Digerati50: Shaharin Saman 'Mr Gigabit' has a grand vision

  • Lot of self-learning to gain experience, takes long time, made a lot of mistakes
  •  ‘Always challenging myself to do the things that nobody has done before’

“My advice, get a mentor and learn as much you can before you start," says Shaharin Saman. "Mistakes can cost you a lot money and time."

Digital News Asia (DNA) continues its series that profiles 50 influencers who are helping shape Malaysia’s Digital Economy, from Digerati50 2020-2021 (Vol 4), a special biennial print publication released in July 2020. The digital copy can be downloaded from the sidebar link.

The following in an expanded version of the article which first appeared in print edition in June 2020.


"I want to change the balance of power in the market," proclaimed Shaharin Saman, iFIBER founder and group CEO. He is talking about giving customers choice, to pick whatever internet plan they want, and not be fettered by the standard menu of limited plans.

Now, thanks to his efforts, there are customers in Malaysia who can get prepaid fiber broadband internet access without any long-term locked in contracts. "This pre-paid fiber broadband will help many university students enjoy gigabit internet packages, from month to month."

At the time of interview (May 2020), he has a presence in three parts of Malaysia. "In Cyberjaya we have signed up with Mutiara Ville and Garden Plaza, the largest property developers there; In Johor Bahru, we have signed up with Johor Corporation (JCorp), and the Johor State GLC, connecting Komtar JBCC, Menara Komtar and Menara JLand; In Kota Kinabalu Sabah, we have signed up with The W Group (Wong Kwok Group property development), covering 12,000 premises at three of the largest property developments in the city."

However the grand vision is to connect all 222 districts in Malaysia, to form what Shaharin dubs a "Gigabit City".

[Update: To achieve this target, iFiber has signed an MOU with listed tech company, Pertama Digital Bhd, on Dec 22 to collaborate and investment to provide open access network that can deliver gigabit internet nationwide.]


The long gradual climb

You might think established players might have something to say about Shaharin's plans to disrupt the marketplace. But for decades, he has been happy to push the boundaries. In the mid-1990s Shaharin was the first entrepreneur to receive Pioneer Status from the Malaysian Industrial Development Agency (MIDA) for a VCD factory he built in Penang. In 1998, he set up VOL Asia, with the idea of developing the first halal online browser for Malaysia and the Middle East market.

In the 2000's, he began wiring commercial buildings and condos with last-mile fibre broadband, and as the CEO of Kedah ICT Holding, he contributed to the design of the Kedah State ICT blueprint and fibre infrastructure for the Municipal Network.

It was there that Shaharin saw that it wasn't always easy to get telcos to equip a building with fibre. Costs were high (into the hundreds of thousands of ringgit), and some insisted that a certain percentage of tenants ask for it before they would install.

"When I started as entrepreneur, there was a lot of self-learning to gain experience, which takes a long time and I made a lot of mistakes," he reminisced. "My advice, get a mentor and learn as much you can before you start," he said. "Mistakes can cost you a lot money and time." 

Eventually he bought over Kedah ICT, renamed it as Fiber@Home, and invested RM5 million (US$1.2 milion) of his own money into it. After building the business, in 2017 he sold it to ViewqWest, a Singaporean broadband company, for an undisclosed amount.


Showing customers the value of choice

"As an entrepreneur, I am always challenging myself to do the things that nobody has done before.” He explained that the point of iFIBER is to solve issues in the infrastructure, by leveraging existing fiber in a new way.

Whereas other networks like Telekom Malaysia's high speed broadband (HSBB) are built on a Gigabit Passive Optical Networking (G-PON), Shaharin's model uses an Active Optical Network (AON) and makes it an active Ethernet platform. So while changing service providers on the G-PON requires a visit from a technician to install a new customer-premises equipment (CPE), iFIBER can make the change immediately through their portal.

However, Shaharin was quick to say that iFIBER is not in competition with other ISPs, and that the company only installs infrastructure. "Our business model is similar to a telco Tower Operator, providing tower infra sharing for mobile operators," he clarified.

He's open to any of the ISPs to ride on his network. But guess what? It's the more established telcos that baulk at the idea.

"The toughest challenge is to convince the big boys, especially existing fixed line ISPs, to join the iFIBER network," he said, explaining the incumbents have stringent requirements before deciding whether they can join his network. "(It is) always a wait-and-see status."

"(But) Things are different when we approach new ISPs. They see an opportunity to snap the existing ISP market." As a result, iFIBER has focused attention on them, as well as PayTV and mobile operators.

Regardless, he is confident the incumbents will eventually come around. "I believe as soon as iFIBER has connected 100,000 homes by the end of 2020, TM and TIME will have no choice but to consider joining," he said. "It is a matter of time."

[Update: As the target was set before the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, Shaharin says he hit 15,000 homes connected by Dec 2020. He has reset the 100,000 homes target to be achieved by end of 2022 in Klang Valley, Johor Bahru and Kota Kinabalu.]

According to Shahrin, the winners are the customers. He pointed to data that showed over 70 percent of their customers choose access via their marketplace, over a dedicated service or network provider. "Customers prefer a Trivago-like marketplace where they can choose which ISP they want to subscribe to," he said. "No longer can telcos have exclusivity."

Implementation-wise, Shaharin is currently focused on property developers. "Property developers that have adopted our open access fiber concept for new development townships and highrises have saved millions of dollars," he claimed. Although it was difficult for them to accept the idea at first, he managed to persuade a number of developers , including Sunway, SP Setia, Mah Sing, Tropicana and UMLand.


700,000 homes in the next 5 years

iFIBER spent most of 2019 developing and testing its gigabit open access platforms, while simultaneously pitching the idea to developers. "We successfully secured and built two pilot Gigabit City projects in Cyberjaya and Johor Bahru." As of June 2020, iFIBER is supplying access to 127 high-rise buildings, and 16,190 units. "We anticipate we will start to generate revenue from line rental fees from Q3 2020."

Shaharin also said he believes that the pandemic made consumers more aware. "I think Covid-19 validated the need for good fixed line connectivity," he said, pointing to the uptake in video calls and OTT TV. "All this has created a demand for faster internet."

Shaharin also has an eye on the next round of the National Fiberization & Connectivity Plan (NFCP), where the government is offering matching funds to construct fiber infrastructure. "iFIBER is participating in NFCP3 tender," he said. "We are targeting 20%, about 700,000 homes, over the next 5 years."

"Now we have a big task ahead of us," he confided. He has to somehow convince stakeholders that his solution of choice is one that makes sense. "How do we educate the customers?"

Regardless of where he will eventually end up, Shaharin knows he's going to enjoy the ride. To him, it's showing people the light, and when they do understand his proposition, he feels it's a worthy breakthrough. "It feels like victory to me!"

Digerati50 2020/2021 is proudly sponsored by Maxis - Powering Malaysia's 5G era.

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