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GITEX Technology Week 2020 theme this year ‘Empowering the Digital Future & Beyond’ is all about the convergence of 5G, AI, big data and IoT bringing people, devices and systems even closer together. Intelligent connectivity is expected to drive huge growth in MENA economies by creating value across most industries.

“We are looking forward to being part of this global conversation to share our experiences with peers and technology leaders as well as exchange experiences in innovation that is set to transform every industry that uses mobile technologies from transport, retail, healthcare, education to fashion, automotive, utilities and entertainment. Etisalat has become a key regional and international player in 5G especially with one of the biggest world expo powered by 5G to be held next year”, said Hatem Dowidar, Acting CEO of Etisalat Group and CEO of Etisalat International.

UAE today has the fastest network in the world, how has Etisalat contributed to this global achievement?

With the UAE’s ambitious ICT fueled vision aiming to transform the country to a digital economy, there have been great strides in revolutionising the network and services.

Etisalat on its part has continuously focused on innovation as part of its strategy ‘Drive the digital future to empower societies’ embedded within its DNA manifested across the business. Over four decades Etisalat’s philosophy was about reshaping the telecom sector in the UAE, which has pushed us to explore new opportunities, focus on strengthening our core business while transitioning to the digital era and being well geared for the future.

Today Etisalat’s mobile network is recognised by Ookla as the fastest in the world showcasing high speeds all throughout this year.  UAE network ranked with the fastest mobile download speed worldwide in January, March and July 2020. Etisalat is also the winner of Ookla’s Speedtest Awards for fastest fixed broadband network in Q3-Q4 2019 and was recognised in the same year as the leading operator for fastest mobile and broadband network. With a download speed of 115.89 mbps and an overall ranking in the ‘Speed Score’ at 98.78, Etisalat is the only operator globally to rank higher than 90 as per Ookla Speedtest data. The achievement is significant in current times when the pandemic caused global crisis highlighting the importance of a robust and up-to-date network.

How would you explain Etisalat’s journey in 2020 so far especially that we are all living in very different times and facing unique situations at work and home?

Etisalat Group’s long term projections have always set goals to transition from a traditional telecoms operator into an integrated ICT solutions provider. The pandemic pressed the fast forward button, however, accelerating a technology shift already taking place.

Therefore, the journey this year for Etisalat has been transformational, internally and externally. ‘Living Digital’ is the focus and way ahead, within Etisalat digital transformation was always on the agenda making the shift to operating to an ‘only digital platform’ easier. Today as we all face an unfortunate crisis, Etisalat has showed resilience and remained committed towards the communities it serves, minimising business impact on our operations, our customers and subscribers. This was done by speeding up on the implementation of all digital channels, delivering in the new environment and addressing challenges faced by consumers and businesses.

Despite the unprecedented market challenges facing the industry locally and globally we ensured business continuity and readiness. Thanks to the UAE vision and Etisalat’s strategy, we are geared to support and serve the entire community making it possible for businesses to work remotely, millions of students to enjoy distance learning and all citizens have access to vital services. Our network joined one of the most robust and digitally equipped showcasing infrastructure preparedness and ability to adapt and implement during today’s extraordinary times.

With overall data traffic on the telco network surging exponentially, Etisalat’s resilient advanced network remained dependable and secure to proactively assess and manage anticipated increases in bandwidth demand. During the peak of the pandemic there was an overall growth in video conferencing and VoIP on both fixed and mobile network of more than 250 percent. The traffic increase in streaming services and video by more than 50 percent while in social media and gaming it grew more than 80 and 200 percent respectively.

We offered all the connectivity tools and services people needed to continue to communicate and conduct business, including the fastest network in the world and 5G connectivity. Our teams worked on making sure support was provided to all our customers, including government departments, large enterprises, SMBs and our subscribers across the country.

Etisalat’s advanced network and its ability to adapt and implement plays an instrumental role during the pandemic. In this time of uncertainty, our primary goal is to keep our valuable customers, employees and society fully connected.

