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Zain KSA has been labelled as the Kingdom’s preferred digital services provider following the great achievements the operator has made throughout its journey. In an exclusive interview with Eng. Sultan Bin Abdulaziz Aldeghaither, CEO, Zain KSA, Telecom Review delved into the operator’s main accomplishments that encompass most importantly having the fourth largest 5G network in the world and the largest in the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

Zain KSA has recently won Ookla’s SpeedTest award for the Kingdom’s fastest fixed internet. How would you comment on such an achievement?

Zain KSA is committed to innovation. We are taking the necessary actions to bring product and services that fulfill our vision of becoming the Kingdom’s preferred digital services provider. This has been materialising through the outstanding recognition that our brand has earned over the past few months, the latest of which being Saudi Arabia’s Fastest Fixed Internet award from Ookla.

Prior to this award, Zain KSA has witnessed a roll of achievements. We won the ‘best 5G Infrastructure Deployment’ accolade during the 2019 Telecom Review Leaders’ Summit. And, for the first time, Zain was categorized among the Kingdom’s 50 top brands and recognized as the 18th best Saudi brand in Brand Finance’s annual report which assesses the brand value, equity, and performance of companies. Another accomplishment has been launching eSIM, with a seamless digital experience, that is bringing our customers a new proposition with its convenient features.

Undoubtedly, these achievements were driven by a number of factors that include Zain KSA’s comprehensive strategy to introduce digital adoption to the whole of the Saudi community in addition to huge investments we have put into the network transformation and modernization. An additional factor contributing to our success is our harmonized team that has been dedicated to uphold our operations, especially within the challenging environment imposed by COVID-19. We are thankful to every Zainer for making this possible.

While we definitely feel proud of this and other historic accomplishments, we realize the increasing responsibility to transition to the next great innovation and maintain what we have accomplished so far, amidst high competition.

Zain has rolled out the fourth largest 5G network in the world, and the largest in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. How do you describe Zain KSA’s 5G journey?

We like to call our 5G network a game-changing breakthrough.

We had been pursuing the 5G vision throughout our bigger plan to expand the breadth of our services and upgrade our offerings for almost a decade. The plan to upgrade to the 5th generation came as a necessary and natural stride serving Zain KSA’s goal to become an enabler of the Kingdom’s digital transformation and a promoter of a growing digital-savvy Saudi community.

We had the plan and allocated the necessary investment to do the work. We injected more than 1.9 billion Saudi Riyals in groundwork investments that would support the network upgrades. Additionally, we invested over 1 billion Saudi Riyals during the first quarter of 2020 for further expansion. Of course we already had a good infrastructure base that we had installed through project Reload, which proved to be the bedrock of our innovative network.

In May 2019, our network was ready and we began experiencing unprecedented speeds, exceeding 1 Gbps. By October we were fully geared for the big commercial 5G launch.

By October 2019, we initially deployed 2000 towers and quickly raised this number to 2600 towers strategically distributed to cover the whole of the Kingdom. By today, our 5G network covers all the Kingdom’s 13 regions. The number of 5G-serviced cities reached 30 after recently including Al-Jouf and the Northern Borders.

In rolling out the first 5G network of this size in the region, Zain KSA has been a pioneer that succeeded in advancing the Kingdom’s ICT capacities and raising its position in the global tech industry.

What industries are likely to benefit the most from 5G? What do you consider as the most important 5G use cases?

We believe 5G will open the doors wide to a world of disruptive technologies. The new network is instrumental to digital transformation across all sectors, and has even began to redefine some industries in a way that is more consumer-oriented.

Through its ability to sustain reliable and instant broadband connectivity, 5G will underpin a range of modernized operations across many industries. The ultra-high bandwidth, low-latency, and massive capacity 5G network supports upload and download speeds ten times faster than 4G, and that is how it will spur a massive shift in many of the day-to-day activities as we know them.

