across the globe through its GSM roaming capabilities, the company has gone from strength to strength every year and is backed by industry heavyweights. Board members include Ahmed Julfar, the Group CEO of Etisalat, and Khalid Balkheyour, President and CEO of Arabsat.

Ahmed Ali Al Shamsi, CTO of Thuraya, explains how the company found its roots: “It was in the early nineties when GSM started to be deployed in the market. At the same time there was a growing market for satellite broadcast in the region and new ideas of satellite constellation for MSS (Mobile Satellite Services). At that time, we studied the satellite market to see what we can do. Definitely there was a strong demand for BSS (Broadcast Satellite Services) in that region, but the idea of MSS systems was growing fast. As a telecom company, the focus on the MSS was a natural behaviour, especially since the market study showed that it was a complementary growth to the GSM and a unique system and industry that we would like to grow and lead in the region.”

Thuraya went forward with that idea, and at the time it was quite a challenge to produce compact satellite phones. The company took on the challenge and showed the industry that this was something that could be done. “The phone we developed was the smallest in the market, and had an extremely user-friendly interface. Today we continue to do this and innovate to bring additional features to that technology.

“We were the first MSS company in the region. We were the first company to own and operate a satellite in the UAE. Etisalat was leading the project and it was able with key shareholders to form the company in 1997, and from there we grew,” says Al Shamsi.

Thuraya currently operates two satellites in geo-stationary orbit. Thuraya 2 covers Africa, Europe, the Middle East and part of Asia, up to India and China. This satellite is positioned at 44 degrees East, and was launched in 2003. The other satellite, Thuraya 3, covers the Far East, Australia and Japan at the 98.5 degrees East orbital position. It was launched in 2008. Thuraya’s coverage spans 160 countries, and in addition to the normal coverage it also offers a roaming service. This enables users to also use some of its handsets over a GSM network. For instance the XT Dual handset allows users to access the GSM network, whereas in the XT, a GSM SIM or a Thuraya SIM card can be used in the phone. Al Shamsi says that Thuraya is the only operator to do this, and it has an overlay coverage for roaming and satellite access.

There is a central facility in Sharjah where all the Thuraya gateways are stationed. This facility houses the voice and packet gateways for Thuraya 2 and Thuraya 3. Moreover, Thuraya uses core networks designed by Ericsson and Huawei and based on GSM, allowing smoother workflow with MNOs.

As the company grew, the corresponding growth of terrestrial mobile services via GSM brought new factors into the equation. Also, in the satellite industry there was a shift and overlap between FSS (Fixed Satellite Services) and MSS, as there is now between FSS and BSS, because the customer needs mobility and more IP throughput. Currently, there is a major overlap between FSS and MSS, especially in the maritime area.

“There was a lot of VSAT deployment when FSS was trying to tap the mobile segment and provide more throughput. Between the FSS and BSS, the boundaries started to blur. Personally, I feel this might happen as well for BSS. The reason is because today, no one sits at home and watches TV. That market is reducing. People watch what they want on their smartphones, tablets and even on TV when they went and based on what they want, and that can be achieved through IP links. They download the movies that they like at any time at any location.

“This becomes an IP pipe rather than just TV streaming, and the customer is educated about this and expects it. They would also like to see this in the satellite segment, and it will come. So what’s going to happen is that FSS might again draw from the share of BSS and vice versa, because it’s going to be an IP pipe at the end. They have to provide a different service that can distinguish each market, otherwise there will be too much overlap between these sectors,” explains Al Shamsi.

“The world now is looking at high throughput satellites, where customers can get more bits at a lower cost. The challenge here is how small you can make devices for HTS services. Also, the mobility will be a big challenge here for certain market sectors.

