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The #SpaceWatchME Interviews: Samer Halawi of Thuraya

Samer Halawi, CEO Thuraya; Credits: Thuraya

In the latest SpaceWatch Middle East interview series, Torsten Kriening speaks to Samer Halawi, Chief Executive Officer at Thuraya. They discuss the Middle East satellite market, areas for growth, company innovation and the future of the business.

Thuraya is set to diversify the business and to disrupt the industry with your next generation plans. Can you put this into context and tell us the reasons behind this?

Earlier this year, we appointed global management consultancy A.T. Kearney to review, validate and help complete the business continuity plans we were working on behind the scenes. Our next generation capability development project, which we call FUTURA, has now been fully defined.

Thuraya will deliver an extensive program of expansion and diversification, becoming the provider of choice for unified connectivity. Our future portfolio will transform Thuraya into a one-stop shop for L-band, high throughout services (HTS), IoT and GSM. The satellite vendors RFP is progressing well, and we are in the process of raising the necessary funds.

The timing is right. Emerging markets need higher capability and performance from L-band, or HTS, or a combination of both, and new markets will become accessible. Uniquely, Thuraya will also provide advanced platforms for IoT & content services (like multicasting and broadcasting). We are also fully compatible with GSM through our unique roaming capabilities, with 389 agreements in place with 371 partners worldwide.

This comes on the back of sustained growth. We have consistently grown faster than the MSS market, outstripping the industry with 8% CAGR rates in 2011-2015, twice the overall growth rate.

We will build on core strengths of distribution, licensing, product quality and innovation, and terrestrial integration. With new infrastructure, we will target currently inaccessible lucrative markets, such as maritime commercial shipping and the aeronautical industry, and geographies we do not cover at present.

Mobility is probably the biggest trend that we see in the satellite industry today and there is a lot of established and new competition out there. As a leader in remote and mobile communications technology, how do you stay ahead of the curve?

The need for mobile communications has never been greater, and will grow further as we enter a new era of connectivity for people, ships, and aircraft. There are many reasons why Thuraya is especially well placed to meet that future demand.

Technologically, our GSM-based satellite network complements terrestrial. Our SIM cards and those of terrestrial operators are interchangeable, and work on each another’s networks.

The products themselves put us ahead of the curve, too. Our unique consumer focus and GSM integration allow us to capture a large addressable market, and leverage the growth of smartphones. Last month’s launch of the Thuraya XT-PRO DUAL, the world’s first dual mode and dual SIM satellite phone, places convergence in your hand. Now there is no gap between satellite and terrestrial, as users move seamlessly in and out of terrestrial coverage wherever they are.

We can’t do this alone, though, and partnerships and flexibility are vital. The key is to give our partners’ customers the best offering possible.

You have finalised plans for your next constellation, but the process that has brought you here has not been an easy one. Why did Thuraya decide to settle on L-band and how will the new constellation define Thuraya’s future proposition?

The process has actually been really positive. It has been rewarding and stimulating to analyze how the market will look in the future, and we are set to take a transformational step forward. It is really exciting to be working at Thuraya right now.

L-Band is a scarce resource, and one that remains in demand, so it has a natural and valuable role to play. While the market is poised for growth, it is not accessible for new entrants. It is also dynamic and Thuraya has proven its ability to understand and leverage the trends.

Thuraya XT-PRO DUAL; Credits: Thuraya

L-Band spectrum is also uniquely suited to deliver voice and data services to very small (particularly handheld) devices. So Thuraya is excellently positioned to take an increasingly sizable market share. We can build on operations in EMEA and APAC that have helped make Thuraya the third largest MSS satellite operator; and we are market leaders in the MENA region.

There are land, maritime and aero sub-segments that will always want L-band services and solutions, especially those looking for very high mobility and resiliency. Other bands cannot deliver the same form factor and equipment price points. We will see growth in maritime (especially significant sub-segments like regional merchant, fishing and offshore support); land data for both the consumer and enterprise markets; and M2M and IoT sectors.

