Malta as a telecommunications test-bed for major technology companies was perhaps never even thought of. However, recent developments in legislation, policy, and most of all the highly competitive market that is developing, has triggered a particular interest from major key players to consider Malta as a prime site for developing their new products and services, intended to make the world a much smaller place than it already has become.
The heavy investment made throughout the years in developing a fully digital telecommunications infrastructure, today provides a well-connected population with fixed and cellular telephony, broadband, VOIP, cable and digital television.
This expansion has brought about international attention, to the extent that a number of American experts are currently visiting the island and assessing the Maltese reality and translating it into ‘real business’ between Malta and the US.
In an interview with Business Today, Joe Burton, a telecoms expert and researcher within the US Department of Commerce in Washington explains his enthusiasm for Malta, and the developments that are currently taking place.
He explains how all the bulletins circulated around the world about Malta’s progress in the telecoms sector has triggered interest from a number of major US companies, who through their advanced R&D programmes in this sector, have eyed Malta as a possible roll-out test site for their innovative products.
According to Joe Burton, it is possible that by the end of this year, Malta could in fact be one of the world’s first countries to be considered as a hot-spot, through the development of the so called ‘Wi-Max’ System, where anyone of us could log into our emails through our cell phone network, whilst we are out of home or office.
“I have been following developments in the telecom sector in Malta for quite some time now. It’s a very fast growing and competitive market in a rather small territory compared to what we are all used to worldwide. It is very interesting to see Malta as a model. It’s a test bed for new technology, and I wanted to see this environment”, says John Burton in his interview.
Brought over to Malta through an initiative taken by the US Embassy, Joe Burton goes on to explain that every time he followed developments in Malta, he discovered that not too many people in the US know how advanced Malta’s market is and all about the projects in development.
He urges Maltese businessmen to take heed of the opportunities for partnerships with US companies in all sectors through the US embassy and the US Department of Commerce.
With Business Today, Joe Burton expresses himself as very enthusiastic about the fact that in Malta’s smallness, “so much can be done” and developed, and which in turn could in fact strengthen an already very good Malta-US relationship on all fronts.
What is the main purpose of your visit?
My presence here is part of an ongoing initiative taken by the US embassy, intended to guide the Maltese business community through the vast and extensive network of resources that exist within the United States, intended to assist and develop business in all sectors.
The resources available by the US Department of Commerce are wide-ranging, and the initiative by the embassy here is to assist any company from any industry, to identify US products and services and possibly identify the potential of doing business.
However, my visit here is intended to brief about the major telecommunications developments in the US, and elaborate on the potential they have for Malta, being a very impressive competitive market in the sector.
When you talk about an “impressive” market, are you talking about cellular, fixed telephony, broadband, television?
We focused a lot on wireless, as a lot is happening here on wireless at the moment, particularly with regards to 3G telephony and Wi-Max licences, as all this is very advanced and very impressive to us.
So here, I am briefing experts and key players in the sector about the developments in the US, and discussed the possibilities of having Malta as a specific case study.
When mentioning Malta as a case study, are you anticipating an interest by US to see this country as the first to go totally wireless?
What I can say is that Singapore is already on that path, however we discussed this development and some companies are interested at looking at the model of having a total Wi-Max, Wi-Fi frame to have the whole island a hotspot by the end of the year.
So given this scenario, could you talk about the potential of strengthening commercial ties with the US, particularly in the telecoms sector?
There is a lot of work being done at the moment by major US companies, like Cisco, Motorola and others. What happens is that no one major company does it alone, they all enter partnerships and share research and develop new technologies to run simultaneously.
In the US we have some consortia that are working on some really exciting things, such as converged mobile Wi-Fi or Wi-Max handsets and networks, where a user could make a phone call while out of home or office, and always be within a hotspot zone be it Valletta, St. Paul’s Bay or Gozo, and allows you to access your mailbox server through your own cell phone network.
So basically, technology is moving full speed ahead marrying two advanced technologies to save consumers money and most of all giving them more choices and connectivity to the world of communications.
This concept is moving very fast, and there are a lot of trials going on at the moment.
Companies are getting their products certified, and it’s a very good time for Malta as well as the US to compare notes on the development.
