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Etisalat on its 5-year strategy, 4G, and global ambition

Etisalat uses next generation communication to promote health care, education

  • An etisalat retail branch at Dubai Mall. Etisalat UAE is rolling out first commercial fourth-generation (4G) sImage Credit: Gulf News Archives
  • Ahmad Abdul Karim JulfarImage Credit: Courtesy: Etisalat
Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: Etisalat is pushing for technological innovation to expand its market share and enhance shareholder value, a top official said.

In an exclusive interview with Gulf News, Ahmad Abdul Karim Julfar, etisalat group chief executive officer (CEO), said his company is also helping bring in social change in African countries where it has expanded footprints.

Etisalat is the largest operator in the Middle East and Africa with a market value in excess of Dh80 billion) and annual revenues of approximately Dh30 billion.

Etisalat has one of the highest credit ratings for a telecommunications corporation in America, the Middle East and Africa and is the second-highest rated telecom company globally on the Fitch rating scale and fourth-highest in S&P and Moodys' ratings.

Despite its recent setback in India where it had to close its operation due to a 2G scam, the company is expanding its global business and currently operates in 18 countries across Asia, the Middle East and Africa. To date, the group's global subscriber base exceeds 140 million through mobile and fixed line voice and data services.

Etisalat UAE is currently rolling out first commercial fourth-generation (4G) service on its nation-wide Long-Term Evolution (LTE) network as part of its plans to deliver mobile broadband experience to customers.

Julfar is an Emirati who has enjoyed a 25-year career with the company. Regarded as a pioneer in the telecom sector in the UAE, he has been instrumental in guiding etisalat to become one of the world's largest mobile operators. Julfar is also a board member of the etisalat operations at Mobily in Saudi Arabia and Excelcomindo in Indonesia.

Excerpts from the interview:

Gulf News: What is the latest on etisalat's 4G rollout plan? What about ultra high speed internet?

Ahmad Abdul Karim Julfar: We are proud that Abu Dhabi has become the first capital city in the world to be connected with a fibre optic (FTTH — fibre to the home) network, and we have rolled out LTE — 4G networks in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which will herald a new era in mobile broadband connectivity. Our ‘Broadband for all' vision is simple: to provide high speed mobile connectivity for all to turbo-charge economic growth and social development. The rollout of our nationwide FTTH network in the UAE, and the LTE networks in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are the first steps on that journey.

The number of people connected to mobile broadband is forecast to rise tenfold worldwide by 2015. It is smartphones and mobile broadband connectivity that are the internet enablers which create the physical environment for economies to grow.

The mobile handset bridges the digital divide. It changes lives for the better, catalysing growth, connecting people to the world — in some cases for the first time — and gives people everywhere access to education, health care and banking. In short, mobile communication gives people the freedom to achieve their goals in life and creates the infrastructure to allow emerging economies to flourish.

What's different about your mobile commerce platform?

The Etisalat Mobile Commerce platform provides services to the un-banked and under-banked in the emerging markets of Africa, giving people the tools to trade, money transfer and develop micro-economies. In the Middle East, we've partnered with Western Union and MoneyGram International to allow money sent by mobile customers to be collected anywhere in the world. Over $1.8 billion was transferred as remittances through the UAE network in 2011 and we hope to expand the service to include salary payments, peer-to-peer domestic funds transfers and utility and shop payments, subject to financial regulatory approval. We want to make the mobile phone the bank in your pocket. It was awarded in the Best Mobile Money Innovation category in recognition of its role in assisting smartphone users to use their handsets to pay for services and purchases at more than 311,000 points of sale around the world using PayPass wireless technology.

What's next for etisalat?

Telecommunications technology is evolving rapidly, but our objectives are still the same: providing innovative services that transform the lives of our customers and increase business efficiency. This whole sector has transformed from mere voice service provision to providing high speed, broadband data services. It's about enabling future growth, reach, and the evolution of entire communities. The impact in the Middle East will be huge where among a total population of 380 million, over 50 per cent (200 million) are under 25 years old.

They are the future and they already speak the language of the internet. There are 220 million mobile phone subscribers and 85 million users (45 per cent) access the internet via mobile devices.

What is etisalat's strategy for the next five years?

Our priorities are focused on four key themes for the next five years: enriching the customer experience, developing innovative technologies, leadership in broadband services, and developing a group of sustainable services. We are also focused on managing costs though initiatives such as coordinated group purchasing and further strengthening our brand value to win greater trust.

Most of etisalat's investments are in newly tapped regions. How do you tackle challenges in emerging markets?

Etisalat's mission is to bring the telecommunication future to the most dynamic areas in the world, regardless of the challenges or requirements posed by those markets. Our strategy in terms of global expansion is all about increasing and diversifying income sources and growing returns to our investors. Our investments are mainly made in emerging markets that offer excellent growth opportunities to achieve high returns.

Why is innovation so important to your organisation?

Innovation is our lifeblood. Telecommunications is an accelerator of social and economic growth and development and, in order to drive that change, we must innovate to develop solutions to community-specific challenges.

We bring next-generation communications to the communities we serve. Together with our customers, we are focused on building the future because we know that telecommunications is about more than just voice, data and video. It's about enabling future growth through harnessing technology to provide tools for people, businesses and governments to live, work and govern better.

We're delighted that our innovations in mobile health care and mobile commerce have been recognised by our global peers when we were awarded three GSMA Global Mobile Awards at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Health care is one area where Etisalat has used its reach throughout society to help combat challenging issues. We've worked extensively to support people with Thalassaemia and raise awareness of the disease.

We've also played an effective role in cancer protection associations and national blood donation centres through education programmes.

We have also dedicated resources to applying innovative telecommunications technologies to develop practical healthcare solutions. Health care management anywhere in the world depends on data, and mobile phone networks provide the fastest, most reliable and, in many emerging markets, the only data networks available.

We focused on developing mHealth as a viable business relationship by building the Etisalat Mobile Baby platform that brings together medical health care professionals, pharmaceutical and insurance companies, and federal and state governments to deliver affordable healthcare for all powered by mobile connectivity — and it is already saving lives by reducing maternal mortality rate by more than 30 per cent in Tanzania.

There are more than 200 million mHealth applications around the world, so it is especially gratifying that Etisalat was awarded two GSMA Global Mobile Awards for this initiative.

This year, we are working towards launching Mobile Baby services in several other countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Côte d'Ivoire, Benin, Togo, Niger and Gabon.