Dhiraagu is the largest provider of telecommunications and digital services in the Maldives, where it offers mobile, internet, data, fixed line and TV services. A joint venture between the government and the Bahrain-based Batelco, it provides the widest coverage in the country, including the 199 inhabited islands, all resort islands and all major industrial islands. It has also linked the Maldives from north to south through a 1,253-kilometre fibre optic submarine cable network. CEO Ismail Rasheed explains how Dhiraagu continues to innovate to bring progress and development to the country through communications
You joined Dhiraagu as an engineer in 1988, becoming chief executive in 2007 and the CEO and MD in 2015. How has your leadership benefited the company?
Dhiraagu was formed as a joint venture between the government and a foreign company, Cable & Wireless, which later sold its shares to Batelco Group of Bahrain, a Middle Eastern company that is now the majority shareholder with 52% of shares; another 42% are held by the government, and the rest by the general public. The company achieved a major milestone within a short time frame when it created a nationwide telephone network connecting each and every inhabited island in the country. Until then, telecommunications were very basic: there were only a few telephones in Malé, and very few resort islands around the capital were connected. This resulted in a tremendous development of businesses across the country, especially the tourism industry. Until then the tourist resorts were very much centred around Malé, but after we rolled out communications across the country, businesses thrived, as did social interaction between the communities. Overall, this brought tremendous development and socio-economic progress.
What other services did Dhiraagu bring to Maldives?
Our second major milestone was the introduction of internet services. We were also the first to introduce mobile telephone service in the country. We connected the country to the world with a submarine cable system between Maldives and Sri Lanka. Following this, a domestic submarine cable stretching 1,250-plus kilometres was established across the country that greatly improved the speed and quality of service, and forms the backbone of today’s high-speed network. We are also the first to achieve a mobile broadband service reaching 100% of the population, and this is a big achievement when you consider the geography of the Maldives, with islands spanning over a long distance from north to south, and with small island communities of 1,000 residents or less, separated by water. Each island requires infrastructure and services. Despite this logistical challenge, we are happy to say that we have achieved roll-out of our services to the entire country and continue to expand them. Most recently, we celebrated our latest milestone achievement, bringing high-speed broadband service with fibre-to-the-home to 75 percent of the households across the country. Using this fibre network we have extended our recently launched digital TV service (DhiraaguTV) to 52 islands across the country.
How do resorts in particular benefit from Dhiraagu’s services?
A big part of our business focuses on providing solutions for enterprises, especially the tourist resorts that require high-speed internet and other digital services. We provide these resorts with 3G, 4G, wifi and fixed services on par with speeds available in any metropolitan setting. We have very high standards of operation, and Dhiraagu ensures that people can connect with their loved ones, businesses and customers, no matter where they are.
In 2018, Dhiraagu demonstrated 5G services in the Maldives. How important is this new technology?
In terms of technology introduction, we first look at the benefits for the people and the affordability. We are always on the lookout for new technology that will improve efficiency in operations and better user experience. We introduced 3G and 4G in the country, and we are now looking at 5G, seeing whether it can help us provide a better experience. This technology is still at a very early stage of commercial development.
Are you open to partnerships with foreign companies or investors from the UAE?
In terms of technology partners we have a lot of strategic vendors or associates in the Middle East and the rest of the world, and there will always be opportunities for those companies to work with Dhiraagu. If you look at the kind of investments we have done in the past in expanding our network infrastructure, it was in partnership with a foreign vendors because we don’t manufacture the infrastructure in the Maldives. We spend a substantial investment every year on either upgrading or rolling out new services, and this means lot of opportunities for suppliers and vendors. As for direct investment in Dhiraagu this will be a matter for the shareholders and the Board of Directors of Dhiraagu.
You have called the company a “fine example of a successful joint venture”. What are the advantages and challenges that come with this type of cooperation?
Dhiraagu is a success story of a joint venture between the government and a foreign investor. This partnership has allowed us to develop the industry practically from scratch, turning it into a full-fledge network that assures customers full connectivity and the latest telecommunications services available anywhere in the world. It has also resulted in tremendous socioeconomic development in the country, in turn encouraging the growth of other industries like tourism. It has helped the government in its administrative work, and it has helped the education system. And from an investment point of view, we have delivered reasonable shareholder returns while the company grows year on year. Finally, we employ 99 percent Maldivians, which means that we have invested in people, improving their skills to be able to manage such a highly technical company.
Dhiraagu maintains one of the world’s longest microwave links over water. What else has the company done that makes it stand out a global innovator?
There was one link in the south between two islands that were very far apart and there was no way to connect them – this was in the days before our submarine cable. So we engineered what was then the longest above-water link in the world. We are always innovating – that is one of our core values. We are also always on the lookout for new ways of working because our population is small and economies of scale are harder to implement, which means we need to innovate to provide a continually improving service while keeping costs down.
What is your final message to readers of Gulf News?
The Maldives is a great place to invest and the best place in the world to go on holiday. And from a communications and connectivity point of view, Dhiraagu is here to make sure that no matter where you come from, you will always stay connected. Our tagline ‘Take on tomorrow’ means that with Dhiraagu, our customers can be assured about their digital future – because we are constantly innovating and working to bring the latest advancements, to keep our services current and relevant to our customers.