Interviewed By The Asian Banker Live
Abdul Rahman AlAshraf, founder of FreeCom, shares how his idea of communicating without the use of internet or mobile network came about. He also explains how the prototype works, its potentials and how it will keep people connected during disasters.
The war situation in Syria, where communication was a challenge, served as a motivation for Abdul Rahman AlAshraf to build FreeCom. He worked on the idea of creating an alternative method of communication to allow the local community to interact during disaster situations or emergency.
FreeCom’s founder may not be the business type of guy, but he was brave enough to stand up on stage and share his idea of enabling device-to-device communication. With the help of a team of volunteers from around the world, AlAshraf managed to build prototypes that can help fill in the gap where traditional communication finds itself lacking.
The first prototype, called the open source prototype, is free, and can now be downloaded on the company’s website for non-commercial use. Another prototype is also available for industry use cases.
In this interview with The Asian Banker chairman Emmanuel Daniel, AlAshraf further opens up about his dream to keep people connected, along with the hurdles he faced to make this dream a reality and the many potentials of this project.
Emmanuel Daniel (ED): Abdul Rahman AlAshraf, a Syrian entrepreneur, who, during the war in Syria, detected that he had problems using his mobile device intermittently, as you can imagine the war situation would provide. He moved to Germany, completed his studies and pioneered a company called FreeCom in order to enable devices to talk to each other. Imagine a world where you do not need telcos and where devices can interact with each other. I’m very happy to be able to speak with somebody who’s potentially going to be making a huge difference to the world that we live in. Thank you very much for speaking to me today.
Abdul Rahman AlAshraf (ARA): Thank you. It’s my pleasure.
ED: Where is this technology at the moment? Just give us a quick background of how you imagined this revolution taking place.
ARA: It all started when we recognised the problem in the current traditional way of communication. If any problem happened in one of the providers, like the coverage tower or the internet server, this bridge will be cut down and the people in the area where this trouble happens, they won’t be able to communicate. In a situation like a disaster, the whole network doesn’t break down, but only in the region where this problem happened and people are disconnected.
ED: What inspired you, and how long did it take you to build that understanding in the critical mass to be involved in the development of this technology of device-to-device communication?
ARA: The biggest motivation was living in the problem. I think this is the key for all innovations in the human history. We always live in the problem, we face it, we see it, and this would be the only motivation for us to fix it. Some people take even further steps and start to fix it for other people, and this is how we can see all the innovations around us. So my motivation was living in a place where I saw how hard it was to be disconnected.
In a war situation, you are worried the whole time about relatives, friends, who are maybe not so far from you. But because of the danger, it’s very hard to go and see them yourselves. So you have to communicate using the traditional ways, which is internet and mobile network. But in a disaster, even those two methods are no longer available. I had the idea of creating something alternative to fix this issue when a disaster happened.
The idea was to create in this local community some alternative methods to communicate. This is how the whole idea came to our minds. We tried for six months to research and study all the alternative methods of communication.
We came up with a prototype that two or more people can communicate with without going back to the internet or to the mobile network. The project is actually in a good level, where we managed to launch the open source prototype online. Anybody is allowed to use it without any commercial use. It’s free. The other part is actually developed for industry use cases.
How the prototype works
ED: The prototype, is that a protocol, or a device? How have you packaged it?
ARA: The prototype is a software. The first prototype was only on mobile phones because it was very easy to test, to develop many solutions with it. It’s only like a mobile app. You download it and you will get these functionalities: you can do text messages, phone calls or broadcasts. In case of danger, you can tell everybody around you that there is nothing they have to be worried about. The next prototypes, they were focusing on making these on cross-platforms – laptops, machines – and any kind of device that has a computer inside.
ED: This is non-hardware based, what is the solution that you’ve developed so far?
ARA: We are sending the data over the sound. We are encoding the data. For example, I write, “hello”, it will be encoded and sent into tune. But this tune is sent over ultrasound, so our ears can’t hear it, but the phone can still detect it. Then it will be translating into the language again and receiving the text. Where can this be used? For commercial based, this is going to be a really big topic because you can imagine sending data over the speaker, and the speaker is everywhere, in every mall, in every conference room and in every university.
For example, the professor can send the data directly to all students using the existing speaker. It’s like broadcasting. The strongest point in ultrasound is broadcasting. You can reach so many people in a very fast time, and they’ll be getting the information on a cross-platform level. If the user has a laptop, iOS, Android or Blackberry, for example, it will just be distributed with no problem.
ED: Where is FreeCom right now? Is it a readily available software? Is it something that people pay for? Is it a stable software? Is it made into a product very clearly?
