Kian Gould is the CEO and Founder of AOE and is responsible for strategy, vision and growth of the company since 1999. AOE develops digital business, E-Commerce and marketplace solutions based on open source technologies. Gould is a regular speaker at many global conferences, and a well-known expert in global E-Commerce, telecommunication, airport digitalization and agile management.
You established a long-standing partnership with Deutsche Telekom. What are the key elements for a superior telecom customer experience?
We started working with Deutsche Telekom twelve years ago, when they had just launched their secondary brand congstar into the market. The vision of congstar was to become an attractive brand to a younger generation of mobile users that wanted the best network but more flexibility than the flagship carrier was providing; putting the power in the hand of the user. The motto was “what you want is what you get”. This required a complete rethinking of telco architecture for this new mobile virtual network operator (MVNO). Allowing customers to change their contracts anytime within the billing cycle, adding products, removing products, etc., meant the need for a never-before-seen flexibility in architecture from campaign through commerce to provisioning and billing. It was an amazing opportunity for AOE to build a new generation telecom E-Commerce framework from scratch. Over the years, more and more units within Deutsche Telekom wanted to rebuild and modernize different parts of their infrastructure and so our projects spanned from innovation projects for T-Systems-customers in the automotive sector, to building the new headless frontend framework for the main flagship E-Commerce platform to assisting with Deutsche Telekom’s biggest digital hub in charge of FTTH (fibre to the home).
What we have learned throughout the years is that there is major frustration from customers if a telco shows that they are not flexible and lock you into static and long-term contracts. Indeed, there is nothing more frustrating than having to find the right person within a giant organization to fix your problems. Many of the projects we have been working on have had a major impact on improving processes, customer satisfaction and flexibility and have enabled e.g. congstar to win best mobile carrier in Germany for nine years in a row. Our highly adaptable architecture solutions that we have co-developed with Deutsche Telekom and congstar over the years have led to superior customer and service experiences. One great example worth mentioning here is that congstar is one of the few telcos that enable customers to cancel their contract with one click. As a customer, it feels great knowing that your provider wants to make it easy for you and not lock you in by cumbersome processes – waiting for hours on customer hotlines. All these initiatives have also meant a major reduction in call centre- and support costs and ticket escalations.
What do you consider to be the most pressing technology issues in telecom customer service and management?
To be frank, the telco business is a business that requires significantly leaner, faster and more agile software and development processes than the majority possesses. This has led to MVNOs taking over significant aspects of the market as they offer more customer-centric and flexible solutions without the burden of running and maintaining their own networks. Flagship telcos cannot leave this playing field to innovative MVNOs and need to innovate at a much faster pace. With much of the market becoming commoditized, innovation through convergence products, higher contract flexibility and bundling are the future. These require very different commerce, provisioning and billing systems that largely don’t exist in today’s telcos or are architecturally so complex that new features take months if not years to roll out. So, in most cases, telcos need to and have started to look at how they can decouple their systems more, work with microservices, more flexible agile development teams and methods, DevOps, etc. And as pioneers in those sectors or agile IT, we are often asked to help with those transformations from the inside. Not only as consultants who make suggestions but as agile transformation teams that work hand-in-hand with internal teams. Furthermore, telcos would also greatly benefit from taking advantage of our solutions, which can be flexibly integrated into existing BPM- and CRM-systems such as AAX and Salesforce Vlocity.
Where do you see AI/ML taking a foothold in telecom process improvements?
There is a huge amount of work that happens within a telco that could be automated more: Many different legacy systems, call centre staff needing to log into multiple systems to find a customer, not being able to make automated process optimizations, etc. One example that we have recently been working on is escalation prediction. With relatively simple machine learning algorithms it is possible to predict – with a very high degree of accuracy – that a certain new or migrated customer will run into an escalation, which can then be addressed before the customer even has to find out. Other areas include analysing usage behaviour, making automated suggestions to more customer-beneficial contract options or personalizing the shopping and upgrade experience more. These are all fields where we are currently active.
