Sandip Das, CEO of Malaysia's Maxis, is enthusiastic about the
impact telecommunications can have. At the same time he's
enjoying the thrill of being active in Maxis's interests in
India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka
Sandip Das: a lot of red-eye flights as he travels around
Maxis's interests in India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia
Malaysia's largest telco has 13 million mobile customers, a 41%
market share, an ebitda margin of more than 50%, and is
developing fixed services over its own optical fibre network.
But that's not all that is outstanding about Maxis. In late
2009 it raised $3.6 billion in the biggest initial
public offer of shares in south-east Asia, a transaction
that gave it a market capitalisation of over $12 billion.
The company is looking to invest in LTE networks, and is
talking to virtually all vendors to negotiate the best deals.
Maxis is at the centre of a complex network of companies. It
owns Aircel, the innovative Indian operator (CIO Ravinder Jain
interviewed here), plus 44% of Axis, the Indonesian
operator (CEO Erik Aas interviewed here), and 43% of Sri Lanka Telecom, the
Sri Lankan incumbent. In turn Saudi Telecom owns 25% of the
main Maxis holding company.
"It means a lot of red-eye flights," says Sandip Das, the CEO
of Maxis, who is also acting CEO for the Indian operation and
on all the subsidiary boards. But Das seems to be enjoying the
Years ago Das ran a Toyota car franchise in Dubai, but he's
glad he's made the change. "Telecoms penetrates to the masses,"
he says. "You would struggle to do that with cars. Telecoms
changes social behaviour."
More importantly, mobile telecoms is playing a huge role in the
development of nations, including China and his native India,
where mobile will succeed where there is still a lack of basic
infrastructure. "Telecoms will change their lives," he says.
But what he loves most about the difference between telecoms
and the car business is the speed. "Telecoms is a very heady
business," says Das. "You can make business plans on a Saturday
night and you can observe the results on Monday." But you have
to think on your feet -- and you have to be careful about what
And to run a telecoms company -- or a network of telecoms
companies -- you have to do that. "You tightrope walk," he
says. "You have to think about finance, technology, branding,
dealing with the regulator and dealing with the government. You
have to be an all-rounder."
Only 15 years since it was created, Maxis is not only the
largest telco in Malaysia, but one of the largest companies on
the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange. "We're up there with the banks
and the airlines," he says. "Our brand is one of the top four
in Malaysian business. In a country with 27 million people
we've become iconic."
About half of Malaysia's population is under 25 years old, and
a large proportion of them are internet users.
"The country has a very strong mobile market, with 118% SIM
penetration," says Das. "The actual penetration is 70-80%. Has
the market saturated? I would say so."
But there is still some untapped demand, he says, estimating
SIM penetration will reach 140-150% in time.
Most of the growth will come from those under-25s using
internet services, he adds. "Malaysians have a great ability to
absorb data. There are 16.5 million internet users." The
country has a high consumption of services such as MySpace,
"and a great propensity to blog", says Das, who thinks the
market has more than 150% growth left in it.
But this internet connectivity, not broadband internet
connectivity: and that's where the opportunity comes, he adds.
"Broadband penetration in Malaysia is low compared with our
neighbours. We're at 37.5%." Penetration is higher in Thailand,
Taiwan and other south-east Asian states, he notes.
As a result the government of Malaysia is "keen to take the
escalator to broadband demand" and is "putting a lot of effort"
into stimulating penetration. "Wireless broadband has grown
fast, but fixed-line broadband is still sluggish, because there
is a lot of copper in the network."
National broadband network
The government has mandated the incumbent, Telekom Malaysia, to
build a national high-speed broadband network using fibre, with
a requirement that other operators -- including
Maxis -- should be able to use the network on what are
called "reasonable terms and conditions and on an equitable and
As Das puts it: "Everybody will have access. We see this as a
catalyst to broadband growth, even for ourselves." However,
are working with Telekom Malaysia," says Das.
But Maxis has its own broadband plans. "We are working with the
electricity company," says Das. The idea is to run fibre along
electricity poles so that the company can deliver services on
its own network. It has already connected 400 buildings in
Meanwhile Maxis is pressing ahead with its HSPA+ network, which
was introduced in December 2009 and should cover 80% of the
population by the end of 2010.
