In the dynamic landscape of telecommunications, few have made as indelible a mark in the Maldives as Dhiraagu. Leading this telecom is Ismail Rasheed, its esteemed CEO & MD, whose leadership has seen Dhiraagu usher in a digital renaissance, touching every corner of the archipelago.
As the CEO & MD of Dhiraagu, Ismail has been pivotal in guiding the company through transformative phases, ensuring its continued relevance in the Maldivian telecommunications landscape and championing its commitment to innovation.
1. Could you tell us a bit about Dhiraagu’s 35-year journey of enriching the lives of people living in the Maldives?
Dhiraagu was founded in 1988 as a joint venture between the government of Maldives and Cable & Wireless company of UK, at a time when the Maldives didn’t have basic telephone connectivity between islands. Our initial mandate was to provide telephone service to every island in the Maldives which we successfully completed in 1999.
Immediately after we started our operations, we introduced a host of services enabling business and personal communication. These include the introduction of international direct dialling service, telex, fax, and paging which added immense value to our customers.
We launched internet service in the Maldives in 1996, shortly after its global introduction in 1991, which at the time contributed to significant improvements in communication, especially for businesses.
Following this, the major focus was on strengthening and expanding our broadband services. This required robust international connectivity, and a digital backbone across the country with an upgraded digital backhaul to all inhabited islands and resorts.
As part of this work, the Maldives was connected to the global telecom network via a submarine cable to Sri Lanka in 2006, which removed the dependency on satellite for international connections. Along with this project, a submarine cable was established across the One and Half Degree Channel, connecting the southern islands with the digital backbone. Building on this momentum, we established the domestic submarine cable network project from north to south covering the entire length of the country which became the high-speed digital backbone to extend broadband service across the Maldives.
We have achieved notable milestones where we have successfully provided 100 per cent mobile coverage to all inhabited islands, resorts, and major industrial islands. We also marked the completion of the first nationwide coverage of mobile broadband service to all inhabited islands in 2015.
Today, as we celebrate 35 years, I am pleased to announce that we now have more than 90 per cent of households in the country with access to our high-speed fibre broadband service.
I would like to extend my gratitude to our customers for their continued trust and support without which these achievements would not have been possible. I am also thankful to our shareholders for their commitment to continue to invest in the development of telecommunications in the country, whose constant support and guidance have been instrumental in our success.
2. How has Dhiraagu’s inception and growth influenced the telecommunications landscape and broader socioeconomic development of the Maldives?
Telecommunication services are essential for communities and businesses to function and thrive. It was even more crucial for the Maldives due to the isolated nature of our islands and our remoteness from the rest of the world. The expansion of the telecom network was a catalyst for the growth of other businesses, especially the tourism industry across the country.
Given the Maldives’ challenging geography – spanning 850 kilometres with islands separated by water – extending Dhiraagu’s network across the country and providing every island with access to our services in a relatively short period is recognised by many as a tremendous achievement. Our team’s strong belief in our purpose to enrich lives is the driving force behind this rapid growth.
Expanding the telecom network in the country was followed by the development of resorts across the Maldives which brought a dramatic improvement to the country’s socioeconomic progress. Reliable communication became critical for businesses, making our services pivotal for the tourism sector. In recognition of our contributions, Dhiraagu has received awards from both the Maldivian government and the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI).
The progress we made on our digital transformation journey ensured that we were able to help the country during the COVID-19 pandemic and enabled the country to quickly adapt to remote work and learning. It also made it possible for us to promptly shift our operations, including those of our call centre, to a work-from-home model when required, providing uninterrupted service to our customers.
3. What have been some of the key business highlights of Dhiraagu over the past few years?
If we start from the beginning, we successfully expanded our telephone, mobile and internet service to every island, ensuring that telecommunication was the first utility to reach 100 per cent of the population, bringing people and communities closer together.
We have established nine operations centres in strategic regional locations with technical and commercial services to serve customers close to their homes. Dhiraagu was also the first to set up a 24/7 customer service call centre in the country.
Dhiraagu is a good example of a successful government joint venture with a foreign partner that has contributed to the development of the country, expanded an essential service to the entire population, and delivered continued value to shareholders.
Transitioning into a public company, we embraced transparency in our operations. Shortly after this, Cable & Wireless announced the transfer of its majority shareholdings in Dhiraagu to Bahrain Telecommunications Company (Batelco) in 2013. Currently, 52% of Dhiraagu’s shares are now held by Batelco.
We are constantly introducing new technologies and are committed to our journey of innovation to bring state-of-the-art modern services which are relevant to our customers. We have digitised our channels and are constantly evolving them to offer easy access to our customers, so that they are able to do business with us, anytime, anywhere.
Businesses and enterprises are an important customer base for us. We work closely with them to understand their requirements and offer customised solutions to meet their individual needs. Our enterprise portfolio includes many services to deliver efficiency and enable them to provide a better experience to their end customers. We are constantly evolving these services. These include data centre hosting and hybrid cloud services, open API integration solutions, and other platform services supported by our dedicated enterprise teams.
