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2019 will be a major milestone in Lebanon’s telecommunications sector and in Alfa’s journey in particular because this is when 5G deployment will take off. This is what Marwan Hayek, CEO and Chairman, Alfa promised during an exclusive interview with Telecom Review.

Alfa is the host partner of the 12th Telecom Review Leaders’ Summit. What should attendees expect from your participation this year?

Telecom Review Leaders’ Summit Beirut 2019 attendees will experience exceptional technology-innovation brought for the first time to Lebanon by Alfa. We will be showcasing together with our partners Nokia and Ericsson the massive capabilities our live data network is able to support on latest technologies and devices launched at MWC2019 as well as live 5G use cases and we are glad to do that at Telecom Review Leaders’ Summit Beirut which will gather Lebanese and regional telco executives.

Last year, at Telecom Review Leaders’ Summit Beirut, we accomplished a historical achievement for Lebanon and Alfa, which was the 1st live 5G trial. During this year’s event, we are showcasing “The Final Step to 5G in Lebanon” before going live with the technology later this year as promised. Since we relaunched the Beirut version of the Summit in 2017, together with Toni, the event grew to become one of the largest telco gatherings in MENA region showcasing Lebanon and Alfa’s technology leadership and an important event to raise awareness about our exceptional efforts over the past years in the Industry which reinforced Lebanon’s positioning especially on the mobile side. This year, we are making Telecom Review Leaders’ Summit Beirut more memorable than ever for Lebanon and the telco sector, introducing a new chapter of innovation which will further cement our role as a tech-leader or what I call “Lebanon’s happiness provider”. 

In December, you promised our readers that Alfa will roll out 5G in the first half of 2019. Where are you now in this process? Will you be able to keep that promise or did you face any obstacles that might cause delay?

We’re certainly keeping the promise. 5G rollout will take off before July 2019 (starting in hot spots in main cities).

In your opinion, what are the elements that make an operator a leader in 5G today? And what makes Alfa a leader in 5G today?

We are only steps away from the official 5G launch. We have established official partnerships for this pioneering 5G network deployment since 2017 with our network suppliers which are of the top worldwide. Since then, we have been preparing our network, core and infrastructure, for this evolution. We have embarked on a massive network cloud-based and virtualization modernization plan along with the launch of VoLTE which was a first from Alfa last year.

We are also in the process of reassessing our network deployment and operations. Given the much greater density of cell sites required for high-band 5G, the traditional model for macro-cell deployment will be too expensive and impractical to adopt. With its highly customized approach to network deployment, sites can take more than six months to go live. To reduce deployment time and costs, we are rethinking these processes, digitizing and automating them. We are also working on preparing the radio network for faster migration to 5G – The 4G HW equipment that we recently purchased from our suppliers are 5G-ready. So only a quick SW upgrade will be required to have 5G service activated in these sites.  

One of the critical resources for 5G deployment is securing the radio spectrum and this is in the final stages of completion. Our teams have also triggered market studies and analysis to identify the market needs and business opportunities as well as the industries to address and the use cases that will become possible with 5G. Our end goal is to develop the ecosystem in which we can partner with developers to offer innovative solutions and with private and public sectors to benefit to obtain the optimum benefits from the upcoming revolution. 5G is promising unprecedented speed, reliability, latency and bandwidth, and everyone should be aware of the opportunities that this evolution will bring.  One of the major initiatives we have done in this regards is preparing the public for the 5G revolution through raising awareness about 5G and Alfa’s 5G strategy and commercial launch readiness. Our 1st 5G public event last year had great momentum in this regard, as it showcased live demos on 5G brought to Lebanon for the first time to the public. For all the above reasons, Alfa is the first in Lebanon on 5G front and other technology fronts as well and certainly among the leaders in the region from a practical perspective.

Alfa focuses a lot on CSR. Back in 2017, you launched the “People with Iron Will” denomination and you are known as the Ambassador of the rights of these people. What’s the history behind this national call and how did you come up with this it? And why is Alfa so involved in CSR initiatives?

I am proud to witness what started as a personal initiative and a personal call in November 2017 growing to become today a widely-adopted national cause. 

Founding the “People with Iron Will” terminology and calling for its adoption, came naturally as after so many years of supporting this cause and witnessing the outstanding abilities of children and people with communication needs, I was personally moved by the determination and perseverance these children and people were demonstrating to us and to the community at large. This is how it all started. “People with Iron Will” is a national call I made back in Nov 2017 during the “Chain of Love” panel which Alfa organized to listen to NGOs and the challenges they face and offer what we can to help them. At that moment, I felt the need to start from changing the denomination which I believe is degrading to humanity and to these people who are an integral part of our society and any society.

I reiterated this call from the UN headquarters in New York back in September 2018 when I was on the CEO roundtable of the UN Global Compact Leaders’ Summit and recently in February 2019, in the national workshop for “People with Iron” held at the Lebanese Parliament where I have called for the adoption of the terminology in the Lebanese law 220/2000 governing the rights of “People with Iron Will” and not only in the panel name.

I am proud to see that this call and this change has been now officially adopted by Ministerial and governmental bodies, and I am happy to say that we at Alfa are the source of this change. This is a personal cause I promise to continue to advocate until the end. It is the result of a personal belief and our corporate mission which is embedded in our company’s culture.

I am glad to tell you that the first colleague with Iron Will joined Alfa since its foundation. This simply means that Alfa has established the CSR culture in Lebanon and our CSR program “Alfa 4-Life” is the natural birthchild of this sustainable commitment. Since its foundation more than 13 years ago, our program has changed destinies of more than 3000 beneficiaries from different NGOs namely through art therapy and communication-enhancement programs.