Today, business operations are changing rapidly with the introduction of more cutting-edge technologies, so 5G will lead a quantum leap through enabling game-changing functionalities, including AI and its range of applications. For example, with enhanced speed and security, users can instantly make financial transactions on their devices, which would enable more infiltrating e-payments and digitalized government procedures. This would improve the experience of individuals and transform the conduct of the private sector.

The same goes for healthcare and education where 5G will support a whole realm of real-time remote surgery, telemedicine, virtual conferencing, data management systems, and a wide range of other functions that will transform these vital areas.

Also, with the rise of OTT and live streaming platforms, 5G will be inevitable especially as the AR and VR technologies will be high in demand in the near future.

Even at homes, 5G will have the power to change the way households are currently run, especially as we witness more adoption of the IoT and its applications. Over the next few years, Saudi Arabia expects the 5G network to support 45 million new IoT devices.

Still, in addition to its instrumental use in healthcare, business, and other fields, we believe the real value of the 5G network goes beyond just isolated sectors and is represented in its power to enable a new digitalized existence that is more aligned with the consumers’ attitudes and needs. In other words, this ultra-modern reliable network would support the full shift to automation therefore enabling more flexible and customized services that would eventually transform the society we live in.

How do you intend to use 5G in the Kingdom to help users?

Like education, digitalization has the capacity to empower society. Through our role as advocates of digitalization, we have pledged to promote the quality of life across the Kingdom in line with the national vision.

Our network and 5G services will support users across a multitude of areas with its capacity to facilitate every automated and digital operation. Additionally, Zain KSA has a range of solutions based on disruptive technologies, artificial intelligence (AI), data analytics and cloud computing to enhance the user’s experience, digital needs and applications.

We have recently launched “Zain Cloud”, our flagship cloud-computing service for businesses, entrepreneurs, and government entities, through a partnership with Alibaba Group. Through this adaptable world-class solution, Zain KSA deploys, operates and maintains a public cloud platform that supports our vision in enabling the IoT and AI functionalities. Diverse sectors, including business, education, and healthcare, can make use of the cloud’s extensive solutions and reliable data hosting.

More recently, Zain KSA has announced it will be providing Zain Fiber products to all the Kingdom’s regions through the open access agreement in coordination with the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC). Through these offerings, our users can benefit from unlimited and high-speed internet through a range of competitive packages.

The innovative aspect of our solutions combined with the ultra-high speed of our 5G network will make for exceptional user experiences. Zain KSA will empower the Saudi community by offering people all over the Kingdom, even in rural areas, the opportunity to utilize ultramodern technology.

How is Zain KSA contributing the Kingdom’s Vision 2030?

Catalyzing the digital transformation throughout the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is at the core of our strategy. We believe that through our participation to the futuristic national ICT roadmap outlined in Saudi Vision 2030, we will be growing as a brand and contributing to our role in boosting the community’s development and serving as a life-line for the whole nation. We support the national vision on all its three main themes: vibrant society, thriving economy, and ambitious nation.

Zain KSA contributes to the Kingdom’s GDP diversification. In 2019, the company generated revenues of SAR 8.4 billion, up by 11% from the year before, while net income grew 46% year-on-year to SAR 485 million. As such, Zain is committed to raising the ICT sector’s contribution to GDP to 50 billion Saudi Riyals over the next 5 years.

In parallel, Zain KSA is a primary contributor to the visionaries’ promise of a thriving society as it helps sustain a better quality of life for the population through providing their connectivity needs, as well as reaching out to remote areas and granting them access to hi-speed broadband. This goal is also amplified by our quality offerings and solutions that cater to different age groups and segments of the Saudi community.

The third aspect of Zain KSA’s contribution to Vision 2030 is digital transformation and competitiveness. Saudi Arabia enjoys a globally competitive ICT sector that is geared to become an international hub. In this sense, Zain KSA has contributed immensely to further honing the Kingdom’s ICT name, especially after it landed the fourth largest 5G rollout globally.