With our tier 3 data centre offering the highest level of resiliency and availability, customers are assured the best quality of service. We are strengthening our domestic network and backhaul and introducing edge cloud clusters to bring cloud capabilities closer to customers to ensure higher availability, resilience, and quality of service, which is especially important for our enterprise customers. Along with our sister company Beyon Cyber, we are also providing cyber security services in the Maldives which is becoming critical in an increasingly digitised world.
We are happy to be recognised by the industry as the first to launch 5G commercial service, not only in the Maldives but also in the South Asia region. We have also been awarded the ‘Maldives’ Fastest Mobile Network’ by Ookla® for two consecutive years.
The significant investment we have made to join the SMW6 consortium, to connect the Maldives to the global super high-way SEA-ME-WE 6 submarine cable system, demonstrates our commitment to making our digital connectivity more resilient and reliable, improve service quality, and attract investors to host their services in the Maldives.
4. Could you shed some light on the initiatives that Dhiraagu has undertaken to bridge the digital divide within the Maldives?
Our focus is on making sure that every inhabited island has access to our services, which by and large we have achieved. Today, everyone in the country – even in the most remote islands – has access to the internet, primarily through mobile and fibre broadband. This accessibility is due to the high-speed digital network and infrastructure we have built, combined with the latest technology and innovations we have adopted.
For instance, our IPTV network, which was fully digital, allowed users to access content from any device, whether an iPad or phone. Although we no longer offer this TV service ourselves, we still facilitate access to other providers. Another service to highlight is our ‘DhiraaguPay’, a digital wallet which allows users to make digital payments and transactions using their phones.
5. ‘Take on Tomorrow’ is Dhiraagu’s brand proposition. How do you ensure that it aligns with your customer’s digital journey?
‘Take on Tomorrow’ is our core message and promise to customers. If you are with Dhiraagu, you can be assured that you will enjoy the latest technology and remain part of the digital world. We are dedicated to bringing the most recent technologies to our customers and helping them tap into the benefits of the digital transformation taking place globally.
Our first priority is to understand our customers’ needs and then design products and services to meet those needs, through the introduction of the latest technological advancements and access to the most up-to-date digital services. This approach ensures that we stay relevant to our customers and consider their digital journey in every project we undertake.
6. How does Dhiraagu balance the commercial needs of being a business with social responsibilities?
In any country or company, there is an inherent need to address community needs and be a responsible corporate citizen. From the outset, Dhiraagu has been committed to supporting communities, not just through our main services – which address significant societal needs and help in their development – but also through various social initiatives. We have led the way for responsible corporate governance through our Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in the country.
The global corporate landscape is evolving, and there is a shift from traditional CSR to being a responsibly run corporation. We are one of the first organisations in the Maldives to establish a sustainability function. Through Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) leadership, we are committed to adopting the best practices in taking care of our customers, our people, and the communities we provide services to while ensuring that our operations are ethical, sustainable, and compliant with laws, regulations, and corporate governance.
7. The telecom industry relies heavily on technology. How challenging do you find recruiting people?
As a highly technical company with specialised needs, we are proud of the fact that 99 per cent of our staff are Maldivian. This achievement stems from our focus on people development; we have actively helped individuals advance in their careers, placing them in the right positions and empowering them. I also started as a technician in Dhiraagu and over the years, I have engaged with various technological shifts, learning, and unlearning along the way.
However, recruitment remains challenging, especially in specialised technical areas, as there is global demand for the same talent. Despite this, our high retention rate indicates the high level of engagement from our teams and the conducive work environment in Dhiraagu. We encourage young people to join us, offering them the chance to progress internally.
One of our key CSR initiatives is our Dhiraagu Apprentice Programme which aims to enhance the employability of our youth. Every year, we onboard 20-30 apprentices who are given the opportunity to gain both hands-on experience and formal training across various departments, based on their interests. Many of our past apprentices have credited the experience as instrumental in their career development.
8. Can you share any future expansion plans for Dhiraagu, both in terms of services and geography?
We aim to introduce new innovations, products, and services to support the economic development of the country, both socially and economically. Our focus is on ensuring that all islands have access to fibre-to-the-home (FTTH), and we are aiming for 100 per cent coverage of the nation. To further enhance our international connectivity to ensure the best service quality, we are involved in a consortium and are upgrading our internal submarine cable network which will allow us to offer higher speeds and greater bandwidth to islands and introduce more digital services.
We already have a tier 3 ready data centre, offer cloud services, and are in the process of building a tier 4 cloud data centre. Additionally, several regional data centres will be set up so that digital services are readily available and closer to customers, allowing for more efficiency and a higher quality of service.
In every new task we undertake, our major focus is on ensuring that we provide the most superior service and empower our customers to ‘take on tomorrow.’ We remain committed to enriching the lives of people living in the Maldives, enabling them to thrive in the digital future.