What are the main reasons why telcos are not able to innovate quickly enough?
One of the main reasons is certainly the way that big corporate IT used to be structured. Big silos, separation of development and operations and far too much interdependence between very large legacy systems. Very few telcos are able to take the route of congstar and build a new IT in a complete greenfield approach. So, what most telcos have to do is to carve out certain parts of their business and develop those on a new greenfield approach, do it continuously and step by step make their IT more agile, move away from classic enterprise IT paradigms to leaner IT, API-first and loosely coupled vs. deeply integrated solutions. This requires not only a different mindset concerning software development, but also a much closer engagement on a partnership level with their vendors. In my opinion, true partnership is the strongest asset we have.
What are the biggest USPs for telcos in a highly saturated market? Where do you see convergence products playing their part?
As stated earlier, I believe that telcos need to keep up with the quick innovation of MVNOs in their respective market. Of course, you could take the stance and say “my network, my terms” but many markets have shown, that as soon as strong regulation comes in, just being the network provider and being forced to resell your network to MVNOs at fixed rates can quickly leave you in a situation where the MVNOs are able to derive more value for their customers than you can. As such, I strongly believe the big telcos have to start rethinking their value proposition to their customers. Claims such as “best network” or “no dropped calls” are outdated and no longer excite customers in an oversaturated market. People want choice. They want device flexibility, they don’t want lock-ins, they want convenient convergence products at attractive rates, they want flexible data solutions that also meet their home needs, they want their relationship with their telco to adjust to their life circumstances. So, I strongly believe a combination of more convergence products and higher flexibility with truly personalized customer service are key to growing the business in the current climate.
What kind of impact is digital transformation making on the retail value chain? How has the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the ongoing changes?
I would say we need to separate immediate impact from long-term impact. Of course, during the first lockdown phase, and I am saying “first” on purpose because I don’t think we have seen the last of it, companies relying heavily on their retail footprint have been essentially decimated to dust. In a retail world where you might be working off a five percent EBITDA margin, losing 25 percent of your annual turnover, is, needless to say, an unbelievable exogenic shock. As we are easing in and out of lockdowns, that impact differs between retailers depending on their omnichannel capabilities. As such, the impact for a congstar, that has no stationary retail footprint and can do anything and everything digitally and remotely is close to nil, whereas carriers relying on people to walk into their stores to purchase contracts have been hit much harder. Outside the telco space, brands and retailers with strong E-Commerce presence have seen a dampened effect, whereas luxury retailers especially, have suffered tremendously as they refused to go digital in the past. In many cases, all their airport sales disappeared overnight and they are virtually incapable of selling to their target audience.
The next few years will see a lot of statements being made about how COVID-19 put the last nail in the coffin of retail but I believe the reality is that Omnichannel, or unified retail, was the only one with a future even pre-COVID. Pure downtown retail was already on its last breath in many categories and had survived on selling and re-leasing real estate assets, etc., rather than innovating the customer experience. From an overall retail perspective, retailers who have invested at an appropriate clip, both analogue and digital, have built the ability to collaborate into their ecosystems. Retailers need to be more customer-centric. Having no customer-centricity equals failure. So, in my view, all that COVID has done is to stop delaying the inevitable decline of the legacy retail as well as the rise of the new breed of retail.
How important is it for retailers to implement a customer-led strategy? How does the Omnichannel experience help achieve this?
I think the answer is very clear: A customer-led strategy is the most important factor for success. Customer expectations have grown significantly over the last few years. Whether that is healthy or not is a different subject, but the fact is that companies such as Amazon have led a revolution of customer-centricity. Have you ever heard of anyone having had a bad experience with Amazon’s return policies or their speed of resolving your problems for you? With a razor-sharp focus on customer satisfaction before profits, they have become the most customer-centric retailer in the world. Now, we shouldn’t concede the whole world of retail to Amazon but we can certainly learn from the fact that putting the customer first is one of the strongest investments in the future. Customers that are loyal to you as a brand or retailer don’t check prices anymore but build relationships that last.
