Etisalat’s E-Vision service has emerged as one of the largest pay TV platforms in the MENA region. CEO Humaid Rashid Sahoo tells John Parnell about the company’s plans for the future.
A lot has changed since UAE telco Etisalat launched its first foray into the cable TV market ten years ago. The region was dominated by satellite TV distribution with alternatives few and far between. A number of telcos have since looked to rollout TV services following the triple- and quad-play models seen in other markets where cable – and latterly IPTV – offerings are well established. Of these, Etisalat’s E-Vision service is by far the largest.
“We started E-Vision on a technology called hybrid fibre-coaxial, a standard for the cable TV industry, and we were only in 20,000 homes,” says Humaid Rashid Sahoo, CEO, E-Vision. “We started in IP in 2007 and are developing our full IPTV service now. Etisalat has an ambitious plan to cover the whole of the UAE with fibre to the home (FTTH) by the end of 2011. By the end of this year Abu Dhabi will be the only capital city in the world to have full fibre connectivity. This gives us a huge boost. We are riding on the Etisalat network so when the fibre network is complete, every home in the Emirates will become a target for us.”
According to figures released by Informa Telecoms and Media last year, E-Vision is now the third largest pay TV service in the Middle East and North Africa with an estimated 340,000 subscribers. To highlight the extent of this accomplishment you must consider the fact that the service is only available in the UAE (population less than 5 million).
Of these five million people, many are currently restricted to services from rival du or unable to receive either service at all.
The FTTH network will make a huge difference.
“I have been given a target subscriber figure to achieve and we have a very ambitious plan, by 2011 every house in the UAE will be the target; that’s more than 700,000 homes. We will be targeting all of those, although we don’t expect to get 100 percent of them of course,” says Sahoo.
With Etisalat operating telco services in a vast number of international markets including Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia India, and Egypt, could E-Vision expand its own reach beyond the borders of the UAE?
“Our focus at the moment is in the domestic market. We have not yet completed our mission in the UAE,” says Sahoo. “Each market has its own characteristics and when you are looking to launch a pay TV service or platform you need to study it to identify the content and the pricing strategies necessary. But the experience that we have gained in the past 10 years in the UAE can be applied to other markets – especially ones where we have an existing Etisalat service already – in particular the KSA and Egyptian markets. We are already in discussions with some of the operators there and exploring the ideas of how they can benefit from our service, and if they are interested in launching cable TV or indeed exploring any kind of content strategy for that matter. The telecom and the media industries are now actively merging together so it is a great opportunity for us to capitalise on this trend. If a telco wants to offer a TV service to expand its portfolio we are in a position to help them.”
Sahoo says that although the presence of an existing Etisalat service in a given territory does make it more likely that they would consider a TV operation, it does not exclude those countries where there is no such operation by its sister company.
“Of course, if we were in more than one territory we would be in a better bargaining position when purchasing content as we would be able to leverage the mass, not just the UAE. What is also important is offering content to more than one platform. Etisalat already has content plans for online, mobile and for kiosks so we can join with Etisalat to negotiate these rights not just for TV but for mobile and online distribution,” explains Sahoo.
E-Vision currently offers the bouquets of OSN, ART and TFC in addition to a number of exclusive channels and two E-Vision branded channels, e-junior and e-masala.
“I’m especially proud of e-junior. All the research we have done has proved that it has the biggest market share in its category for the UAE. We want e-junior to incorporate more local production and cover all the relevant events here in the UAE. We have also invested in improving its online home. Kids here are very tech savvy so as well as watching e-junior on the TV they can go through the internet portal, it makes it closer to them.”
Given the success of e-junior, is the telco likely to develop more e- branded channels?
“First and foremost the goal of our content strategy is to meet our customer’s demands. As far as launching more e- channels… it is something we always monitor but we have to see the value for money in these. We have only the UAE audience so it has to be economically feasible.”
Sahoo says the company is looking at other means of launching exclusive thrid-party channels.
“We encourage content creators to launch their own channels just for our network – we have the capacity and the infrastructure. The cost of launching a new station is very high. We are talking to production houses – and other entities that own a lot of content – that want to launch a channel but are prohibited by the cost of satellite transponder space. They can instead launch through the E-Vision platform, and offer the channel to all our subscribers,” says Sahoo.
In addition to these content agreements, Sahoo has also looked to differentiate E-Vision from its competitors by offering advanced services such as VOD and HD ahead of the rest of the market.
“We were the first operator in the region to offer HD services when we launched it in July last year. We know that the number of HD TV sets in the UAE is very high. There is a strong likelihood that the format will be successful in this market,” says Sahoo.
“We have eight HD channels at the moment and we will be adding two more soon and we expect to have 20 HD channels by the end of the year, which will be a very strong offering indeed. Movies and sports are the main drivers for HD, documentaries are also playing their part and the new launches will reflect that. We are encouraging broadcasters in the Arab world and Asia to launch HD. It’s the real technology of the future.”
With the acquisition of the EPL regional broadcast rights by Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADMC) and the organisation’s subsequent announcement that it will be looking for IPTV partners to distribute it, the smart money would suggest that E-Vision would be at the head of the pack as its own full IPTV service begins to come together.
“We are in discussions with ADMC and we hope that we can reach an agreement. It is very important. We hope to have something in place by August for the start of the next season, I think we have time.”
One advantage Sahoo points out is the company’s recent order of new set top boxes from four manufacturers; Pace, Airties, Humax and Kreatel. These boxes, designed for use with the full IPTV service that is currently under construction, will all be HD compatible.
“We have selected some partners already for the IPTV service and others are still in the process of evaluation,” says Sahoo.
For the past six years E-Vision has operated a pay per view service and is now in the process of beta testing a more expansive service.
“We are hoping that when we launch we will have two major Hollywood studios and a lot of Bollywood content available,” claims Sahoo who admits that content security plays an important part in discussions with major studios.
“It is very important for the studio to ensure that its content is secure and we will assure them of this. The contract that we sign with them places this responsibility with us. We use conditional access from Viaccess at the moment. We are going to introduce a cardless Verimatrix system as well. We will run these systems in parallel. We always keep security in mind and of course, for the studios it is very important. We have already proven ourselves reliable partners and we have good relationships with the major content companies, particularly Warner Brothers,” says Sahoo.
With content from the studios meeting the movie aspect of the golden sports and movies combo, would E-Vision consider investing its own resource into sports rights?
“There is no point in us going to invest in rights for sport that we can show in one country when our partners are investing in content for distribution across the whole region. This year we hope to be able to offer the FIFA World Cup in the UAE.
We had a lot of success with ART for the two previous competitions and hopefully we can repeat that this year.
“Al Jazeera will decide whether it is available as a one off or only as part of a subscription. We will talk with them to find the best way to do it. Being able to broadcast it in HD will make a difference.”
In typical E-Vision style HD is not the limit of the company’s ambitions with Sahoo admitting they are considering 3D TV also.
“Sony will be filming much of the World Cup in 3D. We would really love to offer 3D as soon as possible and I think the World Cup might not be too soon. Other networks around the world intend to show the event in 3D this year, so we will give it a shot too.”