Not many people get the chance to build a mobile phone network
- and the team to put it all together - from the beginning.
Many of the big networks in Europe, the Asia Pacific and North
America have layers of successive technology interconnected:
scrapping it all and starting again isn't possible.
So British telecoms engineer Muhammad Iltaf saw a huge
opportunity when he was approached by a group of investors,
mainly from the banking industry, interested in starting a new
mobile network in Pakistan.
Not much more than 18 months after that first approach Iltaf
is CTO of Warid Telecom, which is delivering high-quality GSM
service to 2.3 million customers. He was working in the UK for
Orange at the time of the approach, focussing on performance
management systems for GPRS and 3G.
"I thought this was a lifetime chance," he says. "I'd a lot
of ideas about what to do building different networks and here
was a chance to try them out."
As well as Orange, Iltaf has worked for BT - at BT Labs as
well as for some of its former international mobile interests -
and for Ericsson and Vodafone in the Middle East.
"We had a challenge to start off with," says Iltaf. "The
group of people who were investing in Pakistan in the GSM
licence didn't have any network experience. Their background is
banking. They recognised that Pakistan was a potentially very
lucrative market and they set about hiring a number of people
from established telcos to help them understand how to set up
Iltaf was recruited by Marwan Zawaydeh - who is an advisor
to the group and board director of Warid Telecom and was
formerly CTO of Etisalat before coming to Pakistan. "He
together with some ex-colleagues of Etisalat came to form the
initial team. They contacted me. At the very least it was an
opportunity to build something from scratch and I accepted the
Core network decision
First step was to make a decision about the core network. "I
was the person responsible for this and I put together a
strategy for what I would like the core network engineering
department to look like. We agreed on the skill set we wanted.
Somewhere along there we started identifying key personnel and
I called up a few people."
Some accepted the offer, some turned him down, and some say
no but then changed their minds. "In two and a half months we
had the people responsible for engineering, the core network,
the OSS, operations and so on. This was in September-October
2004 - 18 months ago."
It's clear that Warid has powerful investors. The company,
which won its license in open auction for $291 million, is
owned by Abu Dhabi Consortium, which is led by Sheikh Nahayan
Mabarak Al Nahayan, a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi.
The group, one of the largest in the Middle East, has interests
ranging from oil and gas exploration and hotels to banking and
It already had a large presence in Pakistan: it owns Bank
Alfalah, one of the country's main consumer banks, and has a
substantial stake in United Bank, one of the largest financial
institutions in the country.
With that sort of support Iltaf and his colleagues were able
to approach the main vendors for their proposals for their new
network - companies including Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia and
Huawei, he says.
No network migration
"Because it was a greenfield network and we didn't have any
legacy network to integrate with, the choices were fairly
simple. Most existing networks have a large installed base of
legacy technology - with three or four generations of products
working with each other. With us, network migration wasn't a
That gave the team at Warid a much freer hand. "We made the
choices - we wanted the latest emerging technology that was
globally available, and the vendors came back with very good
There was some caution about going for the absolutely newest
suggestions. "Some suppliers came back with a softswitch
solution for the core network," says Iltaf. "We chose not to go
with the mobile softswitch at that time because 18 months ago
it was still an emerging technology and it wasn't totally
compliant with standards. We partnered with Ericsson as our
main supplier and they provided a turnkey solution based upon
the latest AXE switching and radio technology."
That's changed after 18 months, he says. "Now are looking at
this architecture for the core network because it provides a
more cost efficient solution. Other networks around the globe
are also now going to the mobile softswitch. We are in the
process of evaluating this technology."
Warid was also able to take a novel approach to providing
SMS services to its new customers. Iltaf decided not to use a
conventional architecture, based on short message service
centres, but to use an intelligent routing system from UK-based
voice and SMS routing specialist Telsis.
New texting technology
"Because we were building a new network, we had the choice
of deploying state of the art technology or going a whole
generation back. We chose to go forward," says Iltaf. Using the
Telsis approach means Warid can provide high-volume SMS
capacity and introduce advanced services.
"We had seen the limitations of the old store-and-forward
messaging architecture built around SMSCs," he says. Most
messages can be delivered straight away, so "it makes no sense
to have a system which assumes a delay is inevitable", he adds.
"A modern network also needs a messaging architecture with real
intelligence to support new network and third-party
The Telsis approach Warid chose "is a router-based
architecture and very, very easy to scale up", he says. "Load
sharing capabilities are excellent, management is excellent and
we're finding that as SMS is growing in the Pakistani networks
our competitors are finding it hard to scale up." Ericsson
supplied the Telsis equipment to Warid, he adds.
Ericsson also won a substantial part of the radio network
business, he notes, along with Huawei.
"One of the gaps in the Pakistani market has been an
environment based on good quality of service." People were
content if they could make phone calls, and operators needed
only to provide what he calls "a bare minimum service".
But, starting with a new network from the beginning, "we
wanted to reduce the interference and increase the quality of
service and quality of the conversation for the customer".
The network uses intelligent features such as adaptive
multi-rate and frequency hopping - Warid operates dual band
services - to make the best use of the capacity.
