Zain Kuwait, one of the leading telecom operators in the region, has been at the very forefront of innovation for many years now. The operator was the first to launch commercial 5G in 2019 which essentially set the stage for future deployments, both regionally and globally. They have been the ultimate trailblazers in this space, ensuring that their customers are offered the best-in-class solutions and services. Through the implementation of forward-thinking strategies, with digitalization at its core, the telco has achieved a great deal in an array of fields.
Telecom Review managed to secure an exclusive interview with Zain Kuwait’s CEO, Eaman Al Roudhan who shed light on the company’s 5G journey, digital transformation strategies and their navigation of the pandemic and also spoke about her own personal experience in the industry as an influential female leader.
Zain Kuwait is leading the way in 5G development in the region, and this has been particularly evident in the home broadband domain. How did Zain Kuwait manage to achieve success in 5G ahead of the region’s other players? What did Zain Kuwait do differently?
When we first decided to deploy our 5G network, we did it as a result of a clear strategic guideline: to continue to provide best-in-class data services in Kuwait. We devised an ambitious deployment roadmap which eventually led us to be the first operator to offer 5G commercially in Kuwait, with the best possible service and widest coverage at launch.
Back in 2017, we devised a three-year plan to prepare our network before the availability of 5G and to upgrade all our physical infrastructure and systems without actually affecting the baseline service level at the time.
Working with our 5G partner, Huawei, we were able to design a step-by-step project plan with some strict deadlines, but without sacrificing any quality standards for our customer base. This was not an easy task, but with a very detailed roadmap and with the highly skilled team we have in Zain Kuwait and our partner Huawei, the deployment went smoothly and according to our schedule.
To offer the best possible service, we had to meet a different criterion. Being the “best” entails having wide-spread coverage, best-in-class connectivity speeds, and a reliable service. This ties back to our data strategy, as we had a goal to cover the majority of our subscribers by the launch date through a carefully designed phased approach, reaching a 100% coverage within 6 to 9 months from our launch. We were also adamant on using the best-in-class hardware and network maintenance protocols to ensure a high-speed, reliable service to our users. All these efforts resulted in Zain Kuwait receiving Ookla’s award for the fastest fixed-wireless network provider in Kuwait in 2020.
Our success in 5G was a result of a clear corporate strategy, which was robustly executed through a closely monitored action plan, which was very ambitious but achievable. As a customer-centric organization we never lost sight of our customers and their current and future needs throughout this whole process.
Kuwait was among the first few countries in the GCC region to begin their 5G journey relatively early. We have heard that, recently, Zain Kuwait deployed a huge amount of new 5G base stations. What is the current state of 5G in Kuwait at the moment?
Yes, correct. Kuwait is globally one of the leading countries that have launched 5G, and we pride ourselves on being the first to launch 5G within the country itself.
As I mentioned, we used a phased approach, first to provide mass 5G coverage country-wide and then targeting the expansion of our 5G capacity, prioritizing those areas where we could see our demand growing faster.
It is known that with COVID-19, most mobile operators experienced a tremendous increase in their data usage. At Zain Kuwait, we decided to accelerate our 5G deployment to cater for this growing demand and maintain the highest quality of service for our customers, in line with our strategy and always putting the customer first.
In the current phase, we work hand in hand with our partner Huawei to periodically deploy and upgrade our cell towers to cater for our ongoing expansion and to maintain our leadership in 5G.
Most of the markets are very saturated in the GCC and the competition in Kuwait is quite intense. What are your vectors for growth in the 5G era?
The market is in fact saturated, as the country has reached mobile penetration rates of 170%. However, we remain optimistic that opportunities for growth exist and revolve around three main axes: the fixed-wireless arena, the enterprise segment - with focus on cloud services and managed services- and consumer entertainment.
