Visitors at the etisalat stand at the Gitex Innovation week at Dubai World Trade Centre. Etisalat’s Group CEO says the showcase of demonstrations and solutions at the etisalat stand will offer a spectacular fusion of art and innovation. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: Etisalat Digital, etisalat’s new business unit, will help in the transformation from a connectivity provider to a digital player, Saleh Al Abdouli, CEO of etisalat Group, told Gulf News in an interview on Thursday.

“This business unit is an agent of change driving our own digital transformation focusing on three main factors,” he explained.

“First is using what we sell to our customers by using Etisalat Digital assets, platforms and solutions to cater for Etisalat internal needs such as moving to the cloud, digitisation of customer touch points, and applying AI [Artificial Intelligence], automation and IoT [the Internet of Things] to optimise our own operating model.

 Today, we cannot be perceived only as a company leading in providing best-in-class networks and connectivity but solutions and services that change and impact the lives of our customers.”

 - Saleh Adbullah Al Abdouli, Etisalat Group CEO

“Second, as we have adopted some new agile processes in etisalat Digital, which have proved successful and have helped us dramatically enhance the way we do things, exporting such processes and know-how to the rest of the company is essential to propagate the success.

“Finally, as with any transformation, culture is key. Changing the company culture to digital is a responsibility that we have taken starting from etisalat Digital.”

The following are the excerpts from the interview:


Can you please talk about Etisalat’s presence at Gitex this year?

The UAE today is at the forefront of a digital-driven economy with serious efforts focused on digitisation and globalisation maintaining an ecosystem that is interconnected by digital platforms, aided by a seamless flow of information and ideas.

This has changed the way we conduct our business and live our lives. Etisalat is playing an instrumental role in making this digital dream a reality, enabled by its robust network and infrastructure. ‘Driving the Digital Future’ is the theme this year at Gitex Technology Week that signifies the company’s mission to participate in creating a connected future in UAE. Today we are transitioning to a digital future with our offering of digitised solutions and services.

Our demonstrations this year will enable visitors to witness innovative ideas, concepts and solutions showcased on etisalat’s digital platforms and infrastructure. At etisalat, we believe that creating a digital future is enabling a connected lifestyle for our customers as well as governments and businesses in the country.

The showcase of demonstrations and solutions at the etisalat stand will offer a spectacular fusion of art and innovation. These digital technologies and solutions of the future, enabled by our robust network, are in line with the changing requirements of consumer lifestyle and the needs of corporate businesses across verticals.

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 mobilise 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 joining this digital journey and supporting the country’s ‘Smart Vision’. Reflective of this commitment, our demonstrations this year aims to create an unprecedented experience.

What was the response to etisalat’s digital launch last year at Gitex? Can you give an insight into etisalat’s journey so far and the future?

The launch of etisalat Digital last year was to actively contribute to the digital transformation market, which has a huge opportunity, especially in the UAE, for digital services. The government’s push for innovation makes the UAE an incredible destination for everything digital. The combination of etisalat’s vast experience in the field of connectivity, with enhanced agility for digital innovation, led to the formation of etisalat Digital. The prime aim of the unit is to enable digital transformation of enterprise and government customers.

Today we are working on several important projects in digital health, security and smart cities. Dubai Expo 2020 is one of these projects that supports the UAE’s long-term strategy in becoming the most sought-after global destination for trade, business and development.

As the premier digital and telecommunications partner of Dubai Expo 2020, we are currently working to deliver one of the fastest, smartest and best-connected places on earth during the global mega event. We are involved in creating the infrastructure for the Expo site — enabling Expo 2020 Dubai to provide visitors and participants with a cutting edge, immersive digital experience that brings the Expo themes to life for the 25 million expected visitors.

Another project that has set a benchmark as one of the most successful projects in the entertainment space in the region is the delivery of the digital infrastructure for Dubai Parks and Resorts. This included digital channels, different smart services (such as smart parking, smart ticketing, connected transportation and a connected food and beverage segment), in addition to other smart solutions around the park such as video surveillance-as-a-service, real-time marketing and analytics.