ARA: The open source prototype, as we call it, is free for everyone. Anyone can download it from the website, can reuse this prototype for non-commercial use, because we also use another open source platform to build this prototype. In the moment, we are in contact with so many students who are doing, for example, master thesis or doing some kind of projects in the university to implement these new solutions.
We provide now in the website an open source prototype. That means we are still targeting the developers. If a developer is able to reach our website, he can download the source code and region rate it. We don’t put it on the user level because we wanted to give it to the right people in the beginning to develop further solution. If you give them the solution directly, they will think this is the only solution. We try to provide an infrastructure, so it’s not a final product. We provide a new way of thinking of how you can reshape the infrastructure. That’s why we want people to be creative. Maybe we think in a different way, and they can be more creative to use it.
ED: How far are we from seeing a device-to-device communication?
ARA: If we talk about the general use, this would definitely take a longer time. But for individual uses, anyone can already implement this. The functionality is working. Anybody can implement this in his own kind of community or build his own solution. But, for the general use, it’s still not that final.
ED: In terms of the development of this industry, what are the uses that are the most popular for device-to-device communication?
ARA: At the moment, we are working on a very interesting use case with the lab in the company to implement this in the factory, industrial based, wherein some cases, the normal signals like Wi-Fi and bluetooth create some kind of noise for the machines, which influence its quality. Using such a solution like ultrasound would be no problem. Machines can communicate and they no longer need to use wires. They can be wireless, using some kind of new alternatives. What would also be very good is using this for internet of things and smart cities infrastructure, because it’s on cross-platform technology.
ED: Is this technology more attractive in Europe, where you live now, or in the US?
ARA: In general, it’s interesting in every part of the world. It’s up to the use case where they want to implement it. That means it’s not always the perfect solution for anything. For example, in one of the use cases in the company, they want to communicate machine to machine but in a really huge distance. This could never work. We are talking now in local places where more people are in one place, where machines or people should communicate with each other.
Filling in the gap where the traditional communication is lacking
ED: How did you commercialise the development process? You moved from Syria to Germany, and you completed your education in Germany. How did you fund FreeCom?
ARA: The first level was only implemented during my free time. The research part was already part of my working time in the company where I work. After that, a team of volunteers helped in building the open source. The other part where we implement for the industry is funded by the industry itself.
ED: Right now, you are employed in a large corporation in Germany, so where is the technology and why did you choose to be employed as opposed to developing it yourself?
ARA: The impressive thing about being in Germany is working in a huge company where they have very high standards. I always believe if you end up doing one thing and finish, this is not real success. You always have to create new things. I was introduced to a new kind of technology called robotic process automation, where we can create software bots, solve so many problems and let people be more creative. I have now more ideas of how we can implement this in future projects. I always look for new challenges, and maybe repeating some kind of success.
ED: But who’s the “we” in the story?
ARA: The “we” in the story is the people who are working on this project because I was only the founder of this idea. I was developing the first prototype myself, but then a team of volunteers from so many countries wanted to help make this project more advanced. We developed the second and third prototype of this project where it can help in different directions.
ED: Does the idea of revolutionising telecommunications occur to you? Is this something that is going to take away a lot of business from the telecoms or networks?
ARA: Nothing will take the business out of other businesses if they continue being innovative. Any company, if it’s still typical and traditional and they don’t want to change, they will lose their business. This is the secret of our century now. They have to be smart, always get the new ideas re-implemented and be flexible doing that. All these new technologies which are coming now, if they all combine together, would make everything better.
ED: Do you think that the telcos will be upset? Is that something that telcos might find as a threat to their business?
ARA: That’s totally not true. We are just completing what the typical, traditional communication can’t do. We are just fixing the gap. When the connection is not that strong, we can strengthen it. This is our point. If you go to a huge event where so many people are in the same area, usually the telecommunication company should bring extra devices and extra towers or coverage towers to strengthen the signal. In that case, FreeCom can fix this problem. We will complete each other for sure. We can’t say we can work without the infrastructure that exists already.
ED: Have financial institutions been too slow or have they been too caught up with how they see the world?
ARA: From my perspective as an entrepreneur, I see somehow more typical things than innovative things in this kind of industry. If they remain the same, a new technology might appear and take the whole business. From my experience living in Germany, the banks there, or the financial institutions, they are still doing very typical things. They are still not implementing what other countries implemented in Asia or in South America or North America. If they remain the same, it would be really a problem.
ED: You’re saying that in essence there is a possibility for collaboration and growing. What if your company is outside of Singapore, say it operates more regionally, for example, would clients expect far more personalised support? Are the things that they do just as digital as the local bank in Thailand?