In a country like Kuwait, where fixed fiber penetration remains lower compared to global averages, fixed-wireless broadband acts as a substitute for fiber, and we believe we still have room to grow in that space. Besides our core offering, we are bringing a multitude of different 5G use cases to the market that extend beyond connectivity, such as Internet of Things and smart homes, consumer applications in health, education, safe city, etc.
As our enterprise customers’ demands evolve and Kuwait’s public sector is moving at a faster pace towards digitalization, Zain is fully committed to supporting business and organizations in their cloud and virtualization efforts, not only on their data storage needs, but also with an array of value added services. Over the past two years, a new suite of cloud products catering to public and private enterprises have been designed and launched - such as storage and disaster recovery, Security as a Service, Video Surveillance as a Service, and many others.
Cloud services can help businesses achieve a strategic edge through multiple angles: accessibility, especially relevant under the current pandemic, cost optimization through scalability, security, and disaster recovery among others. At Zain, we help businesses achieve this migration ensuring no disruptions in their operations.
Moreover, we have at the same time expanded to new corporate verticals such as utilities, health, and education, both through in-house development and through partnerships, to create additional attractive value propositions for our business community. For example, we have recently been supporting the Government of Kuwait with the creation of an e-health solution (i.e. Shlonik App), which engages with citizens and residents to ensure their safety with focus on the COVID-19 pandemic. We also partnered with Boubyan Bank to offer advanced digital banking solutions under the fintech vertical. These examples are a small part of our service expansion strategy, which we believe will be a main vector of growth for us as a company.
With regards to entertainment, we have numerous services that we offer to our customers. We have mostly employed a partnership strategy to access this vertical, which are usually an add-on to our core services. In gaming, for example, we developed our proprietary platform: Zain Games. This platform aggregates a multitude of game developers under one subscription, which gives our customers access to a lot of gaming options. We have also partnered with leading content providers in the region, such as OSN (Orbit Showtime Network) and MBC’s Shahid platform, among others. The coverage is also extended to international content providers such as Amazon Prime. We then offer access to these amazing platforms to our customers as part of our core plans. Our customers enjoy the value-added services, our partners get greater exposure, and we have more attractive offerings- creating a win-win-win situation for everyone. Our partnership model for content makes every partner focus on what they do best: giving the customer the best of both worlds.
Some operators around the globe are admitting difficulties on justifying their 5G expense with limited monetization, is this also the case for Zain Kuwait?
Kuwait is a country known for being an early adopter of the latest lifestyle trends, and in the field of technology, Kuwait is also a front runner. Zain is the market leader in this space so we had to be amongst the first countries to launch 5G globally and in the region, but this has had a substantial cost.
As you know, 5G, by design, is a very costly technology to implement. Due to the inability of high frequency signals to travel large distances, a larger deployment of towers was needed and therefore, a higher investment was required. Besides the infrastructure investment, spectrum fees are also quite relevant when compared with the market size and the potential returns.
Kuwait is a highly competitive market, where the existing 4G coverage is top-notch, and we sell data packages in Terabytes which has made the early monetization of 5G particularly challenging.
5G monetization is still a challenge, but not only for Kuwait, it is the case for most mobile operators globally and this is reflected in their very gradual strategies of deployment. Yet, the market is still growing, in terms of subscribers and use cases.
For Zain Kuwait, the investment in 5G has definitely started to pay off by growing our market share, strengthening our position as a market leader, and accelerating our digital verticals, which are very strategic for Zain Kuwait. We remain very optimistic that we will continue to monetize our investment on our 5G network.
The COVID-19 outbreak has been nothing short of eye-opening for many industries. What measures did Zain Kuwait take to deal with the disruption at the beginning of the pandemic? How did you serve the community?
I personally think that as much as COVID-19 has brought in challenges and restrictions into our lives and businesses, it also came with a lot of opportunities. This period has definitely given us a chance to activate and test all our business continuity strategies. It allowed us to see just how agile our businesses were and accelerated the digital transformation of all companies across various industries, as well as government organizations.