Etisalat Digital is also actively working on several interesting projects and has engaged with industry experts as well as acquired digital assets and platforms including data centres, cloud, digital and mobile payments, IoT, Big Data and analytics’ engines. By providing platforms to its customers, etisalat Digital enables businesses to get access to several technologies through a service model, instead of having to invest in the whole platform. This accelerates the digital transformation of the businesses. The unit is further strengthened with 24/7 security operations centres and IoT command and control centres in Abu Dhabi and Dubai for fully managed solutions and proactive monitoring.

In the next 12 months, our focus will be to continue growing our digital business by tapping into potential market opportunities and securing key wins in various digital domains. [Running] parallel [to] that, we will be enriching and expanding our digital solutions portfolio by introducing new digital propositions such as Video-Surveillance-as-a-service (VSaaS), Mobile Cashier and Digital Signage solutions. We will also complement our digital offerings with AI and analytics capabilities, presenting an extra value to our customers.

What about etisalat’s road map on improving capabilities on the network through investment to provide high-speed network and setting global benchmarks?

Today, we cannot be perceived only as a company leading in providing best-in-class networks and connectivity but solutions and services that change and impact the lives of our customers. Telecommunications and the internet are now vital platforms, underpinning trade, industry, finance, and personal communications worldwide. Therefore we need to look beyond telecom. Etisalat today has a plethora of services addressing the requirements of various customer groups. However, with changing market environments, demand for smart services and networks will keep growing. To remain relevant we need to be faster, better and offer more — in essence agility is the key to success. New revenue opportunities are there for those [ready] to respond and those prepared to look for the partnerships that deliver added value.

In line with our journey, etisalat is already playing in the arenas where it matters. At Gitex 2016, etisalat demonstrated the region’s fastest trial of 5G, reaching speeds of 36 billions of bits per second (Gbps). This contributed towards the design and standardisation of 5G, enabling the acceleration of its deployment. This year, etisalat will be setting yet another benchmark with a live demo reaching double the speed and giving visitors 4K and virtual reality experience in 5G.

Etisalat has continued its investments in deploying its fibre network. As a result, Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH) coverage has reached 93.28 per cent of homes and a 1.81 million home Pass Coverage across the UAE, thus maintaining the UAE’s position as a global leader in FTTH.

Etisalat is on a growth path for the future, addressing demands and network requirements in the short as well as the long term. We have made investments to develop infrastructure and expand mobile and fibre optic networks across UAE. These investments will improve coverage across the country as well as prepare the network towards the deployment and requirements of 5G technologies.

Our network today is one of the widest, fastest and most advanced networks in the region. This is mainly due to the continuous investments made in the last few years amounting to more than Dh31 billion. Etisalat has made more than Dh3 billion investments this year in infrastructure. Due to these continuous investments, 3G network coverage has reached 99.58 per cent while 4G LTE has covered 97.78 per cent. FTTH penetration has grown over the last year to reach 93.28 per cent. This has helped position the UAE with the highest FTTH coverage in the world last year among all its global counterparts.

Can you talk about etisalat’s road map for 5G?

The next generation of connectivity will play a huge role in laying the foundation for smart city development by enhancing mobile network performance capabilities. 5G technologies and network have gained relevance largely due to the surging adoption of internet-enabled devices connected globally via the Internet of Things. With its implementation, 5G will provide opportunities for economic growth, education, employment, transportation and more.

Etisalat’s investments in the future have led to growth and given the lead in network and the first to launch every new technology service to customers in the telecom industry. Today, we intend to continue this success by investing in 5G technologies to deploy in the network across the country.

These investments in infrastructure have led to the implementation of the latest cloud computing technologies and solutions, setting the path for 5G network development.

Etisalat also established the ecosystem for futuristic technologies like IoT that will help manage all smart services and applications and are integral to creating smart cities on the 5G network in the country.

There are advanced standards and technologies being added to the existing networks, paving the way towards the development of the 5G network. New technologies will be based on 5G and for any new technology to go live and be used mainstream, it must go through a series of trials and tests to determine its validity. For 5G, it’s undergoing the trial stage currently, with operators and technology companies making aggressive investments in this space.

Etisalat plans to make advanced field tests this year in partnership with leading technology providers to achieve higher efficiency, in addition to the highest possible speed.

Both parties have to work together during this trial process to help evolve the current network architecture and minimise the risk of rolling out a new technology, particularly one as new, complex and different at 5G.

