Progress and plans for TAWAL in the MENA tower industry

An interview with CEO Mohammad Alhakbani

Read this article to learn:

  • Who TAWAL's core management team are
  • Mohammad Alhakbani's strategic vision for the company
  • Key success stories for the company to date
  • How TAWAL sees the role of the towerco evolving and which areas excite them most
  • International expansion plans

With a vision to become MENA’s leading ICT infrastructure service provider, TAWAL has had a number of interesting success stories in its relatively short history. In this interview we speak to CEO, Mohammad Alhakbani to find out more about the management team, key developments to date and the companies ambitions for the future.

Mohammad Alhakbani of TAWAL, will be speaking at this years’ TowerXchange Meetup MENA 2021. The 3rd edition of the event will take place in virtual format on 30-31 March. The event is the only event for the regional telecom infrastructure industry, so make sure you register your place today!

TowerXchange: Please can you introduce yourself and your path to becoming CEO of TAWAL

Mohammad Alhakbani, CEO, TAWAL: First, thank you for giving me this opportunity to share TAWAL’s fantastic journey so far that my team and I are very proud of. As for myself, I have more than 20 years of experience in the telecom sector and have held various leadership positions. I started my career with stc in 2003 as a network planning engineer and grew through the ranks over the years. In 2007, I moved to Indonesia to work as a project manager responsible for launching stc’s mobile network. In 2011, I was promoted to the position of General Manager for Network Services and Solutions at stc KSA. In 2015, I became the Vice President for Business Operations and shortly after started leading the Enterprise Sales unit as its Vice President. In January 2020, I was fortunate enough to be selected by the Board of Directors to lead TAWAL as its CEO. In terms of my educational background, I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering and a Master’s degree in Computer Engineering. Aside from leading TAWAL, I am also the Chairman of the Board at stc Bahrain and hold other board membership positions within stc subsidiaries.

TowerXchange: Can you introduce the management team supporting you?

Mohammad Alhakbani, CEO, TAWAL: I have been fortunate to join a very talented management team that were selected due to their rich and diverse experience and deep understanding of the KSA market. The executive team includes:

• Mr Saeed Al-Shehri, Chief Operation Officer: Saeed has more than 20 years of experience in the telecommunications field, including leading stc’s Network Planning and Performance as General Manager. He brings extensive experience in infra deployment, network operations, and technology and innovation. At TAWAL, Saeed has been instrumental in making the business completely autonomous by establishing a state-of-the-art Tower Operations Center. He holds a Master’s degree in Telecommunications Engineering.

• Mr Abdul Rahman Al-Moaiqel, Chief Commercial Officer: Abdul Rahman has 14 years of experience in telecommunications and infrastructure management. He has extensive experience in managing large-scale business/ commercial operations for sector pioneers like Ericsson and Cisco. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Electronics and Communications Engineering.

• Mr Richard Ltaif, Chief Strategy and Governance Officer: Richard has 15 years of experience in the Telecom/ICT sector. He is an expert in strategic planning and execution, governance and board related matters, M&A, and managing regulatory and legal affairs. He holds an MBA from London Business School and a Master’s in Engineering from Cornell University, USA.

• Mr Saud Al-Toaimy, Chief Finance Officer: Saud has extensive experience in leading finance and accounting functions for leading real-estate companies. He holds an MBA from Clark University, USA, with a major in Accounting. Saud has also completed the Uniform Certified Public Accountant (CPA) in the USA.

• Mr Hareth Al-Sahan, Chief Human Resources Officer: Hareth has more than 15 years of experience in the field of Human Resources and Development. He has significant experience in leading HR departments for multinational companies, including a large telecom operator. He holds a Master’s degree in Human Resources.

TowerXchange: What is your strategic vision for the company?

Mohammad Alhakbani, CEO, TAWAL: Our vision clearly articulates TAWAL’s ambitions – we want to “become the leading regional ICT infrastructure services provider”. Our strategic ambition is two-fold; (1) to grow and lead regionally in the core towerco business; (2) to expand our product portfolio to become a one-stop shop for ICT clients’ infrastructure needs.

Our core product growth in the local market will be driven by realising efficiencies, increasing tenancies, and passing these benefits to MNOs and other clients. We will build upon our deep relationships with mobile network operators to start offering adjacent products such as IBS, small cells, FTTS et cetera.

Today, we pride ourselves on creating a passive telecom infrastructure leading business in KSA. I am confident that with this two-pronged strategy we can further create substantial value for our clients and shareholders.

TowerXchange: What have been some of the biggest success stories during your tenure?

Mohammad Alhakbani, CEO, TAWAL: Fortunately, we have had many success stories in a very short time span. Here are the top five:

O&M cost/ carbon footprint reduction: TAWAL has been successful in reducing the O&M costs significantly by renegotiating better prices with our managed service provider and going for aggressive electrification of sites. What makes us proud is not just the cost reduction, but the significant reduction in diesel consumption which is lowering our carbon footprint.