“In the past, there was a big gap between terrestrial and satellite industries and not enough synergy, but we at Thuraya played a good role in bringing both industries closer to each other and tried to close this gap by bringing innovative solutions like Thuraya SatSleeve and Thuraya GSM, in addition to having good partnership relations with big MNOs like Softbank Mobile in Japan, SMART in the Philippines and Airtel in many African countries. Also, I can see more synergy happening in the coming years because the satellite might play a role there to bring the services that do not need high throughput or a big pipe but can benefit from the large coverage that satellite can provide. An example of this is services like M2M, which might be an area where satellite and terrestrial can collaborate together to bring more value to the customer, with a smaller device. A device which can work on both systems.

“We tried to do similar things with Thuraya’s SatSleeve, and we were successful with that. It was well received by different people, and we are trying to push for MNOs to take this further and use it. It allows the use of GSM, along with a satellite component there to help you if you need it.”

With terrestrial networks trying to bring in additional services without investing a lot more, it’s only natural to partner with satellite players. This will allow telecoms companies to introduce solutions by using the current infrastructure, and satellite can also add to growing the current infrastructure further.

Diversification is key

Al Shamsi says: “In the last few years, Thuraya has done different things to grow the company. Some of these areas are in distribution, technology, customer care and upgrading the systems, and bringing new products and solutions. Today when you look at IP and data services, the terminal becomes an enabler and what matters are the services, application and solutions around it. You need the customer to have a solution and applications that can work with that. What we have done is introduce many solutions, and the way we have done it is by allowing third parties to bring their own solutions that can work over Thuraya data terminals through IP or GmPRS links. We optimise the configuration of the solution in a way that will produce the best performance, and then we certify those solutions within Thuraya to allow the users to utilise them over our network. Once the solution is certified, we promote it to our customers to enjoy using it with Thuraya products and affordable packages.

“It’s important that when you do this, you don’t bring it to one specific sector. Thuraya products are designed to serve multiple market sectors, so that’s why we have introduced multiple types of terminals. We introduced data services in the handsets too. The initial Thuraya phones offered only voice communications, but now we have GmPRS built into the device with 60kbps down and 14kbps up.”

Thuraya has also changed the way it handles customer care. Al Shamsi explains that the company is very transparent with its partners and proactively informs them about any changes or upgrades in the systems. “Even if we know that such activities may not impact them, we still share this information if we feel it would be good to do so. We allow them to see the entire ecosystem so that they are aware of everything that is happening, and are coordinating the activities that pertain to them.

“We have received fantastic feedback and have managed to change the way that customers perceive Thuraya. The customer care and after sale support is what the customer is looking for. If you give them the best terminal and run away, they will not be happy because it is not what they’ve purchased the service for.”

The third change is actually in the system. Thuraya has created a five-year plan where it changes most of the critical components in the system. “We have done this over the last three years. We’ve changed elements starting from radio parts up to the core network. This was done element by element to maintain the system stability, and to provide the best availability and reliability figures. Thuraya network availability is the highest, and even better than some of the terrestrial networks. This made our customers really happy, and changed the perception and the way the customers regarded Thuraya. In addition, the flexibility of Thuraya system design and the capability and power of its satellites allowed it to tailor and introduce innovative products and solutions to the customers, by using the existing satellites.”

At the same time, Thuraya produced products to address multiple sectors. It introduced the Voyager series, which multiple customers can use, whether for the oil and gas sector, military purposes or for the media. In addition, Thuraya initially entered the maritime sector only with voice only terminals, but it is now introducing data services through the Orion and Atlas range of broadband terminals. Al Shamsi indicates that Thuraya has tested the market by allowing customers to use the Thuraya IP with a maritime antenna, and the results were successful.

“We have different packages in maritime, with different prices. There are also different features necessary for this customer which we’ve added on, like the SOS key for helping others in distress. In the voice side it’s the same thing, where we’re trying to attract the GSM customers and MNOs to use our systems. There is the Android SatSleeve and the iPhone SatSleeve.

