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Digitization has had a profound impact on the UAE, which has proven fairly resilient to the recent economic headwinds triggered by low oil prices and weak global demand, due to its diversified economy which has embraced business opportunities and smart infrastructure. Leading the continuous digitization movement in the UAE is Etisalat Group, which over the years, has spread across 18 countries throughout the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Speaking to Telecom Review, Etisalat Group CEO Saleh Al Abdooli, touched on the phenomenal growth of digitization in the UAE and the opportunities that have emerged for Etisalat as a result. He also spoke about Etisalat at GITEX, as well as its international operations, and the importance of enhancing customer service.

What do you think are the biggest opportunities for Etisalat at the moment and in the next few years?

In the last five years, the smartphone has completely revolutionized the way we live, work and play. In addition to the phenomenal growth of smartphones, the internet of things (IoT), big data and cloud computing have created a whole new dynamic in our sector. In the next 10 years, ICT-related activity will account for over 50 percent of the world’s growth, adding trillions of dollars of economic benefit. The economic value of the internet of things alone is estimated to be worth at least $3.9 trillion by 2025.

As an enabler of this revolution, the opportunities for Etisalat from the growth provided by this digital transformation are immense, but our challenge is to ensure we are able to realize the potential that is there. That’s why, to strengthen our position, we will continue to contribute to the digitization of the economy as our pledge to support the UAE’s vision of an information-based society. We will continue to invest in innovative networks, products and services in the UAE and across the region, such as the region’s first IoT business platform, 5G mobile technology and Etisalat Regional Cloud Factory.
What will you be showcasing this year at Gitex? How is it different from previous years?

At GITEX last year, Etisalat aimed to take people on a journey from ""smart"" to ""genius"", and our efforts were well-received by thousands of visitors who experienced live demos on our stand and engaged with us throughout the week. We presented the genius applications of technologies through a vivid demonstration of the interconnected ecosystem of the future.

When we say that innovation is at the core of Etisalat’s operations, we do not only mean it in terms of telecom technologies. We are also paving the way for smarter digital solutions and applications that will mobilize people, businesses and the government sector for a better tomorrow. Undoubtedly, GITEX is an established and important platform that has become the cornerstone of showcasing the prowess of IT, digital services and telecom providers from world over. For Etisalat, it brings an immense responsibility in fulfilling our role in supporting the country’s 'Smart Vision’. Reflective of this commitment, our demonstrations last year created an unprecedented experience.

Keeping with our 'Sparking Innovation’ theme of Etisalat’s participation in the event this year, our demonstrations are designed to take visitors on an inspiring journey of a highly digitized and connected smart future. We are introducing concepts and ideas based on strong technologies and bringing world-class solutions and services that facilitate not just end users, but also businesses and governments for a better future.

Since the majority of Etisalat’s international operations are facing increasing competitive pressures. How will you improve profitability and restructure operations?

The take-up of LTE is increasing by 50 percent and mobile data is growing 14 times, from what it is now globally. This translates into faster growth in the MENA region than the rest of the world. Therefore, there is a great business opportunity out there. Having worked in a number of Etisalat international operations over my career, I hope to bring some insight into what works on the ground and transform this into real benefits and value for the company.

Each of the 17 international markets Etisalat Group operates in has unique circumstances. Our approach has always been to offer the best service possible, appropriate to the situation in each country and, over time, establish a reputation as a reliable partner offering value through a range of products and services.

Because countries across our international footprint are at different stages in economic and social development, and vary in regulatory and taxation regimes, we have to tailor what we can offer in each market. For example, in the UAE, the government, regulators and operators are working in unity to agreed national objectives. This situation allows us to develop the latest technology, as we are able to make reasonable returns on investment.

As a result, the fixed (fiber optic) and 4G mobile network infrastructure in our home market are the most advanced in the region. While it is not possible to universally rollout the most advanced networks and technologies in all our markets immediately due to different market maturities and regulation environments, by being one of the leading operators in the industry, we have the capability to do so when the circumstances are right. This puts us in a prime position to take advantage of the potential growth and synergies that exist within emerging markets. I also believe there is opportunity for added growth and profitability to be had through greater synergy within the Group.

What strategy and plan will you follow to increase Etisalat’s success further?

As a company, we are celebrating our fortieth anniversary this year. Through prudent investment, a focus on innovation, and delivering what our customers demand, we have grown from operating in one country with 4 million customers, to one with operations in 17 different countries serving 163 million customers.

This long-term approach has served us well, but we should never stand still. No business can afford to do that. The telecom sector is on the cusp of a major disruption, evolving so rapidly that we must continually adapt and improve. That’s why we are investing today in what our customers aspire to tomorrow and always seeking new partnerships that will bring added value.

