From a Research Engineer at Air France to becoming the CEO of COMSATS Internet Services (CIS), Muhammad Amir Malik has had an illustrious career.
The one thing that he never compromised was the quality and standard of service his organization was providing. In an exclusive interview with More Magazine, Mr. Malik provided us with some insights into the Internet world of Pakistan.
At COMSATS Internet Services, what is your prime focus?
My main emphasis has been the spread of Wireless Broadband Services as this area is known to be our strength since inception. In this domain, we do not compete with conventional operators, and this is why we do not target home users.
However, we have managed to get more than 10,000 corporate clients that are present in all major cities including Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Quetta, and Peshawar. Now we are looking to expand our operations in Faisalabad, Multan, Sialkot, Gujrat, and Sukkar as a part of our growth plan.
Our focus is to bring on board more corporate customers such as banks, multinationals, universities and other major organizations.
Currently, we are serving all major embassies, foreign missions, armed forces, strategic organizations, hotels, and several government departments.
So you can easily get an idea about the consistent level of quality that keeps them our valued partner.
I am interested in growing our customer base and bringing in new services to enhance the user experience. We are continuously looking into ways to improve and expand our services and ensure optimal packages are offered that meet the demands of our clients.
The primary aim is to ensure that COMSATS Internet Services stays the best ISP in Pakistan regarding the quality of services and support.
We don’t believe in false claims, our connection is a dedicated link, and we ensure that our customers get every byte that we have promised them. We have been providing Wireless Broadband Services in this market for almost 4 and a half years.
We may not be the leader in this domain, but I can confirm to you that we are considered a reliable partner and quality service provider today.
On the revenue side, Masha-Allah we are doing well. Just last year, we managed to generate PKR 33 Million more than the profit target that was given to us by the Board and this year, we have already exceeded our quarterly target.
We heard about your passion for data centers and software development. What’s the latest on it?
Besides Wireless Broadband Services, CIS is doing extensive work on customized and local Data Centers. Particularly talking about data centers, CIS has had a lot of success from our data center services. Our data centers in Islamabad, Karachi, and Lahore are doing reasonably well and by the end of this year, we are planning to have data centers in Sialkot and Faisalabad.
We have also acquired ISO 27001 certification at our existing Data Centers for maintaining standards of information security. COMSATS has also implemented Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC) to strengthen the security and reliability of the Internet infrastructure. DNSSEC is a valued tool that develops the assertion and integrity of DNS.
All our efforts are in continuation to our vision of providing data centers locally to our customers who feel satisfied and protected with their data being hosted in their city.
There are over 2000 members of the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce who are getting various services from us, and for them hosting data at a remote place is a matter of concern which is obviously not cost-effective at the same time.
Managing the data in-house requires a lot of resources regarding human resources, infrastructure, equipment, energy and power backups, etc. This is where we come in with our customized and enterprise-level solutions which are highly reliable and much more economical. We plan to expand our network of COMSATS Data Centers across the country offering cloud computing and other data center services.
As far as software development is concerned, we were discouraged when we started work in this area. Although we have been developing websites for some time now, we were told that this was not our domain and there was no room for us.
Despite this opposition, we got ourselves registered with Pakistan Software Export Board (PSEB) and Pakistan Software Houses Association (P@SHA), and just to give you a fair idea of our success we have completed the software development of PKR 8 million so far this year.
We ventured into this on a trial basis, but now it is becoming a stronger revenue stream.
It all started happening when our clients asked for customized applications and websites for them. With IT getting involved in almost every department, the industry has realized the importance of it as an enabler for increasing revenues.
The industry started creating a demand for such solutions, and we are ready to fulfill it. Just an example, we are in a process of building an e-commerce gateway for the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce which is again a customized solution.
Both endeavors for data center services and software development have shown great potential, and we will continue to focus on building them in the coming years.
In the presence of better foreign options, how can CIS ensure 24/7 service?
There are excellent data centers around the world but even if you host your application on a Tier-4 data center abroad, you have to connect with it through a local Internet Service Provider.
There would still be a chance that you face network congestion or lost connectivity due to a problem, and it would not be the fault of the datacenter.
The benefit of choosing COMSATS is that we are an internet service provider, and at the same time, we are providing seamless connectivity to our datacenters.
CIS has been around for almost 20 years as a data hosting and internet service provider. To compete globally, we are following enhanced corporate governance standards and applicable best practices.
This is a major factor in making our company transparent, accountable, protecting the rights of stakeholders and attracting customers. At CIS, there has not been a downtime that I have witnessed during my tenure, and even before me as well.
This is because of planning in the right way to maintain a steady service no matter what. The certifications that we have received demand for thorough planning and meeting international standards.
As an example, in Islamabad, we have installed one primary generator which is supported by two backup generators just to ensure that our clients do not face downtime in any situation.
CIS is always striving to optimize its performance through good management which has been the main reason for us gaining consumer confidence.
With cybersecurity becoming a problem across the world, how secure your data centers are?
All data centers maintain a certain security level, and this goes across the board for everyone. However, when it comes to hacking a website, the data center has nothing to do with it in most cases.
A lot of times, it is poor website development that makes the website vulnerable to hacking. For example, companies use a certain path for uploading their data on a server, and if this path is exploited by a hacker, then there is nothing a datacenter could do to avoid it.
