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Years of advanced strategic planning and investment in network development helped the Ooredoo Group excel in its operations globally despite the challenging year 2020. The Group managed to keep the expectations of its customers high with a slew of offerings be it in the form of mobile apps, community support, or uninterrupted network connectivity whilst maintaining its position as a leading telecom operator in the region. With all these ongoings, the Group was also named Qatar’s Best Managed Security Service Provider (MSSP) of The Year for 2020.

Speaking to Telecom Review, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulla Al Thani, Deputy Group Chief Executive Officer and Chief Executive Officer of Ooredoo Qatar elaborates on the Group's efforts to remain on top of its game even in the midst of growing competition in the sector and how innovation and forward-thinking have been its primary focus to serve its customers better.

Despite a challenging year, Ooredoo Group managed to grow its customer base by 3% to 121 million bolstered by its combined operations in Iraq, Indonesia, and Myanmar; how do you explain that?

There's no denying that the business landscape and the economy have greatly changed in 2020. It was a challenging year, yes, but we still found ways to grow our business and customer base.

In the face of a global pandemic forcing entire populations to stay home, agility was key for us to adapt to a fast-changing world, and our core promise to enrich people's digital lives became more relevant than ever.

Indeed, our digital transformation strategy and diversified customer propositions, for consumers and businesses alike, have allowed us to thrive in what is called today "the new normal". And with our teams' efforts and commitment to excellence, our networks and digital channels were ready to meet the sudden surge in demand created by the COVID-19 crisis.

Thanks to our advanced and reliable networks across our footprint, we continued to drive innovation in our digital portfolios, so that our customers had access to the latest digital services as and when they needed them.

We've supported business continuity for organisations of all sizes, offering safe communications solutions to all those working remotely. We've enabled educational establishments to provide home schooling, and ensured families and friends stay connected while physically apart. We've launched relief packages with free call minutes, free data packs, and free SIM delivery to customers who needed them the most. This, in addition to enhancing our mobile money services and apps. And we've also boosted our home services by signing major partnerships with content providers at a time when families in confinement were seeking a wider range of entertainment options.

All this has reinforced our leadership as a true digital enabler and resulted in an improvement in customer loyalty, which was demonstrated by the increase in our customer base.

Please tell us about the Group initiatives to support the communities during the pandemic crisis.

I am proud to say Ooredoo Group reacted quickly and decisively to the challenges presented at the outset of the pandemic, swiftly putting into place measures to support our communities.

This was hardly the result of last-minute decisions when the scale of the crisis became apparent, though. Rather, it was the result of several years of strategic planning and investment in networks, in technology and in human capital, enabling us to rapidly formulate response plans that best helped our customers and communities and facilitated a smoother, easier transition to our new everyday lives under the myriad restrictions.

Investment in our networks allowed us to ensure we were able to keep up with demand and maintain network reliability. Our engineers worked day and night to ensure we offered the fastest, most reliable speeds and connectivity, boosting performance where required. We accelerated existing network enhancement programmes in order to complete work faster, and reach as many customers as possible, even in the most remote areas.

From a community perspective, our companies organised a raft of initiatives designed to help support local governments and communities as they in turn sought to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect their citizens and residents. From mass awareness and education campaigns, to sanitisation drives, provision of social distancing signage and distribution of sanitisation packs, we've done everything to help limit the impact of the pandemic.

Ooredoo Qatar orchestrated a comprehensive aid effort including awareness campaigns and distribution of essentials, alongside supporting frontline workers with free data and minutes.

Several operating companies made financial donations to governments in their respective countries to support their efforts to fight COVID-19; Asiacell Iraq, Ooredoo Tunisia and Ooredoo Algeria all made sizeable contributions to government pandemic response initiatives, while others, such as Ooredoo Maldives, prioritised helping their country get back on its feet with the launch of the ‘Visit Maldives Now’ tourism regeneration campaign.

Ooredoo Palestine and Ooredoo Myanmar both made significant efforts to ensure young people in their countries could still access education, offering free e-learning and building a school respectively, while Indosat Ooredoo focused on practical help with the distribution of sanitisers and masks in areas badly affected by the virus. Ooredoo Kuwait’s efforts centred on enabling COVID-19 patients and their families to stay connected, distributing free SIM cards to dedicated COVID-19 facilities. Ooredoo Oman held a blood donation drive for the National Blood Centre to encourage blood donations in the wake of the pandemic.

As a result, a number of our operating companies were recognised, both locally and internationally, for their efforts to help support communities in their host nations, and Ooredoo Group was honoured with an award for the Most Valuable Corporate Response to the COVID-19 situation at the Stevie International Business Awards.

Ooredoo is the incumbent operator in Qatar. How do you manage to deal with the competition? And how has the competition pushed you to better serve your customers?