FUTURA is far from being only an L-band play, though. L-band is just one important component in a comprehensive portfolio that also includes HTS, GSM and IoT. Our next generation system will deliver high mobility services in core and new markets. These will be complemented with HTS services for bandwidth-hungry applications in land, maritime and aeronautical markets. Our constellation will be supported by highly advanced platforms for the provision of “new wave” IoT and content services, with multicasting and broadcasting capabilities. This will let us address new markets requiring mobility, capability and coverage.

There are concerns amongst your partners and clients about Thuraya’s planned satellites and the fact that there is little information available about them. How do you respond to these concerns?

Artists rendering of Thuraya 3 satellite; Credits: Thuraya

We’re delighted at the way all our partners and clients have responded to our plans and we’re in regular contact with one another. It is clearly understood that Thuraya’s L-band network will undergo extensive evolution. We are upgrading in a phased way, with an advanced next generation MSS L-band system planned for launch from 2020. Thuraya-2 and Thuraya-3 continue to operate as planned, still with years of service to offer, so continuity is assured. Once new satellites have been launched, our current footprint will be enhanced. We have also been fully engaged with major vendors over the past few months, and this engagement process will continue as we move through the RFP process.

Tell us about the demand you are seeing for IoT and the plans that you have to exploit this area?

We will offer targeted applications: IoT, M2M, Connected Cars and content services. With our terrestrial integration, and a focus on a number of high-growing IoT applications, we will be in a unique position to add value. The whole telecom industry is targeting IoT, but connectivity requirements cannot be delivered by terrestrial networks alone, especially where ubiquitous coverage is needed.

We’re working closely at various levels: with technology partners such as LoRa application providers; and solution providers who deliver weather monitoring, oil and gas, banking, water management and other sector specific solutions. We have started discussions with platform providers to tap into wider IoT market reach, both for application enablement and connectivity management. Areas we are planning include shipping and logistics, energy and utility infrastructure monitoring, and banking.

We are well placed to target demands from key growth areas: high security, low latency real time applications for mining and oil & gas; mining companies also need reliable connectivity for tracking assets and workers’ safety. Government and security customers will value cyber-security and network availability appeal; and utility companies are looking for network resiliency and low total cost of ownership.

And which other emerging market sectors are of particular interest to Thuraya?

FUTURA triples the size of our addressable market. We will stay focused, while adopting a more expansive strategy. We will address new growth markets requiring mobility, capability and coverage by developing an integrated offering of voice and data products to target carefully selected, high-growth sub-segments.

Thuraya’s next generation system will focus on delivering high mobility services in core and new markets, complemented with HTS services for bandwidth-hungry applications in land, maritime and aeronautical markets.  The constellation will be supported by highly advanced platforms for the provision of “new wave” IoT and content services, with multicasting and broadcasting capabilities.

You are developing a new fleet of satellites with HTS capability. With a glut of HTS satellites coming online, where do you stand on the issue of overcapacity?

Thuraya will position itself as an owner of L-Band assets, but as a wholesaler or aggregator of HTS, rather than a satellite operator. We will be a one-stop shop service provider, in a unique position to offer HTS augmented with the reliability and resiliency of L-Band services, at great economics for both.

Since it seems to be a buyer’s market for the foreseeable future, with supply set to exceed demand within years, it makes no economic sense to invest in an HTS satellite of our own now. Initially, we will deliver HTS by partnering with FSS/HTS satellite operators and providers. At the same time, we will assess hybrid satellites with vendors.

Today, Thuraya operates in L-Band but do you have plans to use other bands in the near future, such as Ka/Ku? Any thoughts on V/Q band technology?

We’re frequency agnostic, because we start by identifying particular user needs and then develop specific solutions for them. The end user does not care which band gets the job done. So we are considering Ka and Ku or any future band, because we consider any band that makes sense for future purposes. Having said that, L-Band will always be at the heart of our offering.

SpaceWatch Middle East thanks Samer Halawi, Chief Executive Officer at Thuraya, for the interview.

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