In the case of Zain Kuwait, we had no disruptions in our operations, which was especially relevant as a critical utility asset for the nation. I am proud to say that we reaped the fruits of our 3-year digital transformation strategy on so many different levels- in terms of the readiness of all our digital channels, our cloud solutions, value chain integration and convergence, and embracing the importance of a partnerships ecosystem throughout our business strategies.
None of this would have been possible without the main key success factor: the investment we made in our people. I am very proud of my team, who were working relentlessly with a very agile approach in completely new operating models and under very challenging circumstances.
Regarding the support to our community, Zain Kuwait, as the national and first operator in Kuwait, is always very committed to the country and to its people, especially during these very difficult times.
Collaboratively with the other two mobile operators, we provided a free daily quota of 5GB for all customers that opted-in for a full month, helping people to abide by the social distancing restrictions while keeping in touch with their loved ones, especially during the uncertain period at the start of the pandemic. We also put our line disconnection processes on hold for customers who were unable to pay their bills due to the devastating economic impact of the virus.
As mentioned earlier, we collaborated with the Government in the creation of Shlonik, an interactive app used to assist the Ministry of Health to engage with all citizens and residents and ensure their safety with focus on the COVID-19 pandemic. We also launched several awareness campaigns to educate our community on the new safety measures under COVID-19. We will continue to support Kuwait and its people during the rest of this pandemic, in every way possible.
How did the pandemic reflect on Zain Kuwait’s financial results? And what strategy did you adopt to maintain leadership during these difficult times?
Well, the pandemic affected us in three ways.
Firstly, due to the economic impact from COVID-19 across different industries, we have seen a correction in the market size, as many customers (individuals and enterprises), were challenged with the economic effects of the pandemic. Secondly, data usage has gone up around 30%, leading to an increase in network-related costs which were not easy to fully monetize due to the high data caps offered in this market. Thirdly, with the temporary halt of travel, roaming revenue decreased substantially. These were the main challenges we faced.
On the other hand, the increased demand for data broadband products —and 5G in particular—compensated part of these effects. We did not come out of the pandemic unscathed, but we were able to minimize the impact as much as we could.
When it comes to our strategy amid the pandemic, empathy is one of Zain’s core values. Our decisions were led by two priorities: the safety of our people and our customers. We did not hesitate in taking any decision that was in line with these two priorities.
We defined the functional areas that required a new operating model, and we made those changes relatively quickly. As the pandemic crisis was unfolding, we resorted to key commercial moves to cater for the customer demands and to minimize economic impact as much as we could. The key was remaining agile as nobody could anticipate the developments as the crisis was playing out, and I think we have done that well.
In the long term, I believe it is important to maintain a healthy culture within our organization and to cultivate the social connections between our people. This could be hard with work-from-home policies if they are very prolonged in time for all the workforce. Therefore, I believe in a hybrid work model where our people can work both remotely and from our premises. Zain HQ has always been vibrant, and, despite the current circumstances, we have been able to maintain a lively atmosphere adhering to the new norms, with strict social distancing and all the other rigorous safety measures to protect our employees from the pandemic.
The disruption that COVID caused essentially changed the entire business ecosystem as we know it. What sort of trends do you foresee coming into fruition in the telecoms industry post-COVID?
COVID-19 has shown us that the telecom industry is an essential utility and a key player for the digitalization in the country. More than ever, our customers are relying on connectivity for their day-to-day lives, and businesses are partnering with us for the digitalization of their operations.
Digitalization was previously seen by many businesses as an optional tool for achieving cost optimization, but it is now a necessity and a matter of survival. At Zain Kuwait, we have seen the customer stickiness to digital channels as an alternative to the physical channels. The pandemic, and its associated lockdowns, has migrated a lot of customers to the digital channels permanently; the focus on digitalization is now paramount to any telco’s success. All processes have to be digitally streamlined, and the user experience across all digital platforms has to be great.
