5G will soon be a reality in Lebanon thanks to the tremendous efforts deployed by Lebanese operator touch managed by Zain Group. touch has conducted last year the first commercial trial of 5G in Lebanon and will continue working on developing the required infrastructure and network in order to meet its 5G aspirations. Telecom Review spoke to Emre Gurkan, Chief Executive Officer, touch to discuss the progress the operator has made in its 5G journey in addition to the importance of MIC Ventures Fund in which touch is an active stakeholder.
touch launched the first 5G commercial trial in Lebanon in 2018. Where are you in your 5G journey today?
In cooperation with Lebanon’s Telecom Ministry, touch is fast-tracking its 5G aspirations of offering state-of-the-art connectivity to the Lebanese business and individual community, empowering and enhancing their digital lifestyle.
Furthermore, given that touch is a Zain Group managed operation, we are benefiting immensely from the expertise that Zain provides, given the heavy investment and resources the Group has dedicated to implementing the service in key markets across the region.
The advanced 5G implementation stages that Zain complements touch in preparing its infrastructure for 5G, having already implemented fiber-to-the-core, fiber-to-the-hub and we are planning to deploy fiber-to-the-site. touch has officially requested an allocation of 5G C-band frequencies, implemented a Cloud Core infrastructure, and we are in the process of implementing clusters of eNode Bs that are 5G-ready from a hardware perspective.
We are planning to implement orchestration and software defined networking (SDN) in the coming couple of years. In the short-term, touch will deploy its first commercial 5G site, followed by a commercial 5G cluster.
We conducted the first commercial 5G trial in Lebanon in 2018 using Huawei equipment over C-band frequencies, which are the same commercial 5G services that will be delivered over in the coming years. We continue to modernize our network by building up the technical capabilities required to introduce 5G and analyzing the possible business models and services that national 5G systems could support.
touch has already begun to fill up coverage gaps related to its network and progressively migrating its backbone traffic to fiber. In 2019, we will start re-farming more bands to LTE and strengthening the LTE layer for future 5G interworking. In addition to that, we will be releasing Telco Cloud starting with virtualization and going forward to Private Cloud.
During this year, touch will modernize and prepare its core network for 5G, introducing 4T4R and 4-component-carrier aggregation (4CC) in hotspot and high-value areas. We will deploy NB-IoT technology in order to bring 5G IoT use cases into reality, and unlike previous generations of mobile networks, 5G technology is expected to fundamentally transform the role that telecommunications technology plays in society.
Once 5G is launched, huge amounts of data will be generated by the second. How will an operator like touch handle data increases?
We expect the launch of 5G to create lots of hype in the market putting Lebanon firmly on the world telecom map contributing to the growth of the country’s economic development on multiple fronts. From technical perspective, touch will have its network ready for the increase in traffic generated by 5G through the deployment of relevant transmission technologies over both fiber and microwave from the site to the internet. We will also boost capacity on the radio access network, evolved packet core, and by bringing the internet closer to the user/site through Mobile Edge Computing.
We must invest in all network domains, including spectrum, radio access network (RAN) infrastructure, transmission, and core networks in order to cope with growing data demand once the 5G is launched. Many elements of current 5G technology build on 4G networks, rather than representing a complete departure, and this means touch can take an evolutionary approach to infrastructure investment.
For instance, we began upgrading the capacity of our existing 4G macro network by re-farming a portion of our 2G and 3G spectrum. In addition to that, we will be evolving to Vo-LTE (Voice over LTE) and LTE-Pro features, such as 4x4 or massive MIMO (a multiple input, multiple output technology), allowing itself to minimize investments while the incremental revenue potential of 5G remains uncertain.
When network upgrades are no longer sufficient to support the increased data traffic, touch will need to build new macro sites or small cells. That point in time will vary by location, but eventually we will need to embark on significant new build-out once 5G revenue growth is significant. To improve transmission, we will have to invest in fiber in order to help our network meet capacity and latency requirements. On the core level, we will benefit from broader IT advances, such as network functional virtualization and software defined networking, allowing our networks to provide capacity at lower unit cost. These advances support re-configurability, scalability and agility.
Industry commentators often mention network sharing as an important element in a successful 5G deployment experience. Do you think that network sharing is an option in Lebanon?
Operators across the globe are unlocking the value (capital and resources) in passive infrastructure by either selling the passive infrastructure or optionally sharing the sites and focus on core operations in enhancing the customer mobile experience. Should touch undertake either instance, it’s important to note that touch will always retain its intelligent software, technology and intellectual property with respect to managing its network.
Network sharing lowers the high total cost of ownership of 5G and accelerates its deployment and focuses the differentiation between competing operators towards services and pricing. Network sharing can be done on active or passive equipment, and on new or existing sites. Since 5G will require the addition of a high number of new sites, passive infrastructure sharing for the new sites could be an interesting area to consider for sharing. So, the key option in Lebanon is sharing of infrastructure sites that will help operators accelerate 5G deployment while saving infrastructure costs.
touch is developing strategies for 5G to cope with the expected growth in network cost. Standard measures will involve cost-saving efforts and new revenue models, but we will also need to explore more alternative approaches such as network sharing (the joint building of new 5G networks). This last option is not applicable in Lebanon because it requires a major reform in the telecommunication sector by the government. The reform initiatives might include the privatization and licensing of the country’s one fixed and two mobile networks. This large-scale liberalization of the telecommunications market, if accomplished, could provide a well-timed opportunity to allow infrastructure-sharing arrangements to facilitate joint 5G deployment and operation of new network elements.