You transformed Frankfurt Airport into the first Omnichannel airport. What are some of the key organizational factors to consider before undertaking a transformation of this scale? How will airline retail strategy change post-COVID?
Some of the key learnings are mainly that software alone cannot solve organizational transformation challenges. Agility and innovation have to be driven mainly by mindset and culture, not process and software. The aviation travel retail industry as a whole has long stood by and failed to innovate on a relevant scale. The results were a continuous decline in spend per passenger and an increased disinterest in the proposition. Post-COVID, airlines and airports will have to do more with less, which means that driving non-aviation revenues will be key for survival. So, while investment and CAPEX are extremely difficult for the aviation sector right now, investment in digital commerce solutions will be key to their survival; the result: We will see more and more airlines developing their brands and making them stronger. We have seen this transformation pre-COVID and it will be accelerated post-COVID.
What were the main challenges you faced with AOE during the pandemic and lockdown?
We essentially transferred the entire operations to remote work within two days and were almost surprised at how seamless it went. Teams didn’t only maintain their velocity (output) but in some cases even increased it. So, from a purely operational point of view, we saw no adverse effects. However, where we did get affected badly of course was our aviation division where traffic went quickly to zero. Our E-Commerce platforms at major airports and airlines suffered strongly and so did the revenues from those customers. Luckily, some of our customers had already launched the ability to offer home delivery without people flying and they have been thriving at levels manifold to that of pre-COVID. However, the ones that still relied on people to travel to purchase saw their sales disappear within weeks. Recovery will be slower than expected, but we are bringing new low-investment solutions into the market as we speak, in order to make sure the recovery is a digitally led one.
What do you hope to achieve with AOE in the next few years?
AOE has proven multiple times that it can move industries to a new level of customer-centricity and innovation. From the early days of building some of the first global subscription services such as PlayStation Network, to changing the telco business in Germany to making airports and airlines operate as Omnichannel retailers. We love to innovate and create customer value, led by agile transformation. We aim to continue our footprint in the telco space within Europe and become a leader in the aviation space. Additionally, we have multiple parallel innovation units around the topics of ML/AI, IT Security, Life Sciences and FinTech, which we plan to grow to substantial units as well.
Mazen A. Dohaji, Vice President (iMETA) at LogRhythm
As technological advancements have skyrocketed, and the switch to digital is on the rise, cybersecurity will play a vital role in the transformation ahead.
As governments all over the world invest in smart city initiatives, the role of cybersecurity has been elevated to protect the fabric of society from cybercriminals looking to wreak havoc across the board.
One of the main players on the front line of cybersecurity is LogRhythm, a U.S.-based cybersecurity firm. The company recently launched tools for adopting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Essential Cybersecurity Controls (ECC). Its predefined reports and use cases enable organisations to accelerate compliance with the KSA’s ECC and support Saudi Vision 2030.
Inside Telecom sat down with LogRhythm’s Vice President of iMETA, Mazen A. Dohaji, to find out more about the company’s activities and the current cybersecurity landscape.
Could you walk us through the cybersecurity services that LogRhythm has and will provide to KSA?
The Essential Cybersecurity Controls (ECC) were launched in 2018 by the National Cybersecurity Authority (NCA) in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) as part of the Saudi Vision 2030 strategic framework. Since then, we’ve been developing reporting capabilities and compliance use cases that make it easy and efficient to comply with the KSA ECC.
Our NextGen SIEM platform enables organizations to meet many ECC guidelines by collecting, managing, and analysing log data. With out-of-the box automation, our system meets the minimum cybersecurity requirements for information and technology assets operating within the KSA.
