Building Tomorrow Land
The PEAK Hong Kong|January 2018

Hong Kong Telecom boss Alex Arena has his eyes fixed firmly on the future. Getting the government to play ball in a timely fashion might be the tricky bit.

Anna Healy Fenton
For a man not given to talking about the colour in his own life, Hong Kong Telecom Executive Director and Group Managing Director certainly comes with a bright sartorial sense. The 66-year old Australian boss of Hong Kong Telecom (HKT) comes to our interview sporting a snappy suit teamed with a rather striking pair of bright blue brogues. This sort of statement was somehow unexpected of an electrical engineer whose resume reads like a headhunter’s wish list of Asia’s top 20 telecoms jobs.

Arena’s no-nonsense handshake and piercing gaze from suggested that frivolous questions about fancy footwear could wait, for now.

It was Hong Kong’s former Chief Secretary Anson Chan who set the New South Wales native on course 25 years ago to becoming Group Managing Director of HKT (HKT) and HKT Management, trustee-manager of the HKT Trust. He is also a member of HKT's Executive Committee and holds numerous directorships within the HKT Group. Add up the titles, and it means Arena is firmly in charge of the HKT empire.

Chan, then head of the Economic Services Branch, enticed Arena away from the Australian Telecommunications Authority in the early 1990s and gave him his first mission: liberalise Hong Kong's telecommunications sector to make it more competitive, and rebuild the regulatory body. Arena would go on to become the director-general of telecommunications at the Office of Telecommunications Authority.

“She (Chan) wanted to open up the Hong Kong economy and introduce competition, as Cable and Wireless had a monopoly.” Arena remains a committed Chan fan. “She’s always had this inner strength – she’s a dynamo,” he says admiringly. “I believed in what she wanted to do and we did it.”

What made Chan so special? He ponders. “It’s kind of opposite of what we’ve heard in the last few years about Hong Kong civil servants, that they’re risk adverse. She was prepared to take risks in those days.” You get the same sort of feeling around Carrie Lam, he adds. “She’s getting things done.”

The topic of telecoms may sound dry, but it shouldn’t. They keys to global competitiveness are now bound up in the telecommunications sector, and by Arena’s reckoning, HKT is involved in some of the most exciting projects of its 150-year history.

For instance, HKT is deeply involved in the transition from paper money to the cashless society. The future, Arena says, is e-wallets, which link with an individual's bank account to make electronic payments. Hong Kong is apparently poised to lead the charge with the new technology. Hong Kong did “fantastically well” in the first wave of electronic money, with its pioneering Octopus technology – which Arena refers to as wave one technology.

Now we’re on to the second wave of electronic money, which most people know as Alipay or Wechat pay.

In this, China leapfrogged Hong Kong. “China didn’t have wave one, so they’ve jumped straight to wave two using technology such as QR codes,” Arena explains. But this is a marathon, not a sprint, and Hong Kong is edging in front again. “What we’re doing now with our Tap & Go service is what I’d like to call wave three,” Arena says proudly. This combines the features of waves one and two, and includes peer-to-peer transactions and Near-field Communications, (NFC). NFC enables two electronic devices, one of which is usually a smartphone, to communicate by bringing them within four centimeters of each other.

The phone is the card and you don’t even need to scan in a QR code, he explains. “The phone is everything. So if you’re looking at this as the start of electronic money, Hong Kong is doing quite well. This is just the start of it.”

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