The developer of the website has to be skilled enough to address every possible loophole on the website.
Even Tier-4 data centers cannot avoid situations that are created due to poor coding and weak planning of a website. There was a case recently when sensitive data was hacked from a government website that was hosted on a Tier-4 server in a foreign country. The hacker exploited the path that was used to upload confidential information.
Unfortunately in Pakistan, website development only competes on the basis of the price which eventually turns out to be a nightmare for the client because poor coding techniques from very low-cost developers cause a huge data loss.
In actual, making a website is an art and it should only be assigned to a professional.
We are hosting more than 4500 websites of clients from Pakistan, Morocco, and Afghanistan. Before hosting a website, we do a thorough audit of the entire data and application, and then update our client about all possible faults that could become a point of concern for them.
We have also successfully implemented Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC) technology. DNS Security Extensions adds security to the Domain Name System, which is the backbone of the modern Internet. This technology protects data by utilizing a digital signature and helps security aware servers by obtaining secure and authentic information.
This is another step to help CIS preserve users’ trust and protect websites from cyber-attacks.
Alhamdulillah, I can proudly say that COMSATS Internet Services has not been hacked in recent years simply because of our strong standard operating procedures backed by experienced professionals.
From what you describe, Pakistan seems to be doing well in technology, but it is otherwise in reality, why?
In Pakistan, we have good ICT infrastructure at the moment, but regarding service quality and wireless broadband, we have still not reached the level of service that is available in developed countries.
The speed of data that we have today on our mobile phones cannot be termed as excellent, but we need to see the hurdles that we have crossed to reach this far.
There was a time when CPE cost us PKR 25,000, but today it comes for PKR 1000. 3G and 4G smartphones are getting cheaper, and things are changing rapidly. Having said that, providing technology is always different than using it for businesses.
COMSATS has provided the technology but how efficiently can it be used for businesses is altogether a new domain.
In the past few years, we have started to witness the startups which are making use of new technology. I can quote you an example of a company ‘Five Rivers Technologies’ which got a lot of attention back in 2010 when their mobile application topped the BlackBerry store.
It simply shows that we can make a difference even with limited resources. I hope in a few years things will be very different for us.
To boost economic trade, a reliable e-payment gateway needs to be established. Just, rational and practical cyber laws need to be devised to control cyber crimes in Pakistan.
The ICT industry needs to invest in proper mechanisms for data protection and online properties. Facing these challenges is an achievable goal, and I hope that our ICT Industry can collectively break all these barriers to ensure maximum improvement in the ICT utilization of our country.
From a policy point of view, it is just not enough to go out in underserved areas and distribute broadband connections, tablets and laptops. What matters is that we tell those people that what application they can use to ease their lives and become more productive. We need to educate them that how they can sell their handmade products to the world directly by just using simple apps and make more money instead of relying on the conventional models where they cannot earn much.
COMSATS Internet Services is also trying to do our part through our research and development activities to benefit the people of Pakistan through ICT. In this effort, CIS has collaborated with Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to establish 2 L-Root Servers in Islamabad and Lahore.
The L-Root instances in Pakistan have helped improve the inter-networking efficiency of the country’s Internet infrastructure. CIS is also working with the Internet Society Asia Pacific (ISOC) to establish the Wireless for Communities (W4C) program in Pakistan to provide Internet access to under-served rural communities through WiFi based technologies.
This program will help empower the people in rural areas by offering online access, training and promoting e-services.
After 3G and 4G in Pakistan, Telehealth is making the headlines. What expertise does CIS have in this area?
ComClinic™ is a Telehealth community service offered by COMSATS to patients in remote areas of Pakistan free of charge. Our Tele-health centers are getting popular among the masses, and people are finding it the easiest way to communicate with professional doctors who are sitting in metropolitan cities.
So far, we have provided over 40,000 free consultations to the general public in remote areas since April 2013. At a Telehealth center, we have the state of the art equipment such as Vital Signs Monitor, ECG Gloves, Ultrasound Probe, ENT Otoscope, Digital Examination Cameras, etc.
We have 10 Telehealth units operational in different remote areas of the country. By year-end, we are determined to complete our target of making 13 such units operational.
In the past, I had seen many Tele-health centers, but the success rate was never as high as we are witnessing today at our centers. The basic problem that has always slowed down the pace is that Telehealth centers in Pakistan involved too many stakeholders. In our case, there is only one entity, which is us.
We provide the hospital, health equipment, bandwidth for the communication link and the qualified doctors sitting at our facility; so we control and manage things efficiently on our own. This model that we have adopted has been successful so far which is a CSR project financed by us.
To further expand our community project, our next phase is to provide this service to all the embassies for their staff to engage with a doctor of their choice from anywhere in the world.
With the ICT infrastructure and development improving in Pakistan, we need to take full advantage of this for providing primary health care across the nation. ComClinic™ is an excellent example of how ICT can help the health sector improve its outreach.
How much bandwidth is required for a Tele-health center?
For one Telehealth Center, we dedicate a 10 MB link for its normal running. When a doctor in Islamabad examines patients, there is a need to exchange a lot of medical data between the Telehealth center and remote Tele-health units.
So this is not only a simple video conferencing like Skype, and it requires an enormous data transmission in real-time.