We understand that organizations may be at different points of compliance maturity, so the KSA-ECC module gives organizations the flexibility to realize value at any point along that maturity scale. As their business grows, our advanced functionalities such as NetMon, TrueIdentity SysMon, threat research content, and case management will enhance prebuilt content to better support organizations’ compliance efforts.
Will the services offered be provided to both the Kingdom’s private and public sectors?
Our reporting capabilities and compliance use cases are designed to serve both the private and public sector. At the same time, we have a key focus on the public sector and that is a large opportunity for LogRhythm in KSA.
The objective of the ECC is to establish best practice in cybersecurity at a national level, covering critical infrastructure, high priority sectors and government services. All government-run agencies and departments within the Kingdom must comply with the ECC, and any privately run organizations looking to do business with public sector organizations must also comply.
What matters is that any organisation can easily demonstrate their compliance with the ECC when they’re audited.
Can you give us examples of how your services will shield KSA from cyberattacks?
An organization in the KSA can proactively monitor their IT environment and recognize any suspicious or problematic activity. This includes right down to the endpoint.
Our SIEM platform has helped to improve many organizations by allowing them to provide widely diverse log sources, correlate them, and then easily create rules around alerting them about cyberattacks. By integrating all products into a single system for analysts, we make it easier and more efficient for organizations to block attacks and save time in the process.
It is about enabling organizations to be proactive with cyberattacks and giving them visibility and control over their IT environment.
As 5G rollout begins, how will LogRhythm capitalize on the next generation network to enhance services, products and capabilities?
I think the evolution of 5G will create new opportunities and challenges for enterprises. We’ll see growing deployments of IoT that are underpinned with 5G and that means new and diverse attack surfaces. The combination of 5G and IoT will make security a priority for a growing number of organizations and they will need to rethink their approach.
At its core, it’s about creating a secure foundation for innovation and maximizing the potential of 5G and IoT. That’s a journey that many organizations are on already, but 5G will accelerate investments in IT security and the development of IT security strategies.
With smart cities on the horizon, such as the Kingdom’s plans to build Neom Smart City, what can governments do to ensure the safety of these advanced Internet-powered cities?
The KSA has been proactive in its approach to cybersecurity. It has recognized that cybersecurity is critical to the growth and development of its digital economy and that extends to smart cities.
For smart cities around the world to not only survive but thrive, governments need to make sure they are providing reliable, wireless connectivity throughout. However, it needs to be done in a safe and secure way.
Governments need to maximize their security intelligence by gaining visibility into all parts of their network, whilst simplifying the Security Operation Center (SOC) experience so their analysts can respond to threats faster. With new technology, governments can save resources, increase the value of their investments, choose scalable and flexible deployment options and create road maps to advance their cybersecurity journeys.
Can you please breakdown automation in cybersecurity and its benefits?
Automated incident response tools handle sensitive customer data, preventing attackers from gaining access to potentially damaging information, and causing reputational detriment and distrust.
Inefficient communication and lack of resources increase the risk of damaging threats slipping through the cracks. With automated incident response tools you can guarantee that all prescribed steps are taken, and in the same order, ensuring nothing is missed. However, if your organization maintains an informal SOC and has limited resources, you may be facing delays in responding to incidents or threats could be going unnoticed. Using incident response tools can save time which can be directed to more pressing workflows and alerts can be handled by fewer people.
With constant change in the industry and an increasing landscape of cyberthreats, security teams have a lot on their plate. It takes longer to separate real threats from the false alarms and the amount of time spent on routine data gathering increases Mean Time to Detection (MTTD) and Mean Time to Respond (MTTR). Using automation incident responses can limit the exposure of false alarms, enabling analysts to pay more attention to critical threats and increase the aggregation of data, putting the relevant details in front of the right people.
Not having an efficient plan in place can easily cause panic when things go wrong. Automating IR not only allows for the decision-making process to be expedited in the event of an attack, but also ensures that the right decision-makers are clearly outlined which minimizes overlap. With more visibility and elimination of blind spots, you will not only improve your security operations efficiencies, your team can operate with much more confidence when securing the organization’s data.