Land lease costs reduction: Land lease cost is the biggest cost item for towercos. We have developed a dynamic site lease database and negotiation playbook which helps identify sites where our land lease costs are higher than market rates and helps select the right negotiation tactic to reduce our costs. Over the last 12 months, TAWAL has been able to reduce land lease costs substantially on more than 1,000 sites.

CAPEX reduction: The tower Industry is one of the most capex intensive industries. We have developed a comprehensive strategy to become more efficient in capex deployment. We have added new vendors offering competitive prices and our network team has come up with further innovative designs to optimise capex spend for the business. This has led to a double-digit reduction on our average capex per site.

Signing of commercial deals: In the last 12 months, we have signed two strategic commercial deals:

Frame service agreement with ITC: TAWAL will help ITC expand its network through colocating its equipment on TAWAL’s towers. In its initial phase, the agreement saw ITC installing approx. 150 PoPs across the Kingdom.

Partnership with Diplomatic Quarters: The strategic partnership is the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia through which TAWAL will be managing the ICT infrastructure and dealing with the mobile network operators in fulfilling the Diplomatic Quarter’s network requirements.

State-of-the-art TOC launch and improved PIN availability: TAWAL has built a state-of-the-art Tower Operation Center (TOC) which makes extensive use of automation and predictive maintenance to assign tickets and identify sites which may have an outage in future. This enables us to prioritise such sites for maintenance and improve their future capability. I am proud to share that we have improved our Passive Infra Network (PIN) availability from 99.7% to 99.9% in only 12 months.

TowerXchange: How do you see the role of the towerco evolving?

Mohammad Alhakbani, CEO, TAWAL: Before we discuss how the towerco role will evolve, let us understand what its role is today and how it can pave the way to future possibilities. To date, the independent towerco model has been established globally (with the GCC countries being the latest entrant) and the value proposition of any towerco is their ability to convert huge capex requirements of MNOs to more efficient and predictable opex. The mobile network operators in turn can focus on their core business and enjoy significant savings due to co-location and other efficiency benefits. The future role of towerco will be to take the philosophy of infra-sharing and efficiencies to other ICT infrastructure needs. We believe that the success story of tower sharing will be replicated by towercos for other infrastructure needs such as IBS, small cells, ODAS, CoWs, FTTS et cetera.

TowerXchange: Which towerco innovations excite you the most?

Mohammad Alhakbani, CEO, TAWAL: Towerco innovations stem at two levels:

Firstly, at a business level: With the advent of 5G, we see the emergence of potential new customers beyond MNOs and other typical clients. These mainly include IoT service providers as well as users of such services (e.g. the automotive industry for connected cars). To serve these customers, towercos are developing innovative business models for example – selling colocation space of <0.5 m2 EPA, selling services as consideration-in-kind and getting revenue share et cetera. Such innovations in business models are not only critical for towercos to generate revenue growth but also act as a catalyst for IoT services adoption and success.

Secondly, at an operations level: Towercos are identifying innovative approaches to managing sites and reducing unplanned interventions. One such approach is smart remote site management system which is an interplay of remote monitoring, data analytics, and predictive analytics to optimise operations and prevent failures. The “smart tower” approach is also key for better and timely fulfilment of customers’ needs as well as, pre-empting their requirements and making the appropriate site upgrades ahead of time.

TowerXchange: Can you share your vision for how TAWAL will work with other towercos and MNOs as it matures into a major new player in the industry?

Mohammad Alhakbani, CEO, TAWAL: With MNOs, we will strengthen our partnership to accelerate the roll-out of future networks, for example, 5G networks and the Internet of Things (IoT) by giving them reliable and cost-effective infrastructure.

With towercos, we want to establish a continuous exchange of knowledge to enable us to build solutions which will help make the tower industry more resilient and efficient. Other areas where we will look to partner with include sustainability initiatives, reducing the carbon footprint of the ICT sector and improving infrastructure sharing solutions.

TowerXchange: As MENA’s largest towerco, can you tell us about your plans to expand into other vertical markets as well as new Middle East and North Africa jurisdictions?

Mohammad Alhakbani, CEO, TAWAL: On product/ verticals diversification, we have already expanded our license to offer IBS solutions in KSA and we will be soon be launching IBS services. We have identified other products which will enable us to become a one-stop shop for most telecom infrastructure related needs of MNOs.

On international expansion, we have developed a comprehensive strategy and identified the key markets we wish to expand into in the near future. While the focus for expansion will primarily focus on the MENA region, TAWAL will be open to opportunities in other regions if there are synergies and scope for value creation for our shareholders.

Mohammad Alhakbani of TAWAL, will be speaking at this years’ TowerXchange Meetup MENA 2021. The 3rd edition of the event will take place in virtual format on 30-31 March. The event is the only event for the regional telecom infrastructure industry, so make sure you register your place today!

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