What are the special initiatives Etisalat adopted and implemented to help organisations navigate during today’s times?

In the ‘New Normal’ for the telecom industry it is about developing a dynamic workforce strategy that is critical to keep the global economy sustainable with emerging opportunities for companies and industries. It is also about rising to the challenge helping people and organisations to navigate these massive workforce shifts while underlining the need for leaders to accelerate the adoption of digital innovation to help outmaneuver uncertainty.

Businesses, governments and citizens require services to evolve with the global health and economic environment changes. With the world anxiously awaiting an effective vaccine until then the priority is to re-energise all our operations internally and externally for Etisalat. Special initiatives were introduced to support the entire community during the peak of the pandemic and to continue serving in the ‘New Normal’ making it easier to study, work, entertain and remain connected with family and friends from the comfort of their homes.

More than 10 million Etisalat mobile subscribers enjoyed free browsing to over 800 websites related to education, health and safety in addition to free mobile data being made available to over 12,000 students whose families do not have Internet at home to support and enable distance learning.

We have always catered to people with determination by offering specific services, during this period parents and teachers of these students were exempted from Internet Calling Plan fees. Etisalat also provided access to 9 apps and platforms for distance learning, allowing visual and audio communications: Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Blackboard, Zoom, Skype for Business, Cisco Webex, Avaya Spaces, BlueJeans and Slack on its fixed and mobile network in collaboration with the TRA.

Our initiative ‘We Pay the Difference’ for consumers on elife plans gave an option to upgrade speeds at no extra charge more than enough to work from home and stream their favorite content accompanied with multiple options for entertainment. From doubling up of allowances to supporting subscribers both business and consumers by waiving or refunding some charges, Etisalat made sure that all support was provided in the current situation.

For companies, there were specific relief plans for small business owners, new businesses and large enterprises specifically the most impacted during the pandemic mainly the hospitality and airlines industry. With video communication becoming key for virtual meetings and facilitating work from home for government departments and businesses, Etisalat offered this service free during the peak of the pandemic.

With employees coming back to work, it was important for all businesses to keep their establishments safe, Etisalat had specific solutions to help them manage these challenging times. Transforming business was also key for surviving and managing business efficiently, Etisalat’s web solutions helped new and existing businesses to engage across digital platforms and also supporting them to build an online interface.

What is Etisalat doing to accelerate digital transformation and innovation reducing the digital divide gap and increasing digital readiness?

The telecom network is the backbone of an economy and plays a significant role in bringing digital transformation and innovation in UAE. Etisalat’s network was recognised as the fastest in the world, which is in line with UAE’s goals of becoming a smart nation and ready to serve the ‘New Normal’. This has also led the digital economy to contribute towards the local GDP in 2019 touching 4.3 percent with a dedicated Minister of State for Digital Economy, AI and remote working applications appointed to focus on this area and double these numbers.

The global recognition of Etisalat’s network is a testament to its leadership and readiness to address the future requirements of the network. The recognition is a result of the company’s long-term vision and strategy with Etisalat continually investing in innovation, next-generation technologies and services to enhance the network.

With communication and connectivity gaining more significance and demand more than ever during the pandemic, telcos play a critical role in closing this gap of digital readiness by becoming the engines of resilience and innovation. Moving ahead, network modernisation and digital transformation play a key role in bringing this change to society.

Digital capabilities should not be limited to customer experience but also extending automation and AI capabilities internally to strengthen all business functions.  Moving from digital first to digital throughout by driving AI and automation, revitalise digital customer experience  with increasing use of AI in customer interactions and evolve capabilities to support new value propositions.

We are already working on transforming all the elements integral in our ecosystem, the society, workforce, customers and for our shareholders. Today Etisalat is enabling society to digitally connect, work and learn from home and use digital services. Internally, we are building a workforce of highly skilled and motivated digital talents who work together efficiently and seamlessly. Our main focus will continue to provide customers with reliable connectivity, innovative products and experience while maintaining strong financial returns and identifying new pockets of growth.