  • $2.24 billion in revenues during 2019
  • Access to value added services that promote quality of life
  • Positioning KSA as world’s 4th largest 5G-enabled nation

How did COVID-19 affect Zain KSA? What measures did you adopt to better serve consumers during these difficult times? What are your plans for the post-COVID-19 era?

The pandemic has deeply impacted many industries. In fact, COVID-19 has imposed a new, rather odd reality where it has been denting the profits of some while sending others skyrocketing.

Generally, the pandemic has had a moderate impact on telecoms. While it did not disturb our operations, it has however put us to a test of aptitude - one of the biggest challenges we have ever faced and one that we have overcome successfully building unprecedented operational resilience

During the crisis, we adopted a strategy through which we utilized all our capabilities to sustain top quality services to our users. Throughout the prime outburst of the pandemic, we prioritized the safety of our teams all over the Kingdom, taking proactive steps including work from home. Once lock down was lifted, we continued to work from home for the majority of our employees, while we implemented a monitoring system to ensure our work environment is safe in accordance with the local and international standards for the handful of employees who started to work from office.

Of course we were also mindful of the impact of our response on the community, believing in the need for social collaboration through times of crisis. Zain KSA donated 30,000 free data subscriptions to students in the Kingdom to support the initiative launched by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.

For Zain KSA, the pandemic has enhanced our crisis management response and provided us an opportunity to emerge as a main enabler of digital technology in the Kingdom as we supported the national crisis response efforts.

For the upcoming phase, we are planning to enhance 5G coverage to cater to a growing demand on a more reliable and faster connectivity due to a higher level of digitalization in the aftermath of the pandemic. Through this and many other initiatives, we are determined to keep Zain KSA at the forefront of technological advancement and support our community’s digital transformation.

“COVID-19 has put us to a test of aptitude – one of the biggest challenges we have ever faced.”

In your opinion, what role has digital transformation been playing in the COVID-19 era?

Today, digital communication is running the show, after it has proven to be an inevitable asset in a post-COVID-19 world. As such, the pandemic has just fast-tracked our route to another tech-driven revolution.

We have often talked about sustainability and today we have the chance to prove that resilience and sustainability are primarily determined by the society’s ability to make a rapid shift to digitalization. So, for example, to stay abreast of the latest global trends, businesses will need to scale their operations to adapt and they ultimately need a strong and reliable communications base that would support their transition.

Further on, vanguard digital communications will be introducing even more innovative technologies into the mainstream, thus enabling a swifter shift to automation.  

This is how digital transformation is leading today and tomorrow’s economies and communities, and heralding a new era where the dominance of a society is determined by the power of its digitalization.

What impact has COVID-19 had on the telecommunications industry and on operators in particular?

Throughout the peak of the pandemic, major economies were brought to a halt, and many businesses paused their operations while others continued to do business remotely; that is through telecommunications. The numbers attest to this reality. During the pandemic, data consumption in Saudi Arabia surged by 34%, as the average per capita consumption hit 920 MB, three times the global average.

The pandemic has brought telecoms to the forefront as a main driver of all other sectors from business to education, healthcare, and entertainment. Webinars have been organized with utmost professionalism and effectiveness, and a lot more flexibility and inclusiveness.

Another major ensuing realization from the pandemic is the need for everyone to stay connected even at times of crisis. While ICT-empowered interactions may have been perceived doubtfully by skeptics before, today, after COVID-19, no one can deny the power of communications technology in reinforcing human relations, allowing the real-time sharing of ideas, emotions, and major life milestones.

As part of the telecoms industry, playing the role of a global, undisputed enabler of the whole world, including its economy and its human interactions is quite a privilege and a huge responsibility at the same time.

Today we understand and treasure the power of telecoms in connecting the world more than ever, and we reiterate our commitment as Zain KSA to continue to support and empower the Kingdom’s connectivity through accompanying its pursuit of a full digital transformation.

“No one can deny the power of communications technology in reinforcing human relations, allowing the real-time sharing of ideas, emotions, and major life milestones.”

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