Mobile Telephony: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Dialog Enterprise. Its 26-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new products and new evolutions, to boldly go where no telco has gone before.’ While the above is a variation of a phrase made popular through its use in the title [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Infrastructure consolidation in mobile firms should happen – Hans


Dr Hans Wijayasuriya

Mobile Telephony: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Dialog Enterprise. Its 26-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new products and new evolutions, to boldly go where no telco has gone before.’

While the above is a variation of a phrase made popular through its use in the title sequence of the original Star Trek science fiction television series, it could well be identified with Dialog Axiata’s journey in Sri Lanka.

They say it’s all in a name.  

Dialog Axiata is one such company known for enlisting some of the best and brightest minds to develop real, revenue-generating communications that take advantage of the changes in the communications technology ecosystem.

Some 20 years ago going by the name of Dialog GSM, this telco firm recognised the potential in Dr. Hans Wijayasuriya, who had joined Dialog’s founding management team in 1994 fresh after his PhD in Digital Mobile Communications from the University of Bristol, and promoted him to the role of CEO three years later.

If rumour is to be believed, Dr. Wijayasuriya was the first Sri Lankan to be armed with a PhD in Digital Mobile Communications – a subject that was so nascent in these parts of the world some two decades ago.

Says he in an interview with the Business Times that back then while he had a ‘general interest’ to follow engineering for his PhD he wasn’t specifically focused on what area.

Set apart

“I thought of doing my PhD in an area that would be useful to Sri Lankans and one which would give me sufficient challenge to work in Sri Lankan,” he says adding thoughtfully that the fear he had at the time was whether he’ll get (more) attracted to working abroad with a valued education from St.Thomas’ onwards to two of UK’s great Universities as opposed to being employed in Sri Lanka.

He remembers that in 1991 when he started at UK’s University of Bristol, Celtel was the only cellular firm in operation. “Hardly anyone had a mobile (handset). Then something told me that a major digital break through will happen and I decided on Digital Mobile Communications.” In 1994, Dr. Wijayasuriya joined Dialog as the Deputy General Manager Engineering and the company at the time was the last entrant in a 4-player mobile phone market.

He recalls that then mobile coverage was fairly patchy and that it was an interesting time when the company’s initial owners, the Capital Maharaja and Telecom Malaysia had a strong vision which was mostly centered on the idea that Sri Lankans deserved the best and the most advanced telephony and also the owners wanted to break away from the pack.

Handset like brick

“At the time, we had analogue technology. A handset was a large brick and cost some Rs. 150,000. One minute of airtime cost about Rs. 25 to Rs. 30. Possibly less than a 1,000 people had a handset,” he says of a time when things seemed rather primitive. “These firms at the time had pioneered great things,” he says adding that Sri Lanka was the first to launch 1G analog  technology in South Asia.

Following a successful 26-year history operating wireless networks and developing communications products, Dialog is a company that is now leveraged to drive the development of the next generation of communication technology, he says. “We started as number four and we were way behind the competition in terms of product and market position but we had the fortitude to improve ourselves and to benchmark ourselves against regional and international best practices and ultimately reach a position of leadership across a wide range of corporate attributes.”

According to Dr. Wijayasuriya, Dialog’s plans were intended to achieve a number one position not just in terms of market share, but also in profitability, product quality and innovation, customer service, brand equity and corporate positioning containing its human resources, and resilience to competitive and other macro environmental challenges.

He says that Dialog was riding the digital wave but also changing the business paradigm while transforming the exclusivity of mobile telephony in the country. “We had this hypothesis that if a high-tech business was to survive in Sri Lanka then we had to make it available to all. So, everything we did was driven by that. We couldn’t play the same game (as the competitors). We had to redefine it. We didn’t see a 100,000 mobile subscriber market, but a 1 million one.” He says that the only discontinuity at Dialog is that when your become the market leader, it’s not about looking over your shoulder anymore. “It’s about setting standards.”

Exporting local talent

Contrary to popular belief, he says that Sri Lankans are productive and most hardworking. His most rewarding experience at Dialog was witnessing the development of the people at Dialog. “I have seen that Sri Lankans have a 360 degree potential of commitment, hard work honesty to purpose and staying the course. This is why Dialog was built with Sri Lankan talent. Productivity is something I’ve heard a lot about in Sri Lanka – often with cynical overtones. But I have seen otherwise.”

He adds that local Dialog human resources talent is exported to other Axiata Markets. “There’re 40 odd Sri Lankans in senior positions in Axiata Asia,” he says noting that in the right culture and environment people are basically honest and hardworking and want to do their best. “So it’s up to the leaders to create an environment where this approach is possible and is also rewarded.”

Both new challenges and growth opportunities await telecommunications companies, he says adding that the telecom sector continues to be at the core for growth and innovation for almost any industry.

Mobile devices and related broadband connectivity persist to be more and more entrenched in the fabric of society today and they are key in pushing some major trends. The challenge in the years to come, Dr. Wijayasuriya says will be doing this in a market where there is increasing usage.

He says that the industry is likely to witness more mergers and acquisitions in the future adding that in this backdrop data consumption will increase as the mobile will become more multifunctional.

Consolidation should happen, he says bringing the mobile space down to three players at the most – more at an infrastructure level.

Dr. Wijayasuriya adds that world over, while established players need more spectrums to gain competitiveness, small players prefer to team up with strong rivals rather than setting up a nationwide foothold in terms of infrastructure which is exceedingly capital intensive. He adds that infrastructure consolidation in terms of sharing base stations, etc has to happen. “Service providers can come out with efficient ways of sharing the base stations.”

This country has witnessed so much growth in the past five years in telcos and the next five look to see a bigger growth of digital communications and in this space, Dr. Wijayasuriya, who moves to a higher position in the group, advocates consolidation within the industry mainly on getting economies of scale right.

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