Does LogRhythm have any plans to expand its services beyond Saudi Arabia, and into the GCC as a whole?
We serve organizations across India, the Middle East, Turkey and Africa, which we call iMETA. This is the region that I cover. While these markets are quite diverse, they share similar cybersecurity challenges. Across the Middle East, we’re active with both channel partners in markets like the UAE and Egypt while serving direct customers that span iMETA. This is a dynamic and growing region that understands the value of robust cybersecurity and with local markets that have big ambitions for their digital economies.
What sets LogRhythm apart from its competitors?
We are a world leader in NextGen SIEM. We empower organizations across six continents to successfully reduce risk by rapidly detecting, responding to and neutralizing damaging cyberthreats.
Our platform combines user and entity behavior analytics (UEBA), network traffic and behavior analytics (NTBA) and security automation and orchestration (SAO) in a single end-to-end solution. We are also the only provider to earn the Gartner Peer Insights’ Customer Choice for SIEM designation four years in a row.
Kevin Taylor MBE – Indigo Telecom Group Chairman
This year has been a rollercoaster ride for industries far and wide, the most notable being the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on economies, governments, and companies alike.
For many, financial numbers and results dipped, projects were cancelled, and investments stopped dead in their tracks as the world’s population took refuge in their homes.
While most of the world were hitting the breaks, the telecom industry went into overdrive, as they took to the frontlines to maintain networks and connectivity streams, enabling the world to remain connected.
It wasn’t an easy feat, but telcos were able to steer the ship in the right direction by realigning their capex investment, focusing on immediate network expansion and managing their frontline engineering capability.
Inside Telecom sat down with the Chairman of Indigo Telecom Group, Kevin Taylor MBE, to find out more about the inner workings of the business and how Indigo remains steadfast despite the challenges ahead.
Indigo has been providing network and infrastructure to clients since 2009, currently operating in over 90 countries. Tell us more about your global expansion plan?
Obviously, we have a strong presence within the UK and throughout the EU; our acquisition of a incredible design company called 4site, last December, has given us a number of positives such as strengthening our design capabilities across the mobile and network spaces, and that has given us two things:
- It gave us a huge boost within Ireland by winning the national broadband to roll out fibre across the rural communities.
- It gave us the capability to have a stronger fibre and wireless design rollout within the UK, which so far, has proven to be very successful.
The 4site acquisition gave us the ability to focus on an end to end design, build and support capability across mobile/5G, optical/fixed and broadband networks and data centres. This new three by three model allows us to offer end to end solutions across all the hottest and most current technologies in our industry.
So, our ability to meet our Customer demands are moving in the right direction…as an example, customers might ask for the following…5G design and build? YES, Broadband build? YES, Mobile Data centres/IOT? YES, Optical and Fixed Line Support? YES, our three by three model covers all the basis in the industry which means we are very busy.
In addition, we will be looking to strengthen our presence across Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Austria. The next expansion on our list in Europe will be Spain, Italy, and Denmark.
Away from Europe, although we have a presence in Hong Kong and Singapore, however expansion has been delayed due to travel limitations, which has been difficult amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
In parallel, we plan on opening in the United States sometime early next year and expanding with our Customer demand. It is exciting times but as a company we are passionate about moving at pace despite Covid-19.
How do you plan on accelerating business growth?
I’m a big believer that momentum in a business is essential for success, our customer demand is up 6X, our portfolio is expanding, our strategy is working, and our customers are supporting us. It has allowed us to build on the positives we’ve garnered, hire new people and continue as a business making a difference.
The reasons why people like to buy from Indigo Telecom Group is widely due to our genuine desire to make a real success of what we’re doing for our customers, by exceeding customer service and delivery expectations.