In all humility, I believe that competition teaches us valuable lessons. It drives us to be the best we can be, keeping us sharp and pushing us to continue to excel. As a customer centric company, we welcome competition, as it stimulates growth and generates substantial benefits for the community.

The way I see it is that competition drives us to foster innovations, and provide diversified products and services for our consumer and business customers.

As the leading operator in Qatar, we are proud to play our role in taking the country to new heights, in line with Qatar National Vision 2030. Qatar was the first country in the world to launch the 5G network through Ooredoo in 2018, and also recently topped the world rankings for mobile broadband speeds, proof that we are restless in investing and bringing the latest technology to our customers.

We believe any healthy market needs more than one operator in order to ensure standards remain high. Customers should always have a choice, ensuring operators consistently strive to improve their products and services and do their utmost to offer complete customer satisfaction.

That said, our main focus is on value creation for our customers, partners and stakeholders. By creating customer value, we are enhancing the whole customer journey, from the initial exploration of new ideas for innovative products and services to the buying process and after sales service.

Most importantly, we listen closely to our customers' needs and we constantly seek feedback to ensure we understand how best to serve them and bring them the products and services that they need most.

This is what drives us to succeed - and keep our leading position - in a competitive market like Qatar.

In Kuwait, Ooredoo launched its commercial 5G network. What has been the response?

We're proud to have been the first operator in Kuwait to have successfully trialled the first international 5G call in the region. I was Ooredoo Kuwait's CEO back then and had the chance to make the groundbreaking call that connected us with Ooredoo Qatar via 5G.  This milestone led to the launch of our commercial 5G network in 2020, in line with our Group strategy to be a world-leading pioneer of this technology.

Our aim in Kuwait, as in other markets, is to enable everyone to access ultra-high speeds and enjoy all the phenomenal advantages that the internet has offer.

3G and 4G relied on personal mobile devices for connectivity, and greatly helped creating a bigger market for local businesses, enabled start-ups run more efficiently, provided more opportunities, enhanced education, and kept people connected around the world.

But with 5G, Kuwait is better equipped for the future of technology. This new generation in wireless networking will see Kuwait becoming a smart nation, as it enables smart cities applications and creates an Internet of Things by integrating the country's infrastructure and buildings and improving our customers' quality of life.

So far, we've seen a very positive response, which encouraged Ooredoo Kuwait to launch an exceptional gaming product named 5G Pro Ping, enabling our customers to enjoy a superior gaming experience with exceptionally low ping rates. Also, following the launch of the company's flagship product – Shamel PRO – which is powered by 5G technology, we introduced 5G as standard with all our postpaid plans, ensuring any customer with a 5G-enabled device can access and enjoy our network via such plans.

Certainly, the introduction of the 5G network and the associated products and services has enhanced the customer experience with Ooredoo Kuwait, further strengthening our position in the market.

In Indonesia, network improvements saw Ooredoo recognised with an Opensignal Global Mobile Experience Award; what impact will this generate in the APAC region?

The Indosat Ooredoo team has achieved great work on network improvement and we were delighted to be recognised as Global Rising Stars at the 2020 OpenSignal Global Awards. This is down to smart investments and sheer hard work by our teams in Indonesia.

This kind of industry recognition is a source of pride not only for the operator winning the recognition but also for the country and region in which it operates, as it means more customers are enjoying the benefits of superfast connectivity.

In addition to Indosat Ooredoo's win, I am proud to say that operating companies across the entire Ooredoo Group have won a wide range of awards in recent months for all aspects of their operations, from customer service to innovation, technology and digital transformation, and from a number of respected global industry experts and standard-bearers.

Ooredoo Maldives was the Company of The Year in Telecommunications Gold Winner at the 2020 Stevie International Business Awards.

Ooredoo Oman’s mobile app was recognised as a Silver Winner for Best Application at the MENA Digital Awards, and Ooredoo Tunisia was the Gold Winner for Innovation in Customer Service at the Middle East Stevie Awards. The Ooredoo Group itself was also Bronze Winner of Company of The Year and received a Grand Stevie Award at the Stevie International Business Awards.

Of course, from an operator’s perspective, such recognition means customers can have confidence in the operator and their products and services, which is naturally likely to result in growth in customer base and also in take-up or upgrade of services by existing customers.

From a country and regional perspective, such recognition improves the country and region’s standing amongst its global peers, which is particularly important in developing markets such as Indonesia, where the telecommunications industry is in the emerging stages.

This improvement to reputation and standing is likely to encourage stakeholders to work together to advance networks and services in the region, with the aim of creating better internet infrastructure provision to encourage growth and development in the industry.

Please tell us about Ooredoo's plans to continue investing in a multi-year growth strategy?

Our strategy to deliver sustainable returns for 2021 and beyond is based on four pillars: Core, Digital, Infrastructure and Portfolio.