Artificial Intelligence is a technology that is impacting every industry and every human being, Etisalat has invested in technologies that will propel the use bringing efficiency and engagement across the company. Customer care is one of the areas where technologies like speech, video analytics and robotics are used in back office automation to enhance the customer journey. Currently there are several use cases identified and underway to bring this digital experience to reality.

There are at least 130 robots automating 70 back office processes conducting more than 800k transactions on a monthly basis. Robotic process automation has brought about 98 percent efficiency enabling employees to become creative, innovative and connect with customers to enhance their experience. Blockchain technologies is another area we see immense potential that helps in cutting down intermediaries, costs, increase speed and reach offering transparency and traceability of business processes. By 2030, blockchain is expected to generate a business value of more than $3 trillion by 2030 with at least 20 percent of global economic infrastructure running on blockchain-based systems.

At Etisalat we are already actively working with industry players for example the financial sector who stand to benefit the most from the technology. Our partnership for ‘UAE Trade Connect’ has eight UAE banks on the blockchain platform helping them to focus on addressing risks of double financing and invoice fraud before turning to other areas of trade finance.

‘Shahada’ is another revolutionary effort on blockchain for the education sector that will securely issue credentials, avoiding forgery of paper-based certificates and creating an education passport.

Etisalat is also extending its efforts on blockchain in its loyalty programmes enhancing the experience for consumers to convert their loyalty or reward currencies. This technology is also coming in play to customise communication and messaging for subscribers centralising customer information and verifying it as well.

For enterprises, cloud computing services are the foundation for customer’s digital transformation enabling services that will bring flexibility and availability for business critical applications. Etisalat today has evolved to a Cloud Managed Services Provider, sustained by state of the art platforms and infrastructure, partnerships with global leaders, hyper-scale cloud service providers and with a strong multi-cloud consulting and operations. The collaboration with Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure to offer Etisalat’s Cloud Express, a secured private connectivity between the customer’s corporate network and their public clouds was a major step in this direction. Oracle announced recently the launch of its Generation 2 Cloud deployment in Dubai, following the Gen 1 setup they had in Abu Dhabi, and once again, Etisalat is the proud infrastructure partner.

The expansion of our datacenter (DC) capacity with two new larger energy efficient facilities in Dubai and Al Ain has led to capture more than 50 percent of the local market DC capacity bringing the total to ten certified facilities. Cloud is also the backbone of Etisalat’s new ‘Business Edge’, a new business platform offering a wide range of cutting-edge services from the cloud and targeting the SMB segment remaining an important engine of growth in the UAE.

The application of cutting-edge robotics, AI and biometric technologies also played a key role in improving business operations. There was an emphasis on transforming the brick and mortar experience to digital retail providing a digital experience to the customer. Digitisation in retail and self-service touchpoints expanded the rollout of ‘Smart Stores’ by upgrading the current stores. There was an increased focus on driving the subscriber online with a revamp of our portal and application. Transactions today are also seamless with virtual technologies being implemented for consumer transactions. Etisalat’s first new digital store is an illustration of our efforts.

The main pillars of innovation here focused on providing customers a complete digital journey with full mobility, self-service with digital interfaces giving customers the flexibility to purchase packages and products including dispensing of SIM cards.

What are Etisalat’s major achievements on the network that has added value to keep businesses running and support consumers to continue their lives in the new normal?

Etisalat has made global achievements by setting benchmarks in the industry making infrastructure accomplishments that supersede advanced global markets. Our subscribers were among the first globally to access and enjoy the speed of the 5G network in UAE. This was only possible due to the continuous investments in our network in terms of technologies and solutions making it the most advanced, resilient, dependable and secure.

From the beginning Etisalat was always the first in the region to take a lead and launch previous generations of the network mainly 3G, 4G and 5G. The network coverage today reaches across the country with 4G LTE network coverage touching 99.70 percent and 3G covering 99.82 percent. FTTH has reached 95.7 percent of homes across the UAE, maintaining the UAE’s position as a global leader in FTTH for the third consecutive year. Network deployments in 5G reached over 35 percent covering the main cities in UAE.