We also see the normalization of the work-from-home setup along with the solutions that drive this trend, such as conferencing, VoIP, and cloud solutions. For telcos, this means that the demand for data connectivity, whether via FTTH or 5G, will continue to grow in the upcoming years.
I also think that the non-core verticals, such as fintech, e-health, and e-learning will start becoming more of a focus for telecoms. These verticals are accelerating massively in adoption, and once these services are supported by ICT players, it will allow for a more reliable service offering. So, telecoms will play a more vital role in any digital ecosystem and we will capitalize on this opportunity moving forward.
And more generically, in a post COVID set up, what are the main challenges you see in the telecom industry for the next 5 years?
A post-COVID setup, despite the opportunities it brings, will also bring a lot of challenges. Firstly, as the reliance on connectivity strengthens, so does the consumer expectations associated with it. Telcos are now expected to be more reliable than ever in terms of their networks, and that translates into more network investments and the need for ongoing regulatory support. In this context, it is very important to maintain a healthy competition in the industry that benefits customers, but also a regulatory framework to ensure that players do not operate under cost, as this would negatively impact not only one player but the whole telecom ecosystem, and ultimately the customer.
Also, this increased reliance brings with it an increased demand for cybersecurity. Telcos have to be aware of any increased cybersecurity threats that might arise from the use of non-secured OTT platforms for example. Security standards are increasingly paramount to telecoms, especially in light of the new vertical in our product portfolios, such as ‘data cloud’ offerings for example.
I would say that the digital maturity on all the other stakeholders in the ecosystem is also a key challenge and is evolving at different speeds in different geographies. This needs to go hand-in-hand with the adaptation of the laws, regulations, and policies both locally and globally.
Being a female C-level professional in a male-dominated industry is very impressive and I am sure it comes with its unique challenges. You are the first female to hold the position of CEO at Zain. How would you describe your experience as a woman in a leadership role in this region’s ICT industry and what do you think female leaders can add to the corporate telecom arena? What advice would you give to aspiring female leaders?
I am a person who is motivated by challenge, and being the CEO of a leading corporation like Zain Kuwait is definitely a challenging experience, and a highly rewarding one too.
As a CEO in ICT, I see the world evolving fast, and as a leader, I need to make sure that my team is constantly capitalizing on the emerging opportunities and not only focusing on the long-established challenges, so our decisions are guided more by strategic thinking to ensure sustainability in our growth. Customers are becoming more knowledgeable and they can now make better choices, they also have a louder voice through social media and expect an impeccable service and sophisticated customization tools through digitalization. Any company operating today that does not take customer centricity very seriously has no chance to succeed in the long term.
I personally think that female leaders are mostly more realistic and more direct during crisis management. As female leaders, we also bring diverse experiences, ideas, and perspectives to this industry. I believe we are more open to questioning the existing set-ups and analyzing situations from other angles, which could lead to better decisions and overall value generation in this industry. Female leaders frequently use empathy to better understand how different stakeholders think and then create alignment resulting in stronger synergies.
Corporations should play an active role in identifying and developing future female talent early on in their careers, and to help women broaden their skills through training, mainly through providing access to leadership opportunities within a proper coaching and support environment. And more broadly speaking, corporations should do more on diversity and inclusion programs, setting specific targets and monitoring the progress.
Throughout my career, I have met some very capable women that are a bit too conscious to self-promote themselves, mainly because we as women are sometimes more focused on contributing and adding value, and less on climbing the corporate ladder.
In my case, Zain gave me the opportunity to work in almost every area of the business, with increasing degrees of responsibilities and challenges, allowing me to grow professionally. I also had the privilege to work across different countries in the region when Zain was growing its portfolio, which expanded my horizons and experience.
I would tell women to step up and actively take the challenge, to believe in themselves and not to self-doubt. I would also advise them to be very persistent in achieving their goals, and to continuously strive for quality work, aiming to do more and be better.