“We even have the XT series of handsets, which is very popular. We’ve recently launched the XT LITE, which allows people to use the handset casually and provides you the basic functionality that you need from a satellite phone. It has a very good battery life and a great quality of service. The phone, in terms of registration to satellite, is very fast. The quality of voice is very clear and comparable to GSM. In fact, people don’t believe it’s a satellite phone. There is also the ruggedness of the phone. We have customers who have said that it fell multiple times from their hands, but the phone was still working. Furthermore, it has a very easy-to-use MMI, and the price is a key point which is extremely competitive to others in the market. It is definitely one of the best satellite phones in the market today.”
Thuraya serves many different types of customers, and Al Shamsi says the company always tries to have diversity. It has customers from the ranks of VIPs and government, media, maritime, and oil and gas, as well as individuals who use the handsets. Al Shamsi credits this diversity with keeping the company healthy, and the company intends to try and expand this.

“We are introducing M2M, which is a different sector that can help oil and gas and shipping. Hopefully by next year we should get that ready for our customers. The key thing for oil and gas is deployment. When oil companies go out for exploration, it is a very short period and there is a need to have mobile equipment that can be easily carried from one area to another. The Thuraya terminal is very easy to be deployed and very easy to use. The package is very easy, where you can have streaming with the standard package or an unlimited package where you can use it for whatever you need. So it’s really the right solution for them.

“We have also introduced Thuraya GSM, where it enables the customers to use their own ordinary GSM phones over Thuraya coverage. The beauty here is that we can change the way the device is used for different sectors, so our customers are happy. The unlimited package, with the price point which we set, is loved by our customers. We’ve especially seen this in certain countries like Africa, where people love to use this very reliable system, where connectivity is always there. Users can look at their budgets clearly, which makes it different from services like VSAT where you have to book it and charges follow accordingly. This is dynamic, and that is one of the beautiful things with dynamic resource allocations, where you will get it when you need it and you will not be charged extra for it, it’s a one-time charge for all you can eat.”

Likewise, Thuraya has also been busy in the maritime sector. Al Shamsi says it has done three main things. “We have introduced narrow band, which provides voice and GPRS functionality through Seagull. It was very well received by the customers and it is very cost-effective. We also introduced SF2500 for the fishery industry. It’s got the same scale as the Seagull, with voice and SMS facilities, as well as geo-fencing, which allows to control the boat as well. We launched this in multiple areas – our customers in the Far East were happy with it, and use it for crew calling as well. After that we allowed customers to integrate Thuraya IP with a maritime antenna. We did this to further penetrate the maritime market, and it was successful. The pricing was perfect. In fact, at a time when competitors were increasing their pricing, we were keeping our prices the same and even attempting to lower them.

“We then introduced Orion, which is specifically for maritime, and now we’re coming out with a new range called Atlas. The sales of the Orion terminal were overwhelming, and we have sold out all our stock and are now reordering to keep up with the demand. Additionally, we have hired a lot of new employees in the company to work solely on the maritime side of our business, as we are really focusing on this sector and intend to grow our market share in 2015.”

Key to success

“Our distribution and pricing has encouraged more customers to work with Thuraya. The trust has already been built, and many partners have moved to us because they have seen the performance and quality of service we offer with our terminals. In fact, we have a culture to serve and improve life that is at the core of the team that works with us. We strive to help people who need help, either in emergencies or disasters. This is what we are good at, and that is what drives our team to always go a step beyond. This is proven with Thuraya achieving double-digit growth while the competitor revenue is either stagnant or dipping,” says Al Shamsi.

In 2014, Thuraya signed agreements with different partners like Smart and Airtel in Africa. Al Shamsi says that in the year to come the company is going to grow on this and strengthen its partnerships.

“There will also be a few product releases which will come at the right time for the right sector. Innovation is something we have in our spirit. We don’t like to copy things from others, or do routine things. We have done this since day one, and were a pioneer to introduce multiple products in the industry. Prepaid and postpaid MSS, along with roaming, is another example of Thuraya’s innovation. We were the first to introduce the smallest handset, the SatSleeve, and others. We will continue to do this and come up with different products and solutions that are innovative, affordable and something that will always surprise the customer,” concludes Al Shamsi.

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