As a previous winner of the Speedtest Award™ for fastest mobile network and fastest broadband network in the region for 2019 Etisalat amplified its efforts on improving the mobile network, supporting business continuity in a work-from-home environment, facilitating distance learning and providing entertainment to families at home.

During the pandemic, Etisalat was able to provide support to quarantined and other critical areas in the health care sector. With remote healthcare services becoming an essential area with telemedicine solutions launched for the sector, we supported them with access on an exceptional basis. Our teams also made sure that they covered other industry sectors in terms of seamless business continuity.

This was done with complete network and resource deployment made possible through multiple initiatives, introducing new applications and services to government entities and departments, monitoring the performance of basic applications and ensuring smooth access to data locally and internationally. Command centres were equipped with advanced tools to monitor the performance of services provided to government departments, businesses and customers 24/7.

With the gradual opening of the economy and businesses while adhering to precautionary measures, telecom and ICT sectors will play an increasingly significant role. Globally 55 percent of employers anticipate that most workers will want to work from home after the pandemic and 72 percent office workers want to work from home at least two days a week.  This is a radical shift in the lives of people with digital coming first for sectors like education, healthcare and the workplace.

What new services have made a major impact on the lives of the consumers and running of businesses?
Inspite of the challenges faced during the last few months due to the pandemic, our consumer and businesses have had an array of innovative digital services. In video, Etisalat launched Switch TV, the brand-new OTT streaming service for all UAE residents, offering a significant line up of free and premium live TV channels within the sports, entertainment and news genres. With financial services gaining momentum, eWallet has upgraded its features and capabilities by introducing seamless international money transfer services to 200 countries and expanding the merchant portfolio to exceed 400 brands and 4,000 outlets across the UAE.
Mobile and fixed core services is another area of major focus, where subscribers witnessed the launch of the new Freedom Plans for postpaid consumers, offering unlimited local and international calls for the first time in the UAE, clubbed with several benefits on Smiles and Switch TV. For businesses, postpaid plans such as ‘Business First Plus’ enabled to carry over unused minutes and ‘Business Xtreme’ was the country’s first unlimited calling plan for executives. An exclusive ‘Mobile Service Center’ for businesses was also launched for real-time monitoring, service requests management and usage control; it has an intelligent and interactive recommendation engine that provides real-time offers based on the customer preferences.
Devices are an integral part in enriching services; hence, with an expansion in the portfolio with the latest 5G devices and multiple other smart devices in other categories, e.g. smart living. All offered as standalone or bundled with digital services and made available to customers via flexible payment options.
Etisalat Digital, the digital business arm has made large strides in the areas of cybersecurity, IoT, and cloud connectivity. In the cybersecurity space, Etisalat has concluded integration of Help AG operations in UAE and KSA, hence, creating the region’s strongest cyber security unit, which will be a key enabler of secure, seamless and effective digital transformation for customers.

On the wholesale services front, we have continued to attract more customers from various regions including the Middle East, Africa, Europe and Asia Pacific by offering a wide range of high quality, reliable wholesale services such as voice and SMS hubbing, capacity, mobility solutions, roaming and broadcasting services. This year there were two new services launched mainly Smart CloudTalk enabling wholesale customers to offer cloud based unified communication solution and Direct Inward Dialing (DID) service enabling global wholesale customers to serve the growing demand for local customer care numbers.

Etisalat continued to grow its roaming partners’ network with the successful launch of the 5G roaming service with 30 networks in 18 countries, while growing its 4G roaming reach to more than 520 networks in 178 countries, hence, giving Etisalat customers the world’s largest roaming footprint. As an ICT and data hub, a new tier 3 data center was added to the existing SmartHub facility in Fujairah facilitating customers from financial services, gaming, video streaming and cloud providers.

5G is expected to enable new experiences and use cases, how do you see 5G and emerging technologies making an impact on businesses and the societies at large?