So if I am understanding you correctly, you are saying that as a case study, by the end of the year Malta could see an interesting development with regards to Wi-Max?
It’s something we are watching very closely. What I can say is that telecoms giant NextTel is developing a Wi-Max system in the US, and calling it 4G as the next step, and that deployment of technology will certainly be of interest here because of the Wi-Max licenses that are about to be given out.
So coming from the US Department of Commerce, what is it that struck your attention and come over?
I have been following the developments in the telecom sector in Malta for quite some time. It’s a very fast growing and competitive market in a rather small territory compared to what we are all used to worldwide. I jumped at the chance because there is so much happening, but most of all it is very interesting to see Malta as a model. It’s a test bed for new technology, and I wanted to see this environment.
Every time I followed the developments in Malta, I discovered that while so much is going on here, it is also true that in the US not too many people know how advanced Malta’s market is and all about the projects in development. So part of my visit here is to talk and discuss with the key players here, assist them by briefing them about the current developments in the US, and most of all to gather information about the state of play within the sector and use it to supply US companies with that information with a prospect of exporting their plans and ideas to Malta.
SmartCity is being promoted as a potential hub for IT and telecoms in the Mediterranean region. Has this upcoming project been identified a potential hub for investment by US companies so far?
I don’t think it is well known so far. I know that SmartCity that is earmarked to commence operations by 2008, could potentially employ more than 5,000 people. It’s a major project by all standards. We are definitely working to get into close contact with SmartCity operators.
I have been to Malaysia where a similar project is already running, and it is interesting to see a country where a government focuses so intensely on technology. With that example in mind, SmartCity will definitely bring a whole load of rewards and opportunities for this country.
Let’s talk about the availability of resources for Maltese companies who want to tap into prospective US business partners or vice-versa, what’s happening?
What I can say is that in Washington we are actually setting up a system where we can broadcast business leads and information to thousands of US firms. So as soon as a Maltese company enquires with the US embassy, we are going to send those leads out immediately through our info-systems.
For example, as we met with the Malta Communications Authority, we immediately transmitted all the information we collected to the US companies with regards to the issue of licenses, technology infrastructure requirements and the lot to all major US companies.
So you are basically creating a database where companies could look for business partners in both countries…
Well, there already are a number of web sites that are of strategic importance to all kinds of companies, of the likes of www.buyusa.com, where Maltese companies could in fact register on this site, declare their interests and get contacted by US firms.
Then there are other sites, part of the US Department of Commerce that list the companies that are seeking business in countries, amongst whom also is Malta.
Malta’s investment in cellular telephony sees Nortel as a strategic partner with Go Mobile. Do you expect a further strengthening of this relationship with this American company, now that Go Mobile has decided to go for 3G technology?
What is interesting is that Nortel has just announced that it is selling its UMTS assets to Alcatel, and will focus on 4G, so honestly I envisage some quite exciting times for Go Mobile, now that it has been announced that Nortel are to supply the 3G technology to Maltacom’s subsidiary.
Maltacom has recently been bought by Dubai-based Tecom. Do you read this as good news?
It depends, I understand that there is a lot of competition, and that there are different networks to choose from. Having sufficient competition is key, however it is ultimately and entirely up to Malta or any country to decide whether it’s fixed line network should be owned or not by a foreign investor.
I don’t think I could really comment on this. I do feel however, that there appears to be a good number of telecom options to choose from as an investor and a consumer point of view.
If I had to ask you to give a word of advice to Maltese businessmen to do business with the US, what would you tell them?
In the US we have a great history of innovation, not to mention also that in all sectors, the companies are very forward, particularly those that are implementing projects that are technology-based. Most of these companies relate specifically to what is developing in Malta right now.
There is a lot that they can learn from, and practically use Malta as the ideal testing-ground for the rolling-out of innovative technologies. As to myself, I am sending out all the documentation and briefs I have received in Malta to major companies in the US, for them to pursue. We are prepared to do anything to strengthen the Malta-US relationship.
It is not just about signing contracts, but most of all it is bound to develop into a very exciting time of technological exchange, and that information would be very useful to make Malta and the US important strategic partners to each other.
Joe Burton was interviewed by Karl Stagno-Navarra