A year ago, the Ministry of Telecommunications launched an ICT fund dubbed ‘MIC Ventures’ to boost innovation in Lebanon. How is touch involved in this initiative?
This is something we are excited about, being a pet project for many of the 700 strong touch teams.
Touch, as MIC 2, owns fifty percent of the MIC ventures and led the discussions with MoT to give this idea as a sustainable and structured roadmap that can boost and provide much needed stimulus to the country’s digital startup ecosystem.
The Fund will:
- Serve as a vehicle to pool capital and expertise from key mobile operators for investment in early stage and mid-level startup companies predominantly specialized in providing cutting edge innovative telecommunication solutions and services;
- Provide these companies with strategic partnerships, thus attracting and safeguarding the IP and innovation in Lebanon;
- Support and monetize existing and future innovation in mobile related technologies while offsetting decreasing revenues from traditional voice and data services;
- Create employment opportunities for technology and telecom entrepreneurs.
Mobile operators have reached the scale that start-ups lack, while start-ups have the local innovation mobile operators need – starting corporate VC funds has become a universal telecom operator trend and best practice.
The Fund’s goal is to give Lebanese early and mid-level startup companies not only financial funding but also experienced business support and scale, thus allowing them to compete in a continuously evolving technological environment.
As touch we are offering startups a market of more than 2.3 million users to test their products, which is essential. touch is also open for co-investments and ready to help startups that succeed in the local market to take their products abroad.
As touch own initiative, we created the touch innovation program (TIP), which selects high-potential entrepreneurs as touch Innovators and offers them benefits to develop their startups. The program identifies and selects 8-12 startups a year. The startups are selected twice a year, with 4-6 companies accepted every six months. Those selected have access to touch digital and innovation location that serves as a working space for meetings, product/service launches, and workshops.
In your opinion, how important is operators’ role, and touch’s role in particular, in boosting the country’s economy?
Mobile operators are at the heart of the mobile ecosystem that consists of infrastructure providers; retailers and distributors of mobile products and services; mobile device manufacturers; and mobile content, application and service providers. The direct economic contribution to a country’s GDP of these firms is very important. Similarly, touch is contributing directly to the economy of Lebanon. This contribution can be estimated by measuring the value added to the economy, including employee compensation, business operating surplus and taxes.
In addition, touch is indirectly contributing to GDP by stimulating further economic activities in different major sectors such as tourism, knowledge economy, financial services, industry, and agriculture, which are ranked as the top five sectors that present the highest economic potential for Lebanon in a recent plan by Mckinsey presented to the Lebanese government. The indirect contribution could be in the form of mobile voice and text services that allow workers and firms to communicate more efficiently and effectively, or mobile data bundles and internet services for SoHo and enterprises that allow workers and firms to cut travel and logistics costs.
Improved access to information and services drives efficiency in business processes across many industries. The impact of mobile internet is particularly significant in a developing country like Lebanon, where fixed infrastructure is mostly confined to the capital Beirut. touch’s strategy in becoming a digital network accelerator by 2023 through digitizing its core capabilities, modernizing its network, backing startups, and undertaking IoT businesses will also allow for the digitization of services and improvement of industrial processes across the country.
As these technologies become increasingly adopted, we expect them to create significant benefits by driving cost savings and operational efficiency gains in areas such as manufacturing, logistics, retail and most importantly the knowledge economy.
touch is present this year at MWC. What do you aim to achieve from your participation and how important is it to take part in this international event?
touch has been present and benefitting from the MWC since 2005 through its parent company Zain Group’s distinguished presence, although last year we participated with the Telecom Ministry’s coordinated Lebanon Pavillion, like we will in 2019. The networking effect of having all telecom stakeholders in one place is important – that is why we look forward to MWC every year to renew old vows and make new ones based on upcoming trends and proven business models and technologies.
During this year’s appearance at the show, we are set to undertake the following:
- Showcase best practices in 5G roll out including frequencies selection, deployment strategies, applications and services
- Showcase massive IoT deployment best practices, strategies, services, devices
- Showcase revenue generating services over 4.5G and 5G
What will be touch’s top priority for 2019 and what are the projects and plans that will be implemented this year?
Minutes, megabytes and SMS are over and saturated – we look forward to finding new and sustainable revenue streams in 2019 that will bring relevance to telecom to the Lebanese community. This will be driven mainly by content and smart connectivity (IoT), digital value added services and B2B. We will also be focused on better customer experience across all interactions.
We also have it in mind to equip our human capital and enhance our digital capabilities in order to begin a transformation journey into becoming a Digital Network Accelerator by 2023. touch will start building up the core with the digital capabilities; modernizing the network; launching new digital and innovation offerings and value propositions via solid partnerships; digitizing the different channels; establishing innovative and digitally enabled sales channels; launching new customer centric offerings and value; and focusing mainly on B2B and IoT businesses.