But Das refuses to get over-enthusiastic about mobile
broadband. "The state of mobility is mature," he says. Voice
revenues are falling and "data is not compensating for the loss
of voice revenue". Maxis invested in data early, and now makes
37% of its revenue from non-voice services, "second only to
DoCoMo in this region", but there is still a challenge.
Only a minority of data revenue is from text messaging, he
emphasises, whereas two years ago 60% of that non-voice revenue
came from SMSs. "Now more than half our population uses data
over our network," notes Das.
But what will Maxis offer as it moves towards becoming an
integrated service provider? "IPTV, education, health,
security," says Das. "We are quite happy to offer these so we
have a better share of the telecommunications wallet."
Maxis has worked with almost all vendors in its life, it seems
by deliberate policy. "When we were starting with mobile, our
relationship with infrastructure suppliers was very different
from what it is today."
He is looking at WiMax, TD LTE and straight LTE technologies
"and looking for a vendor that can migrate with us", he says.
"The infrastructure guys tell us this can't be painless."
The company's main initial suppliers were Ericsson and
Motorola, "but now we're changing suppliers very aggressively",
he suggests. Key vendors are now Ericsson and Huawei in Malaysia and also in the group's
companies in India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, "though the odd
network here and there is Nokia Siemens Networks and ZTE". But
LTE "could be completely different", he notes.
IBM is a key partner for Maxis in Malaysia, where the company
has a contract for the complete transformation of its IT
services to enable the future delivery of products and
services. "We're now in our second year of implementing the
system with IBM," he adds. The transformation process includes
selecting and implementing customer-centric platforms and
applications. "It's a full transformational model, developing
full CRM," adds Das.
Das has built up a wealth of experience in the industry. A
mechanical engineer by training, he first worked in the
industry in 1994 when he joined what was then Hutchison Max
Telecom, helping to start the company's operations in India.
It turned into Hutchison Essar and launched the Orange brand in
India in 2000 -- in those days Orange was a Hutch brand,
before France Telecom took over Orange UK the same year.
"We had the opportunity to create a premium brand," recalls
Das. "We sold Hutchison Essar to Vodafone at a good price."
His brand experience has helped with Aircel, he notes. "We were
known as a regional player. We had to be more mass market. Just
like Malaysia, India has a very large population of young
Aircel decided to turn itself into "a pocket internet company",
says Das. That brought in premium customers -- though Aircel's
sponsorship of cricket and its campaign to save tigers also
helped to raise its image. "For Aircel, data usage grew from
the smallest to the largest percentage of revenue."
In India, as in Malaysia, "the next stage of growth is
broadband", he adds. Aircel is one of the biggest investors in
3G spectrum in India "and we are very excited".
Meanwhile he is also active in the company's investment in its
Indonesian operation, which "started with the wrong model" but
has now changed.
"I have a very happy mix of countries," says Das. The
scale -- Malaysia, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka --
enables him to negotiate good prices. "Malaysia is at the top
end of the value chain," he notes: the country is "in many ways
absolutely contemporary with everywhere else", he adds.
In telecoms, particularly: "We've just trialled LTE," he says.
"We have a fantastic content range. And now we're trying to get
And now he's turning his attention more to Sri Lanka, where
Maxis is a partner with the government in the incumbent telecom
operator. "Sri Lanka Telecom has great strengths. The mobile
company is very innovative. It has launched an educational
service with the university of Colombo. We see ourselves as a
company that can help Sri Lanka get on the information
The government "has been extremely supportive" and Maxis has
been contributing its experience.
Is there room for more? Already active in four large Asian
countries, the Maxis group is "open to opportunities", says
Das, "but at this point there is little thinking space" because
of the big investments the company is making in its operations.
"We have our hands full. These are jewels in our crown and we
want to shine them." GTB
GTB interview with Erik Aas, CEO of Axis
GTB interview with Ravinder Jain, CIO of
GTB news reports:
Huawei wins Maxis FTTH
Malaysia's Maxis plans $3.4bn
Maxis to invest $427m in network upgrade