Unlocking the universe

From nascent entrepreneur to seasoned satcom professional, Reema Omari has come a long way since she first boldly stepped out of her comfort zone in 2014 to launch Universal Satcom. Vijaya Cherian brings you up to date on the company that is making waves in the MENA maritime sector under the leadership of its ambitious and passionate female founder.

Armed with a Master’s in Quality Management Systems from the University of Wollongong, Dubai, Reema Omari began her career in the VSAT business back in 2006 with a mentor who took her under his wing. In 2014, Omari was ready to fly solo and launched Universal Satcom. Although she started by offering satcom solutions to the private jet industry, she then made an audacious move into Yemen and Libya in 2019 to offer connectivity to the business community. SatellitePro first met with Omari then and wrote about her successful entry into the two conflict zones. Since then, Universal Satcom has grown dramatically, adding new solutions and services, spreading its wings to new markets and expanding its team. Omari talks about her journey since then.

How have you grown in the three years since we last spoke?

We started our growth journey in 2019. When Covid-19 struck, a lot of businesses worldwide were severely impacted but with more people spending time in isolation, online meetings and other operations requiring more internet capacity, we saw an exceptional spike in our business. It also led to us adding more new services to our portfolio just based on market demand.

Back in 2019, we started a project in Yemen with just Arabsat. Now, we are serving that market with multiple operators. We work with Intelsat, Eutelsat and Yahsat and have services on Ka-band, Ku-band and C-band.

Our team has also grown from just five to six people in the beginning to more than 30 now and we moved to a larger office in Jumeirah Lake Towers in Dubai. We have served more than 500 vessels with technical solutions and have around 200 vessels under our network between VSAT and L-Band. In some instances where we do systems integration, we also outsource work and have a whole team of people across the world working with us. For some projects, we also run 24/7 technical support and this requires a larger workforce.

Universal Satcom moved to a larger office in Dubai recently to accommodate its expanding workforce.

What are some of the big value-adds in your service?

We developed a portal inhouse that has really helped accelerate our business and made life a lot easier for our customers. It’s called BSS which stands for Business Support Systems, and it has automated and facilitated a lot of the business processes, which would previously have had to be done manually.

Can you give us an example?

So, imagine one of our customers has a new technology deployed at their site. If we didn’t have the BSS system and the reseller wanted to activate the site, he would have to either send us an email or a form. Someone would then have to manually review it, okay it and pass it on to a Network Operations Centre (NOC) staff who would implement the job. This is a process that could take 24 hours.

With the portal, the reseller just needs to input the serial number and he can activate a site on the fly. They can select what service and speed they want to activate, which city they want it in, and everything can be done in a few minutes.

The BSS system frees up the time of the NOC operators to manage the quality of the network instead of getting stuck in admin work. And more importantly, it offers an immediate and better experience to the customer.

When did the idea to create this portal come about?

It was purely a business need. We had a manual process in place but when the volume of business increased significantly in a very short period of time, we realised that we needed to automate this part of the operation to ensure our customers were able to get started quickly.

When we created the portal, it immediately gave us the ability to scale. The manual process delays the customers, which means you either have to hire more people, which wasn’t very feasible or we needed to automate the process. With the former, there were also likely to be more errors.

Our portal has been so successful that the platform manufacturer has been using us as a case study and bringing satellite operators to our offices. Some of the major satellite operators now want to use this so we are looking to license it out or white label our platform.

Omari flanked by Ahmad Juma (left), Technical Director, and Ashraf Hagelnur (r), Business Development Director.

You mentioned significant growth. Could you give me numbers?

Currently, we have more than 150 ships under our network. For the land business, we have around 1.5GB of capacity serving the different markets where we have business.

In total, we have installations in more than 1,000 sites. In terms of growth, our revenues have doubled in the last two years and our net income is growing at a faster rate than our revenue, indicating more efficient operations. Our team has tripled since we first began, and we are still hiring people on the operations and sales side.

In which vertical have you seen a big spike in your business?

The maritime sector. During Covid especially, crew were on ships for a longer period than what they should normally be and owners themselves were expanding with a larger number of ships and many of them were digitalising their operations as part of new mandates. So, customers wanted to extend their capacity as well as bandwidth. Fortunately, at that time, we had a lot of on-premises equipment in the country and that helped us grow quickly, and the portal really allowed us to provide more efficient services.

Since then, you have forged partnerships with multiple satellite operators?

Yes. We started with Arabsat three years ago with Ka-band, but it is limited to spot beam coverage and that restricts your connectivity area. We needed to partner with different operators who had Ku-band and C-band also so we could offer coverage across the whole country. To that effect, we worked with Yahsat, Eutelsat and Intelsat among others.