Few figures to highlight the impact: We have tailored more than 70 initiatives aiming at empowering children and People with Iron will to achieve their full citizenship and be productive members in the community. Our Artist with Autism Ali Tlais has gathered a remarkable sum of money out of his painting exhibitions, etc. At Alfa we walk the talk, we have started from within through the employment of the “People with Iron Will” and we have exceeded the 3 percent quota stipulated by the 220/2000 Law. In addition, we are proud of our successful Alfa family team that includes managers with Iron Will as well as Champs in different Sports activities. CSR and Sustainability for us is a serious, non-ending commitment and a pledge and oath we have made – For life to ourselves, our values, our society well-being and prosperity and above all, it is a pride.

In the same context, and as the Goal Leader of SDG 9 in Lebanon, can you brief us on how are you working on achieving SDG 9 in Lebanon?

As a leading telecom operator in a vastly growing sector in Lebanon and worldwide, we have a crucial responsibility to employ technology to the benefit of our planet and our people. Indeed, we believe that we are not merely a cellular operator, but also a provider of happiness. As of 2015, Alfa has committed to the Global Goals and to the UN 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development. We have been championing SDG #3: Good Health and well Being, SDG#10 Reduced Inequalities, and I Lead Goal SDG#9: Innovation, Industry and Infrastructure on the national level as one of the Goal Leaders on the SDG National Council and Advisory Board.

Before and through this mandate, we have always pioneered technology innovation and we stand firm towards this commitment. We were the first to launch 3G, 4G, 4G LTE-A, and we accomplished the 1st live 5G test last year. Our internet speeds are reaching outstanding levels and we rank today 3rd in the MENA region in terms of 4G speeds. As Goal Leader of SDG 9, my commitment is to maintain this momentum in terms of this technology leadership we have achieved thanks to the vision we have set.

We will continue to empower our societies through ongoing network modernization and bringing latest technologies as well as creating the needed infrastructure for digital innovation and enabling the e-government. My focus as well is to promote a culture that embraces technology innovation where everyone is aware of the massive change and opportunities new technologies can and will bring to our country if every one of us thought smartly and contributed smartly to the upcoming revolution.

The 17 Social Developments goals that were adopted by UN, in 2015, constitute for us a business map and model. Our energy and drive are mobilized to improve the quality of life of our community. We have the tool (Technology), the will and the vision to achieve the Sustainable Developments Agenda for the benefit of our country. The new government has officially adopted the 2030 UN SDGs agenda in the Ministerial statement and called for full- integration of the SDGs in national programs and strategies which adds more responsibility to my role.

Alfa Sports app has had positive feedback from sports fan in Lebanon ever since it was launched. What was the main objective behind the app? And why did you choose sports over other fields?

Alfa Sports is the birthchild of our future vision and is a pillar in our digital transformation and transition from a traditional operator to a content and multi-services provider. It is also a reflection of our role as a community partner. We have been a proud supporter of almost every national sport, and a large number of national athletes, as we believe that sport is a source of unity and national pride as well as positivity. 

Alfa Sports is a project that was intended to rescue Lebanese sport which was in need of this kind of partnership to continue to exist and compete locally and internationally.  Since its launch in October 2018, Alfa Sports became the talk of the town being the 1st OTT platform offering live streams and VOD sports content through mobile, Smart TV and web, ushering a new phase of content involvement for telecom operators and sports enterprises and sports fans alike. I can say that through Alfa Sports, we opened a new chapter for the content industry in MENA changing it forever as there is no going back. This project is also a main pillar in the framework of Lebanon’s integration in 5G.

We are gradually working on expanding the reach of the app to make it widely- accessible to all sports lovers, and we have recently signed an agreement with Cablevision which made Alfa Sports content available on the big screen to all Cablevision subscribers in Lebanon,. Alfa Sports is today the exclusive broadcaster of the Alfa Lebanese Basketball Competitions (Cup, League, & women’s League), the Alfa Football league, the Alfa Lebanese Volleyball Championship, the Alfa Ski and Golf Championships, the AFC Asian Cup, and the participations of the national football team in regional and international tournaments and we are currently in talks to acquire rights for other sports as well. 

Will you dedicate 2019 to focus on 5G solely or will you launch new projects in parallel?

We are still expecting that 5G will complement the previous major technologies, namely 3G and 4G, and will not replace them. Therefore, we are planning to launch innovative products and services targeting 3G and 4G users solely, while working on 5G offerings in parallel. Given the high-cost and complexity of 5G devices, we are not expecting that this technology will take over the telecommunication market in the next five years.

In addition to launching our first 5G sites this year, the implementation of the network expansion projects that we started in 2018, will continue during 2019, including the 500 new sites 10452 project, VoLTE enablement on all our services, as well as network optimization. On the other hand, more investments will be put in place on the 4G network, to further enhance capacity, speeds and quality of service in order to cope with the continuously growing demand of our subscribers for data. It is worth noting that 4G will remain a highly-demanded technology for many years to come, driven mainly by the growth in LTE handsets penetration which exceeded 75% on our network.

Our P&S agenda for 2019 will offer more diversification to customers in terms of offerings, bundles as well as discounts on prices especially on the data side. 

We will also work heavily on growing the reach of Alfa Sports and further enrich the app’s content with more premium and exclusive sport content that further positions it as a visionary and modern product addressing and anticipating future consumer trends and behaviors.

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