We will continue to accelerate the performance of our Core business; investing in our people, our networks and our services in order to lead our markets and maximise returns on our assets.

We will continue our journey to digitalisation, making it easier for our customers to find, buy and use our products online in order to attract and retain customers at a lower cost. We will also build leading digital services and explore new areas, and extend the implementation of digitalisation across the Group to be more efficient and agile. Across our footprint, data traffic has risen throughout 2020 and more customers are moving towards digital channels, suggesting we are well on track to realise strong success from this strategy in 2021.

We will work to be more asset-light, extracting optimal value from our infrastructure by executing network sharing and other infrastructure deals.

We will also adopt a proactive portfolio strategy that will drive additional value across our footprint.

From a financial perspective, we remain focused on optimising CapEx by leveraging the Ooredoo Group’s economies of scale. An example of this is our strategic 5G agreement with global leader Ericsson for the supply of 5G equipment and related implementation and integration services, which extends across all 10 Group operating companies.

We continue to work tirelessly to ensure our organisational culture is fast-moving, innovative and imaginative enough to stay ahead of the current demand curve.

And, we are committed to continuing to attract and retain talent from within our markets. I have to say, we're proud to have seen many young and emerging leaders step up and deliver during challenging times, and we plan to invest further in them, building their capacity and enhancing their skills so they can better serve our customers.

With the ever-increasing threat of cyberattacks, what has been Ooredoo's strategy in terms of cybersecurity?

Our efforts in the field of cybersecurity have garnered industry recognition from leading experts such as Fortinet. Ooredoo Group was named Qatar’s Best Managed Security Service Provider (MSSP) of The Year for 2020, acknowledging important gains made by the company resulting in it becoming the largest and most effective MSSP with fully localised operations throughout Qatar.

As we progress in our journey towards digitalisation, reliant ever more on non-physical solutions and entities such as cloud, cyber-attacks are becoming increasingly sophisticated and elaborate.

To face these threats, we ensured that our strategy is progressive, innovative and flexible as we provide solutions to our business customers.

The foundation of our cyber-security strategy stands on four elements: partnerships, flexibility, adaptability, and scalability.

We have long been committed to establishing and maintaining partnerships with best-in-class technology providers and innovators in the field of cyber-security: Atos, Carbon Black, Netscout, Akamai and Palo Alto, to name but a few. These partnerships enable us to both stay abreast of the absolute latest cutting-edge technology, and to work together to create solutions using this technology that provide innovative support to our business customers, as they strive to protect their data and businesses.

We're delighted to be able to offer flexible and adaptable solutions to suit business of all sizes, from small-office-home-office set-ups to large-scale international enterprises. Our solutions are adaptable to enable us to support businesses with a range of platforms however they choose to approach cyber-security, whether they need cloud solutions using our data centres or prefer to use their own, and whether they need turnkey, end-to-end solutions or simply want to pick and choose the support they need.

Following on from being flexible and adaptable, our solutions are also scalable. We recognise that businesses grow and evolve, and our solutions are designed to grow and evolve with them, accommodating their changing needs.

All of these elements, and the strategy they form, are designed to keep pace with the rapidly evolving digital space in which we operate. Tomorrow’s requirements may well be different to today’s, and it is imperative we are meticulously well-prepared to tackle cyber-security threats as and when they develop, in the best interests of our customers.

What can we look forward to from the Group in terms of new services, packages and focus areas related to digitalisation and digital products?

As part of our Group strategy and focus on digital transformation, we will continue our work to make it easier for customers to find, buy and use our products and services online. We will make every effort to provide customers across our footprint with the most relevant digital services that meet their daily personal and business needs.

We will also look to offer new and enhanced mobile apps and features that offer great capabilities and functionalities, enabling customers to buy, manage and use our services with just a few taps. Our flagship app-managed postpaid plan in Qatar, Shahry Me, is already proving remarkably popular with customers, and – with our focus firmly on digital – is a product we can expect to see explored and expanded further.

Our mobile app portfolio now extends to cover mobile financial services, another area on which we will focus in response to the growing need for such provisions, and we will continue this extension with the roll-out of more mobile financial services products across our footprint.

We will continue the momentum in the shift to digital channels for service provision, evaluating ways in which we can further enhance options for our customers to engage with us digitally and rolling out new and improved channels where needed.

The development of Internet of Things apps and solutions will be a priority for our business customers, especially as our groundbreaking 5G networks gain traction and are further expanded.

Last but most definitely not least, we will work to include world-class premium content streaming and gaming options in our offerings, enhancing our digital entertainment portfolio and making us a market leader in this field.

With these aims in mind, we will work to onboard relevant new partnerships that will add value to our offerings and enable us to ensure we are designing and developing digital products and services that align exactly with changing customer profiles and needs.

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