"We're aiming at better quality at a lower bit rate and at
reducing the impact of interference. This has been tried
successfully in the metropolitan and rural areas of the UK and
other parts of Europe. Here we're using them. I've got guys who
were working for O2, Orange and other companies, and people who
have worked for Ericsson."
In its initial roll-out Lahore-based Wahid is aiming at
Pakistan's 28 biggest cities, "where there are potential
customers looking for the best quality of service at
competitive rates", he says. "Our biggest challenge now is to
keep up with the capacity demand in these 28 cities."
The network is expanding to other cities and the main
highways between, but the company is maintaining a cautious
approach to its expansion. "We're only claiming coverage where
we have a business centre and distribution outlets, and service
But eight months after launch Warid has "2.3 million active
customers", he says. About 88% of them are pre-pay, "but one of
the main features of our network is that because of our
presence within the banking fraternity we also have the second
highest post-paid base in Pakistan, which is something for us
to be proud of because the post-pay market is competitive.
We've managed to win users who are major users of the
Warid is interconnecting with other fixed and mobile
networks in Pakistan and internationally. "By and large in
Pakistan the national networks have no problem interconnecting
with SMS and two networks are interconnected with us for MMS as
well. MMS is of increasing importance. Over the next few months
we'll be interconnected to all of them in Pakistan."
For international services Warid uses Mobile365 for SMS
delivery and BT and Etisalat for call delivery. "From a roaming
point of view in eight months or so we have connected with 92
networks in 77 countries," and the total should reach 100
countries shortly, he adds.
Services started in May 2005 and by early August there were
one million customers. Since then success has continued. "When
we came here the mobile penetration in Pakistan - which has a
population of about 155 million - was 3.5-4%, about the same as
the fixed line penetration. By the time we got the licence the
mobile penetration had started to overtake the fixed line
numbers. It's still 14%, so you can imagine the potential. From
a business point of view it's an exceptional opportunity."
Demand is already strong for voice and basic text messaging
services, and he believes that Pakistanis will develop their
enthusiasm for advanced text-based services and text-based
interaction with television and radio.
"The key to the design of our entire network, including
messaging, is the flexible way in which it can grow," he says.
"We are going to be ready for seven million customers in a year
Licence for Bangadesh
The banks and other investors behind Warid are happy with
their first 18 months, he implies. "This is our first venture
into telecoms, and it's been very successful. The group has
just acquired a licence in Bangladesh and we are in the course
of selecting our suppliers and we're hoping to start the
operations there later this year. We want to have a regional
presence, so we become a major supplier of telecommunications
services in the region." See the panel for more about the
The projected expenditure in Pakistan on the mobile network
is more than $500 million. GTB
- CTO, Warid Telecom, Lahore, Pakistan since 2004
- Masters degree in telecommunications technology
- Started as a software developer for Ericsson mobile
- Joined BT research labs to develop GSM/GPRS traffic
models and assessing the impact of introducing new cellular
services for Cellnet UK, then a BT subsidiary
- Seconded to lead the core network design and planning
activities for the launch of Telfort, a BT and Dutch Railways
joint venture to build a GSM 1800 network in the
- As an independent consultant involved in various projects
in the UK and Middle East; with Ericsson Professional
Services, he was the design architect for Vodafone UK's GPRS
network and senior consultant for the expansion of the
Al-Jawaal network in Saudi Arabia.
- Before joining Warid he was Orange's UK design authority
for 3G and GPRS performance management solutions
Warid has picked Ericsson - which is a key supplier to its
Pakistan network - to build and operate its new network 2,000
kilometres away in Bangladesh. Warid won the licence in
December 2005 and will be the sixth mobile operator in
Bangladesh, which has a population of 145 million.
Bashir Tahir, CEO of Warid, told Bangladesh's Daily Star
that Ericsson will be awarded a contract to manage the network,
which will use Nokia and Motorola base stations.
"We have built a best-in-class network in Pakistan with
Ericsson, and we have the same ambition in Bangladesh and
that's why we have chosen Ericsson as a strategic partner,"
Tahir told the newspaper.
Ericsson will supply the complete core and transmission
equipment for the network, as well part of the radio network
equipment. The contract also includes Ericsson's mobile
softwitch solution and media gateway, which will provide Warid
Telecom with significant savings, said Ericsson.
The use of the mobile softswitch is a significant first step
for an efficient evolution towards all-IP operation. Warid
Telecom will be able to offer a wide range of multimedia
services to its customers.
Tahir said: "Although we are a late entrant, Warid Telecom
has an aggressive build plan that will see us reach the entire
Bangladesh population within one year. We will also ensure that
we offer our Bangladesh customers a wide range of
differentiating services that will add value to their lives, as
well as redefine customer service in the country."
The core network will give the operator the opportunity to
use network resources for next-generation services in the most
cost efficient way, while continuing to benefit from
traditional voice services, he said. "It will lay the
foundation for a future-proof network that will support the
evolution towards real-time voice and multimedia communications
over IP." GTB