5G has the capability to enable new experiences and use cases that are critical for the new digital normal and were impossible prior to 5G, be it for consumers or businesses. It will enable remote everything in education, health, factories, ports, entertainment, and a lot more. It will bring large potential as the appetite for exploring new use cases is higher than ever.

The availability and access to the super-fast speeds on 5G fixed networks from homes is a huge achievement and a result of the deliberate steps taken to innovate and execute during these challenging times. This achievement came after the global breakthrough in the 5G journey of 3.1Gbps download throughput over the 5G network and the first end-to-end 5G standalone call in the country and the first in the world.

5G and disruptive technologies are at the forefront of transition bringing new opportunities to the industry and the country. UAE has also displayed a clear commitment towards embracing this change as it offers great economic potential by making processes faster, effective, providing insights and efficiencies while creating incredible new experiences. Etisalat’s 5G network will amplify the use of these futuristic services, target new opportunities, and implement 5G use cases across verticals.

From making the first live 5G video call from the world’s tallest and iconic tower ‘Burj Khalifa’ to becoming the first operator to enable an international airport and a metro station, transform a smart district to empowering an international racing track with 5G connectivity, every milestone was a result of the long term planning and investment in one of the most advanced networks in the region.

We aim to capture opportunities and deploy services based on emerging technologies such as IoT, cloud, big data, AI, robotics, autonomous, AR/VR, becoming a trusted partner that supports transformation in a digitally disrupted and fully connected world.

Our IoT platform connected over 1 million SIMs with renowned entities like Emirates Transport and Xtramix for fleet solutions and Ministry of Interior for Hassantuk Smart Fire Alarm solution, which have a massive impact on saving lives and enhancing the state of security for the country.

Can you share insights into Etisalat efforts in supporting innovation and entrepreneurship?

Innovation is now embedded in our operations becoming an integral element of everything we do within and outside the company. Etisalat’s early adoption of technologies, striking the right partnerships with technology leaders and entrepreneurs in close partnership with government and private sector were key factors to push us to innovate and lead in this space.

There is a serious effort internally in building an AI capability, Etisalat has partnered with Microsoft, Accenture and EBTIC to build a team to lead the AI stream for the company and the industry. The team currently consists of 20 young Emiratis working on internal use cases focused on increasing operational efficiencies mainly with planning infrastructure and optimising the network. The long term plan is to focus on building the capabilities of the next generation of Emirati youth and AI use cases for internal use and will continue to increase efficiency, boosting productivity and enhancing customer experience over the first 2 years. The team would continue to explore external use cases as well and from the second year would aim to build external use cases based on market requirement. The future plan is to expand the team from 20 to 50 to focus on AI use cases that includes the entire development journey from ideation to market release

Etisalat Digital continued to foster open innovation with ‘Future Now’ an innovation programme that will accelerate the adoption of the latest technologies by collaborating with start-ups, IoT developers, government entities, enterprises and end-users to drive digital transformation.   

The business has also been part of Dubai Future Accelerator’s (DFA) nine-week programme since three years structured to facilitate the collaboration between government entities and corporate partners from Dubai with international startups and scaleups. The programme is also one of the initiatives under Etisalat Digital’s open innovation program ‘FutureNow’

Under DFA, the global startup in-residence programme ‘Cohort 7’ paired seven international startups and scaleups from six countries out of a pool of 143 applicants with three priority areas (challenges) of strategic relevance; using AR to survey sites, digitising physical retail spaces and automating user acceptance testing for quicker release of solutions to the market.

As a member of Fintech Hive, the acceleration programme of financial centre DIFC, Etisalat collaborated with banks and insurance companies to identify innovative fintech solutions that can become part of Etisalat Digital portfolio. During this acceleration program, Etisalat Digital mentored and collaborated more than 20 scaleups.

Future Now launched its own challenges with a participation of 10 scale-ups focusing on the enhancement of the customer journey of B2B and SMB. There is also a dedicated area ‘Open Innovation Center’ created by Etisalat in Dubai and Abu Dhabi which will be a window to the future to witness and experience all this innovation and how Etisalat Digital is driving digital transformation journeys.

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