ARA: On the local base, yes. It will strengthen the communication and lower the costs, because it will always provide local communication. Only when you want to communicate somewhere like overseas, or maybe to the other region where this local connection is, you will have to go back to the normal network. I see some potential in this direction.
ED: You work for Porsche. Inside Porsche, there are hundreds of equipment that are more expensive than what you’re doing basically, although they look simpler. So there’s the marketing cost being put into it, there’s a procurement cost and so on. Now, in a typical value chain, where do you work right now?
ARA: In the moment, we are implementing the FreeCom idea for the local use case for the industry in the lab part of the company. The other project that I work for is robotic process automation. It’s about building software robots to do the regular stuff that humans do.
ED: Do you have the parties working with each other?
ARA: It works on all platforms. It can work on everything – IOS, Android – or even if you create your own new device, this would work on it now, because it’s software based.
ED: What hurdles have you been put through in order to get to this point where you’re able to see the launch of the actual product?
ARA: There were a lot of obstacles and a lot of hard time. I think the biggest was to bring the idea first to talk about it. This was the hardest thing. It was looking for any chance to stand up on a stage and tell the idea to other people. I was not scared to make people interested about it because I know there are so many people in need for such a thing. But it was like first trying to find the best way.
The second thing, I was not prepared to understand the business side of any project. I came from a development background where I just founded small startups where we work on a low customer level, not a big project that will work on a huge infrastructure. That time, I had a really huge gap. I had to learn and have some kind of training to fill this gap of understanding the business.
The future of telecommunications
ED: What is the future of telecommunications, given this development in this industry?
ARA: I see the future of telecommunications going in two directions. One on the ground and one on the air. The one on the ground is growing faster. A lot of companies are talking already about flying some balloons, which go all around the world and broadcast information, or using satellites for using this. I see it somehow long term, because there are a lot of limitations. The technology working on the ground is proceeding faster. The future will be definitely 100% connectivity. This is definitely going to happen. But how soon and how fast is the question, actually.
ED: Do you still have the desire to change the world with the technology that you’re using at the moment?
ARA: Yes, for sure. I have a bigger desire to change more things. I mean, when you first see that you are being able to change something, the desire grows, and you think, “Okay, I can change more.” This is actually what makes the life also more interesting because your dream is bigger, your hopes are bigger and the people around you, who believe in you are more. This will all encourage you to find more problems, fix more and help more people.
ED: At the operational level, do you see yourself building it as an entrepreneur or do you see yourself building it together with an organisation that can fund you?
ARA: I am a person who believes in freedom. I really do. I believe in people more than in companies and organisations. Not because I don’t respect them, but I know how business works. You always have to make money. This is your priority, to grow up and to keep alive. But if you work on the personal level, you will see people giving more of their time, more of their passion without waiting for something in return. This is more sustainable than being led by the money or by the business that you own.
ED: You do need funding in order to scale. Where are you with the funding at the moment?
ARA: There are so many business models that are sustainable enough to grow the business without being owned by some kind of huge founder. I name those kinds of businesses the “smart businesses” because they grow. Sometimes slowly, sometimes fast, but they are still sustainable enough to be sure that they will not fail. It’s just the way how you think about your business model. In the case of FreeCom, we had no choice because of the regular limitations, so we had to work under some kind of organisation or business. But the other side, which is the open source, is still growing by the power of people. People are working on implementing this.
ED: You are a success and a story to be told on several layers. On the first layer, you’re someone who’s actually made a transition from one economy to another. Another layer, to have the vision to come up with this device-to-device communication. The third layer is to actually make it a success, both as a product as well as a business. And then, the last layer is to fill the market with the potential of this product. Where are you in that cycle in terms of marketing and productising what you built?
ARA: I see myself more as someone who’s about solving the problems, creating the ideas, being innovative, guiding the thing, but I’m sure not the business guy. That’s why I always need help. There are always supporters around. It doesn’t mean I can’t do, but I feel that my passion is more into seeing the problem, finding the solution, trying to believe in people and creating the team. I see myself more into this kind of direction.
ED: Where are you now? Are you at the start of that journey or are you at the middle of the journey? Are you at the end because your product is clearer?
ARA: I’m always in a cycle. Every time I think I somehow reached the point that I want, I re-repeat. This is a very good skill that a person should learn because it will never stop him on some point. Even if you are on the top of your success, you are still on the bottom of other things. So, you will repeat the cycle. You’d be always doing new things and this will bring more success.
ED: Abdul Rahman AlAshraf, thank you very much for spending time with me today.
ARA: Thank you very much. It’s my pleasure.