Universal Satcom has enjoyed great success in the maritime sector.

Which markets in the MENA region have been most successful for you?

I think, within the maritime sector, where we are a well-established service provider, the GCC is one of the most mature markets and their main focus is the oil and gas sector. We offer support to ships that provide services for the big barges or the oil rigs and that is a huge market here in the GCC. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are especially great markets. There are many players in this market but there is still a lot of room to grow here. The Saudi market especially has become healthier and more attractive under the new leadership, and we see so many positive changes there. Businesses are looking to secure business opportunities in Saudi Arabia as a result.

For the land business, we continue to see healthy growth in markets like Yemen and Libya, where we first entered. However, we have our eyes set on other countries within Africa such as Somalia, Sudan, Mauritania and other areas in central extending to the east. They are areas that are pretty much ignored by most international players and we usually like to go to areas where nobody likes to go.

Speaking of Saudi Arabia, we hear you recently secured a big deal there?

Yes, we have had one of our biggest success stories in Saudi Arabia in the maritime sector. A major oil and gas company with 100 plus ships contracted us to be their service provider. We were asked to provide a turnkey solution that ensures both connectivity and digitalisation for their fleet. We have currently completed VSAT installations in almost 50% of their fleet. As they are a customer with multiple needs, we are continuously providing other value-added services to them as well.

Connectivity is VSAT with both main communication and backup. Digitalisation includes crew management, fuel monitoring, taking care of the CCTV requirements so they can monitor everything that is happening on board the ship as well as other operational requirements that a ship typically has.

How is your journey in Yemen going?

Currently, we cover around 72% of Yemen on Ka-band but that will become almost 95-99% in the next two months. We also have 100% coverage on Ku and C bands. But this is for our land business. For maritime, we already have global coverage. We’re using multiple satellite operators and multiple maritime service providers worldwide to ensure our customers have global coverage.

In markets like Yemen and Libya, I believe there is still a healthy opportunity for satellite service providers. They are conflict zones, but businesses still need connectivity to operate.

Now that you’re an established player, what’s next on the agenda for you?

So far, we have been a service provider but more recently, we have also taken on the role of hardware distributor.

We are a gold partner for ST Engineering iDirect. We have a continued relationship with Intellian as one of their recognised partners for maritime antennas. We have maintained a close relationship with several manufacturers and hope, in the future, to add some of their solutions to our services.

We are developing our BSS portal further to make our operations more efficient.

One other completely new area that we are looking at is teleport operations and that’s in the pipeline. We don’t intend to own a teleport but we will provide all the necessary services. We were previously looking at operating the services on an OPEX model. But as we grow now, the equation is changing, and we may consider a CAPEX investment on this front.

Reema Omari says the company is looking to expand into Africa.

A teleport service? Where?

In Jordan, my home country. When I initially started my business, it was mainly within broadcast. Then I moved to the area where we are now, but we see more demand coming from the broadcasting side. Jordan is well known for hosting linear channels and IPTV channels. We have seen a gap in the sector and believe we can provide better technology and better service to broadcasters than existing players. So that’s something we are exploring quite seriously now.

What’s the big challenge that you have next?

From an operations perspective, I think the main challenge is to retain our agility. Agility has been one of the secrets to our success. As any company grows, you start introducing more and more processes. In the process, agility is often compromised. As we grow and introduce more processes, the challenge is to make sure that the customer always remains a priority over any internal processes. In the maritime sector, for instance, solutions for every customer are pretty much tailor-made. Big companies usually find it difficult to respond to customised requirements. We never say no and here again, we try to be agile in the way we come up with solutions. As a smaller company, our ability to move things around and make things happen is a lot quicker.

We also want to see how to capitalise more on our current success and move forward to the next level. That requires us to continuously come up with innovative solutions, innovative services and work towards maintaining our place in the market.

We have seen that our growth is limited owing to lack of funding. Even though we are cash positive and generating revenue, some opportunities are bigger than the scale of Universal and to get into them, we need funding. We are looking at this now and have started discussions with a consulting company who is guiding us on this.

Essentially, we are at a stage where we want to turn our success into extended success. So, there are a lot of challenges and a lot of new demands coming up in the market.

But 2023-2024 will be very busy because market trends are changing so fast.

What’s the next big thing in the market, according to you?

Small Geostationary Satellite (SmallGEO), and we are in negotiations to have our own payload ready. The major advantage of it is that it costs a fraction of what a larger GEO would cost or a LEO constellation. It’s more targeted to markets that you just want to focus on. So, it delivers a much lower price per Mbps.

Everybody was always thinking that bigger is always better but in certain markets and for certain applications, small satellites may suffice to suit your business purpose. That’s something to watch out for!

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