Operationally, we focus our efforts toward offering a strong customer experience, by putting a high level of priority to improve their value streams within their very own businesses.
Guaranteeing the service model is of great importance to us, and that’s been reflected in our work, as our service levels have been 99.99 to 100 percent efficient for a long time now, even with the challenges presented to us since the pandemic began.
Other things that we’re looking to improve are expanding our three-by-three services model, reinvigorating our data centers to extend their capabilities to become more proactive, bringing in some digitization to allow more automation in the business, and creating an end-to-end service catalogue across all of our portfolio to make sure we are ticking all the right boxes.
Thus, our primary aim is to ensure we have excellent tightening operational principles within the business, increasing customer engagement, measuring customer response, strengthening our partner management, and lastly, making acquisitions where appropriate to accelerate our business.
I’m a person that believes in bottom-up strategies, rather than top-down strategies. Companies should involve the talent of their employees across the business to help define the strategy. This in our case has enabled them to feel part of the change within the company.
The 2019 acquisition of 4site in Ireland allowed Indigo to roll out new design capabilities across the UK and Europe. What gains have you made from the acquisition?
Our acquisition of 4site, in real and measured terms, has helped us add the wireless and fibre design aspect to our build and support capabilities, while enhancing our go-to market strategy as well as expanding the scope of services to our customers.
In parallel, our pipeline has gone up 6x from an acquisition perspective, while securing higher win rates than where we started, so in less than a year, the transformation to our business has been fantastic.
Indigo’s services portfolio is constantly evolving to meet the needs of your growing customer base. What areas of operations interest you most right now?
Here we must look at our most compelling areas, while looking at our engineering talent and capabilities in order for us to hit the sweet spot for us and our customers.
Although funds in the industry that are coming in are both on the telco and investment side, each investment needs implementation talent and it’s our job to provide this as well as deliver our capabilities on time while moving incredibly fast in many key aspects such as broadband, fixed, optical networks and next generation data centres.
There’s also the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) and everything that comes along with it, which will rapidly develop with the rollout of 5G; in addition, there’s also edge computing, tower companies expansion and technology manufacturers launching better and faster infrastructure.
How does Indigo set itself apart from other telecom engineering companies?
Well you must consider that every major company in this business has a history within it, we have an engineering one, and I think our effective sales channel and the quality of engineering is what sets us apart from the competition.
And to maintain that edge, we really need to understand the need to do everything right and effectively first time and every time; this is our company culture, and we are also keen to offer the younger generation an opportunity they deserve within this industry, which is a massive thing for me personally, and now we’ve done just that by filling some of these roles in the 100 positions we have hired over the last five months.
We provide full training support; we have just launched an apprenticeship scheme and on-the-job training is provided across our organisation.
With all of this bundled together, it allows us to offer quality, opportunity, and experience to these engineers, noting that some of them have become redundant or have struggled elsewhere during the COVID-19 era.
What projects are you working on and how is the prospect of 5G shaping the future of your operations?
5G is going to be very interesting going forward, especially from both B2B and B2C perspectives. Thus, the most integral part in moving forward is connecting with the right partners.
For a few years we have been supporting our customers by designing and upgrading our customers’ infrastructure to be ready for 5G.
We have also put a large focus on enhancing our build capabilities, which is a huge positive for us to be able to offer support to our customers. We’re aiming toward staying at the leading edge of technology and enhancing and growing our knowledge.
Will 5G rollout be prioritized toward businesses and enterprises first? Or will the rollout happen for both businesses and consumers equally?
I think there’s going to be a massive upside on the B2B transaction applications front, and segmentation of those applications. However, consumers will always want and seek the latest technology especially the younger demographic; we’re already seeing this via the increasing demand of 5G-powered smartphones.
Businesses will be looking at the benefits of 5G for enterprise, so I think the demand and priorities are going to be met equally. Especially since it’s going to support remote connectivity, like IoT, AI, VR, AR etc.