While we will continue to make investments that benefit our shareholders and develop innovative products and services for our customers, we must also focus on being fit for purpose. That means being as efficient as possible in all that we do and challenging everyone within Etisalat to always deliver excellence.

5G network is talk of the town and people are keen to know what Etisalat is doing to introduce this technology in the UAE. When do you think Etisalat will start testing the new technology and be able to rollout 5G network in the country? Do you think it will be available before Expo 2020?
Etisalat has made steady headway in the development of the 5G technology. During GITEX last year, we conducted the region’s first 5G live demo’s onsite with super speeds of up to 5Gbps. It is the first in series of 5G live demos and trials over the next five years. We estimate the completion of international standardisation of 5G by end of 2017 and aim to deploy it commercially in 2020.

I must add that our ambitious 5G mobile broadband plan is well-supported by our close partnership with global leaders that makes us confident of enabling a safer, more efficient and more enriched experience for mobile broadband users of 5G in future.

How can Etisalat help businesses to benefit from increasing digitization in the industry? What services is Etisalat offering to business to achieve this aim?

The internet of things (IoT) is adding pressure for CIOs to be ready to provide IT as a service (ITaS) within the organisation and businesses recognise the importance of adopting various technological advancements to provide timely and valuable information to take business decisions and offer right propositions for their customers and networks. It is through partnerships with trusted service providers such as Etisalat that businesses can leverage on the expertise of the partner and continue to focus on adding value to their businesses.

While Etisalat’s infrastructure provides the necessary baseline, in order to add to our value chain, we are going beyond basic connectivity for businesses. We provide organizations in the UAE with a comprehensive and integrated enterprise oriented portfolio of digital solutions including cloud platforms (private, public or hybrid), storage and backup, disaster recovery, mobility (mobile device management and mobile enterprise applications platform), M2M/IOT and security solutions that can be subscribed from a one-stop-shop.

We also launched a digital index initiative to help businesses and government entities in the UAE rank their digital maturity. The initiative aims to encourage digital innovation by helping organizations gain better understanding of the digital world, clarify what needs to be done for those that are already on their digital journey and build toward realizing patenting revenue growth. To further boost our managed service customers’ digital journey, we also revamped our managed services portal and added dynamic new features to provide them with an enhanced experience with seamless access, real-time information of their networks and support.

Telecom providers are no more offering just telecom and internet services, but but have many services. Do you think Etisalat will sustain this trend and meet consumers’ growing demand for more services in affordable limits?

As the industry has evolved from the Telco 1.0 phase of voice and SMS, to the Telco 2.0 era of social and customer engagement, Etisalat too is transforming and thinking beyond connectivity in order to add to the value chain in this hyper-connected and hyper-programmable world. We are redefining our relationship with our customers and digitizing our core business for customer friendly business processes, which have potential benefits. By providing compelling online digital experiences as well as service automation and more efficient and straight-forward processing of financial transactions, Etisalat is improving customer satisfaction, enhancing revenue streams and saving costs.

Certainly, while quality of service is a key parameter that influences customer behavior, we understand the importance of choice and affordability. Our wide portfolio of mobile data packs and services cater to customized needs of our customers, and are available at the most competitive prices in the market.

The customer service center has been an area of focus for Etisalat. What are your plans to continue the enhancement of Etisalat’s service center in the near future?

As I mentioned, Etisalat has embarked on the Telco 2.0 phase of telecom services, which is all about social interaction and customer engagement. Our customer case philosophy has, thus, also evolved to resonate with the times. To provide a more efficient and engaged experience, it covers all our brand touch points including our smart stores, customer care service and digital channels such as the social media platforms and the mobile apps.

To recap some of last year’s major achievements, Etisalat’s customer care center responded to a massive 55 million calls in 2015. In a vast improvement over 2014, 75 percent of complaints were resolved during the call in 2015. Through the social networking platforms, we resolved over 70 percent of technical inquiries and complaints in less than 24 hours.

Also, our landmark ""smart store"" deployment project has covered nearly 100 stores across the UAE to date, strengthening our wide sales network and providing customers a highly interactive and fulfilling in-store experience. We also went a step further and initiated a mobile customer care solution – the Etisalat Smart Mobi-Shop. It’s our special customer service vehicle, which is on the move to serve you better, at your convenience.

Keeping with the mobile usage trend, our Etisalat UAE mobile app addresses our customers’ need to stay connected on the go. It has recorded nearly 2 million downloads and 70 percent year on year increase in payment transactions in 2015. The customer outreach 'Live Chat’ feature on the app has recorded more than 120,000 conversations with our customer care agents over the past year. Improving our customer service centre and consequently, our customer experience will continue to be the centre stage of our business strategy and operations through 2017.