There is no final 5G specification yet, therefore operators like etisalat will have to base these 5G tests on their own definitions of 5G. We will learn from these trials and contribute to the final 5G standard that the 3GPP standards organisation is developing.

With technologies supporting IoT gaining popularity, there is a tremendous growth expected in devices being connected on this platform. The overall strategy of the government to focus on building smart cities will also build a momentum to introduce new services on these technology platforms. This will require an advanced network and infrastructure to [provide] support in terms of speed, latency and build efficiency in the entire network. There is an expected growth in the volume of data that will be processed on these networks.

How is SWYP, your mobile service targeting youngsters doing?

The UAE today is a youth-driven country with the world’s youngest government minister and the most sought-after destination for most millennials from the region and global markets. A majority of these millennials are financially independent and contributing to the economic transformation in the UAE.

The country’s current youth population — mainly 15-34 year olds — make up over 40 per cent of the UAE national population. The UAE is also one of the most attractive emerging countries for young people who like to live abroad in order to further their careers and ranks 16th on the list of countries that are most feasible for entrepreneurs. In addition, the UAE is also ranked the most desired country to live in out of 20 global countries including the UK, the US and Germany.

SWYP focuses mainly on these millennials between 15-29 years with a completely new customised digital platform that will focus on providing complex free solutions that are wholly app-based. All these efforts directed at giving them a digital customer experience are enabled by etisalat’s robust and wide network across the country. This business model will be unique and create a benchmark in consumer products and customer service in the country. It does not anyway compete with etisalat as a brand as it targets the youth segment aiming to provide a completely different experience on a new platform.

The objective of creating this innovative service was to become a lifestyle partner than only a telecom provider. Targeted at youth, these customised prepaid mobile plans come with free unlimited Wi-Fi, value add-ons, multiple discounts and vouchers from preferred outlets. The young customer can expect ‘SWYP’ to meet all his or her changing requirements completely on a digital platform.

Can you talk about your international operations and road map ahead?

Etisalat group’s geographic footprint across the Middle East, Africa and Asia presents unique opportunities and challenges in today’s market scenario governed by specific economic and regulation conditions.

This has led to changes in the market environment requiring a reassessment in business strategy and investments. Some of these markets witnessed macroeconomic challenges that imposed limitations on investments and future growth. Etisalat responded with confidence and showcased agility by overcoming these challenges while maintaining a sustainable business portfolio and our strong position by dynamically managing these challenges in some international markets.

The strategic decisions for each market are also dependent on the growth potential of that market and the value added to the overall growth of the company.

Today we have established this solid foundation driven by its ability to adapt its operations to maintain business sustainability. Our focus will be to continue investing in futuristic solutions and next-generation technologies to deliver the best-in-class services and solutions to our customers while ensuring that shareholders gain long-term value from businesses.

What are the highlights of your corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy?

Etisalat CSR strategy mainly focuses on giving back to the community in the country by enhancing the daily lives of consumers and contributing to UAE’s humanitarian efforts on a local, regional and aglobal level. Our technology infrastructure plays a critical role in creating this collaborative framework focused on the values of giving, empowerment and actively participating in community initiatives.

As part of the overall strategy, etisalat has made the right partnerships, especially with the government sector, to enable sustainable development across verticals — mainly [in the] education, health, sports and environment [sectors].

Etisalat’s CSR activities have consumed more than Dh2.6 billion in the past ten years, including our contribution of 1 per cent (towards the ICT Fund) from revenues generated from providing licensed telecom services within the country of the UAE only.

The ‘Year of Giving’ initiative launched this year by the government was significant as it gave us new opportunities and allowed us to play an integral role in society. A few of the successful initiatives include participation in the ‘Nation Fund’, ‘For your sake Somalia’, [as well as being] official partner for ‘Dubai Cares Walk for Education’ and ‘Shaikha Fatima International Women’s Shooting Championship. ‘Medicine Drop Box’ across etisalat’s buildings in the UAE [saw the collection of] unused medicines to donate to the needy.

With the year 2018 being announced as the ‘Year of Zayed’, we are currently working on a strategy that will support this unique approach adopted by the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan and the first to include social responsibility as part of the long-term company strategy for business sectors in the country.