How can telecoms manage the mobile data explosion?
The most important thing is keeping our knowledge as up to date as possible and doing this by maintaining our engineering focus and depth. As I previously mentioned, we just hired 100 engineers, and pretty soon we’re going to be looking for another 100, and then another 100, training them all effectively to have the right skills necessary for what’s to come will be key to our success.
How have you coped with the changing demands brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic? What measures have you put in place to ensure the efficient running of network infrastructure at this time?
The whole world went into shock the first few months. I think when we went into lockdown, nobody really understood what Covid-19 meant, and projects were cancelled left, right, and center.
However, the support of critical industry must keep going regardless of all the problems associated with Covid-19, especially with the massive importance of connectivity, for hospitals, businesses and, consumers alike.
We must keep the communications world operational.
At the beginning – apart from the critical projects – things slowed down for months or so, and then suddenly investments started again; telecommunications companies needed to scale up their networks due to people’s heavy usage of video conferencing technology, gaming, multimedia and many other applications.
Usage has been going through the roof… we have all played a part in keeping everyone connected. The increased usage of data around the globe has meant the telecoms industry has been rushing to invest in increasing the size of their networks.
In parallel, since the beginning of the summer, the pandemic has accelerated new technologies, which is why there are big amounts of investments going into our industry, and from that, we as a company, have grown tremendously, and hopefully we will continue to build on that growth.
On the ground, our engineers haven’t stopped, they have been on the frontlines with the right PPE and support, and I think they’ve done an absolutely brilliant and amazing job at keeping all of our customers happy. They together with all other key workers across many industries are my heroes.
Initially, in the back office, our employees have worked from home, and now we’ve implemented a rotation schedule for them that’s been in place for the past 4 to 5 months, which has kept morale strong.
One point of interest, our millennial staff are desperate to get back to the office, wanting to work from the office and work within a space that puts them in the right mindset to reach their full potential; thus, with the new rotation model, they’re happy to be back.
Is your business strategy keeping pace with the market? What challenges are you facing now?
First and foremost is keeping the momentum in the business, being aware of that and finding the right strategy to keep moving forward. In addition, one of our main challenges is hiring the right talent, continuing putting our customers first.
All while having fun within this strange new reality.
You have over 25 years of experience in telecoms. What excites and perturbs you about the industry today?
Every spring and autumn, there’s a new fashion in the world of telecoms and technology, and what excites me the most is keeping up with that fashion. An example of this can be seen when the first contactless solution in the transportation industry first surfaced in Hong Kong in 1997. I was a part of that – it was new and fashionable.
Whatever the next generation of fashion may be, I want to be part of it, and I think the most current one is 5G.
There are more changes that are happening today in technology than I’ve witnessed in my entire career, and I started back when we had shared mainframes, but to me, it’s all about what’s coming next.
Secondly, I’m very big on diversity; during my tenure in Asia-Middle East-Africa, I was the first in placing woman CEOs to lead businesses both in China and Japan. The selection was done because they were the best candidates at the time of interview by a country mile, but it culturally turned heads. I enjoyed that.
I also want to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity within this industry. For example, when I was Chairman of the British Chamber in Hong Kong, I worked with six big companies – among them banks, technology companies and utility companies – where we brought together youngsters who were on vocational training, they had fantastic ability but lacked the personal financial circumstances to go to university.
We rotated a number of individuals around each of the six companies to give them work experience while enacting a “if you like them, you hire them” policy, it was a tremendous success. People who would have never had the chance to work for companies due to a lack of qualifications, were offered the opportunity because of their capabilities.
It’s the human element as well as the need to give future generations every opportunity, that really excites me the most. I believe we all have a moral obligation in life, this keeps me energized every day.
Alexandru Cebotari, founder and CEO of AVO
People depend heavily on roaming services when traveling from one country to another. Tell us about how you started the app in 2014?
