x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Mobile operator to provide free music

Dubai-based Friendi and the Hala FM in Oman have teamed up to provide free music to subscribers in that country.

ABU DHABI // Mobile users in Oman can now subscribe to a phone service that matches their taste in music, with the launch of a service in partnership with one of the country's most popular radio stations. The Halafon network is a tie-up between the Dubai-based Friendi Group, which operates "virtual" mobile networks, and Hala FM, a popular youth-focused radio station.

Subscribers to the service will get free music downloads as well as special access to the station's promotions, call-in shows and events. "To our knowledge, this very tight link between a radio station and a mobile brand is a new model, even on a global scale," said Mikkel Vinter, the chief executive at Friendi. "Hala FM is one of the strongest youth brands in Oman. It was a real game-changer in regards to radio, so the brand is very strong and we believe it can be expanded into the mobile world."

"Virtual" mobile network operators, known as MVNOs, run services without building the physical infrastructure of a network. Instead, they buy access to an existing network. The business model has become popular in Europe and North America, allowing small companies to launch niche, targeted mobile services without making massive infrastructure investments. In Japan, the Finnish mobile phone maker Nokia runs a virtual network based on the established NTT DoCoMo system. The network is branded alongside Nokia's Vertu line of high-end mobile phones. The service gives users a personal concierge and exclusive invitations to private parties and events.

Blyk, a UK-based virtual network, rents access from British mobile networks and targets young people with an advertising-supported free mobile service. In return for receiving commercials sent to their phone each day subscribers get a free monthly allowance of calls and messages. Dubai's Axiom Telecom, a mobile handset retailer, has said it hopes to launch virtual networks in the UAE and other Gulf countries, as has i2, another mobile retailer based in the emirate.

"You need two things to succeed," i2's chief executive, Abdul Hameed al Sunaid, has said. "A brand and a distribution network. We have both of these things. A lot of people want to become MVNOs here, and they don't have one or the other. I think they will fail." In May, Friendi became the first company to operate a virtual network in the Middle East when it launched its first branded mobile service in Oman, buying space on the Omantel network. The service targets expatriates and those with, as the company describes it, "part of their heart outside the country". Access to lower-cost international calling and special off-peak rates were important aspects of the service, which has attracted 50,000 users in its first two months of operation.

The new mobile brand is aimed at young Arabic speakers. "We see these two segments as being the most obvious ones to work with, both in Oman and more broadly across the region," Mr Vinter said. The company was considering other possible mobile brands targeting different market sectors, but would focus on the current two brands in the short term, he said. Friendi hopes eventually to operate up to 20 virtual networks throughout the Middle East, although only Oman and Jordan currently allow such operators. The UAE Telecommunications Regulatory Authority has said that when the time comes to license a new entrant to the UAE market, something expected to take place in the coming year, the virtual operator model would be considered.

Mr Vintner said: "We are very optimistic. We're seeing a clear improvement in the progress being made across the region. Many operators and regulators take comfort from the fact that the virtual model has now been proven in the region." @Email:tgara@thenational.ae