I was working for a company as an out-staff telecom engineer and working for international projects in Romania, Saudi Arabia, Cote d’Ivoire, Mozambique and others. During those trips, I used to buy local SIM cards for cheap internet connection, but immediately faced a problem related to receiving incoming calls on my home mobile number, thus having to use two phones. Even so, all calls were expensive because of roaming.
At this point came the idea to build a mobile app which will keep my regular mobile number alive while I’m using a local data SIM. Holding that idea, I went to the Startup Weekend event, and won second place. Afterwards, we participated at Yandex Startup Camp in Moscow launching the first app version. Then we participated in Startupbootcamp in Copenhagen, and things took off.
Now, our service is available for subscribers in 20+ countries, and we continue to expand and to offer new services. Recently we launched the AVO SIMFREE app, which provides data roaming at low prices, avoiding buying local SIM or carrying 3/4G Wi-Fi routers.
AVO app doesn’t only get you cheap outgoing calls but ones that are free of charge, how?
To be clear, the AVO app provides free incoming calls from regular numbers and free calls from AVO to AVO users. All outgoing calls to regular numbers are charged.
“Your number will be available for calls even if you put a different SIM in your phone.” How does the app manage to keep one number after replacing it with another?
It’s pretty simple, before replacing the regular SIM from the phone, the customer sets up call forwarding to our local gateway, and when an incoming call comes through, we deliver it to the AVO app over a VoIP connection. That way and after exchanging home SIM card with a local one for data, all incoming calls are diverted to the app. It’s not mandatory to use local SIM; it will work perfectly over any Wi-Fi connection.
For each category – Base, Tourist, Business and Expat – there is a different offer with a different price and duration for each country, can you explain the benefits of each roaming package?
We designed our packages based on the fragmentation of our users. The main factors behind splitting the categories were the time of the trip and the average call consumption made by different categories. For example, the package Base is used by short-term travelers with low call consumption; meanwhile, the Business package is used by frequent business travelers for which staying in touch over regular calls are very important.
How is privacy protected when the data is shared and exchanged between users?
We don’t have too much data to be shared between users. But for a few existing scenarios, we are using best privacy practices and GDPR recommendations.
Should the users’ contacts have AVO as well, to be able to connect with them?
No, this is the beauty of the app. An AVO user could call and be called by anyone. He can receive calls even from a landline and make outgoing calls to any international landline or mobile number. You don’t have to invite anyone to the app to be able to have a call. The most appreciated feature is incoming calls from any phone or phone network.
How long will it take for messages to be included in your service?
At this point, we don’t see the customer needs to add a messaging feature in the app. There are so many on the market and creating one more is not adding value for our users and us.
Can you tell us about the feedback regarding the app so far?
As with any app, we have different types of feedback, positive and negative. And we appreciate constructive criticism which helps us better understand the needs of our customers and make improvements to our app. One of the main issues we see now is the call forwarding setup required for the incoming calls. But we are already working on this.
What is the difference between the actual roaming costs worldwide and the rates you offer?
For calls, the difference is huge. For a US subscriber, the cost of the call for roaming is about $0.20-0.25 per minute depending on destination and home mobile carriers. With AVO app, incoming calls are free and outgoing calls are for $0.08 per minute. And the same goes to all other markets where our service is available.
What challenges have you faced with the expansion of your app?
The main challenge is marketing. Telecom is a highly competitive market, and we have to be creative in how to engage and retain our customers. The second biggest challenge is the partnership with telecoms. We would love to have more integrated services and to become a bridge between regular and VoIP call technologies. Still, very often, mobile carriers refuse to collaborate because they are concerned we will jeopardize their roaming business.
Tell us about your business plans and future goals?
As I told you at the very beginning, we just launched the AVO SIMFREE app as a costless solution for mobile data while traveling. We will work on a consolidated solution which will provide customers with the full roaming service including data, voice calls and SMS. Our next goal is to reach one million customers and to expand in Asia and Africa.
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