With a history spanning over 140 years, Ericsson has proven itself to be a resilient partner for telecom operators looking to monetize into new revenue streams. Speaking to Telecom Review, Rafiah Ibrahim, President of Ericsson Middle East and Africa, said the company's experience and understanding of using automation and processes makes it the ideal partner for telecom operators willing to embrace change.
Ericsson announced the appointment of Rafiah Ibrahim as President and Head of the newly created Market Area Middle East and Africa in April 2017. Rafiah, has led Ericson's Region Middle East since July 2014.
Rafiah acknowledges that Ericsson has been going through a rough patch. The company reported a 6 percent year-on-year drop in Q3 revenue for 2017. But the company remains vigilant, Rafiah said, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, where Ericsson has signed MoUs with leading telecom operators to plan for the introduction of 5G. Helping operators introduce the next-generation technology is one of Ericsson's focus points moving forward, while also helping operators to monetize existing 4G networks.
"5G is the next era - it will take every mobile vendor to the next level, but we need to figure out how to make it fast, more efficient and easier for operators to evolve for it," Rafiah told Telecom Review. "That's our competitive edge - operators are working towards making 5G happen and so are we. So, in the space of radio technology, this is what we're working on: how to make it easy to move to 5G and also how to monetize 4G."
Saudi telecom operator Mobily (Etihad Etisalat) recently awarded Ericsson a modernization contract to upgrade its access network in the western region of Saudi Arabia, deploying the latest features of the Ericsson Radio System. Ericsson also signed a deal in October with Etisalat Misr (Etisalat Egypt) to modernize and expand its core network and business support systems. The operator said the partnership will help it capitalize on the growth in 4G and pave the way for 5G and Internet of Things (IoT).
According to the latest regional Ericsson Mobility Report, the first 5G subscriptions in the Middle East and North Africa region are expected during the period 2020 to 2022, reaching around 17 million subscriptions by 2023. 5G will be an important technology in growing industrial digitalization, and despite IoT being in its infancy in much of the region, there are still examples of how it has already helped improve the livelihood of MEA communities and industries.
In Turkey, smart agriculture initiatives have been ongoing since 2011, and similar initiatives are now ongoing in parts of Africa, according to the report. The Saudi market has been exploring remote monitoring of oil wells and making temporary networks available in case of disasters. And in South Africa, Narrowband-IoT technology is being introduced to address the utilities sector, enabling tools for energy efficiency such as smart meters.
"In summary, technologies like 5G and IoT will serve the region's diverse needs," the report says. "They will open up new revenue streams as a result of industry digitalization and will improve standards of living in these countries."
Digital billing and charging
Another focus area for Ericsson is digital billing and charging. Rafiah said the company is looking at ways of automating billing and charging to make it more flexible, in which case customer acquisition becomes faster. This is a space Ericsson is working on to help its customers address digitization "because everything is going to be digital," said Rafiah. "Ericsson looks at how it can help operators adopt more digital practices."
Ericsson is also focused on providing managed services, "which aren't about providing low end field maintenance, for example," Rafiah said. "It's about providing automation and making sure that processes will be faster and easier to provide the best customer experiences. It's also about finding new ways to add value to what the customer has outsourced to Ericsson."
Rafiah added, "Because of our experience and because of our understanding of using automation and processes, we can do it in a better way. If we can find these areas and support customers, then it'll be a win-win for us and our customers. We believe that focusing on these areas makes sense both for operators and for Ericsson in the long-run."
At GITEX 2017 in Dubai, Ericsson entered into a partnership with UAE telecom operator du to explore new ways to provide a cloud platform to enterprises for flexible digital billing. Some of du's customers are enterprises in the UAE and beyond, and flexible billing will help du to give the right service levels to their customers and "not just wait for the normal cycle."
"It will also be a more optimized way of using technology because with cloud it's faster and expandable," Rafiah explained. "This is what we want for du: better services for their customers and better go-to-market for them, and also a wider range of enterprises that du can reach out to."
Farid Faraidooni, Chief Operations Officer at du, said the partnership will enable the operator to "further empower our stakeholders in the digital transformation era by making it easier for them to rapidly take their offerings to market." Farid said Ericsson's "unique solutions provide the flexibility we require, with little customization efforts needed to integrate into our existing technology."
Ericsson forecasts 29 billion connected devices by 2022, of which around 18 billion will be in IoT. With this enormous market potential, firstmover operators around the world are positioning themselves to "capitalize on this opportunity by deploying solutions that help enterprises rapidly offer innovative new services," Rafiah said. "Our Enterprise and Cloud Billing solution will allow du to monetize existing services, develop new offerings and accelerate digitalization in the region."
Many telecom operators are moving into the enterprise space and diversifying away from traditional telecom revenue streams. Ericsson has positioned itself as an enabler of this, helping operators to monetize further into new revenue streams or enhance their current ones.
"We look at areas where we can support them and these areas are part of a portfolio that we are already involved in," said Rafiah. "It is either an improved way of working that we can provide or new processes using the same technologies we've been deploying. This is where we see ourselves adding value to our current customers."
Middle East & Africa strategy Across the Middle East and Africa, smartphone subscriptions are expected to increase from 670 million to 1.510 million in the next five years, resulting in data traffic per active smartphone multiplying nearly six times over, from 2.2 GB/month to 12 GB/month, according to Ericsson's Mobility Report.
Today, mobile data traffic in the region represents 83 percent of total mobile traffic, and is expected to increase to 98 percent by 2023, bringing it more in line with the global average. This will require operators to come up with efficient strategies differentiated by exceptional user experiences and optimal network performance.
Ericsson sees huge potential in the region, Rafiah told Telecom Review, and the company's strategy for the region reflects this. Ericsson has three segments of customers across Africa and the Middle East, she explained. The majority of telecom operators in the Middle East are matured operators who are already into 4G.
These operators are "very keen to understand how to evolve into 5G, and they want to know if they can use their current 4G network to move into 5G by taking the necessary steps without investing too heavily," Rafiah said. "This is one segment of our customers and we will continue to educate them on ways that they can start to evolve without investing more than they need to."
Then there's the segment of customers who have just entered into 4G. What they need to do, according to Rafiah, is optimize their networks further to ensure they have the best performing network to attract the various types of users they have, which could be youth, corporate clients, etc., all who require different types of data plans.
The final segment of customers is those who are still on 3G. These operators, commonly based in Africa, need to deploy a lot more of the technology, Rafiah said. 3G is widely used in Africa for data so Ericsson's role is to offer the best ways to ensure operators can provide widespread 3G without compensating on quality of voice, because voice is also important in Africa.
"My focus going into 2018 is making sure we give the right attention to the three types of customers that we have today," Rafiah said. "We are supporting operators across the region throughout the different phases of the network evolution enabling best performing networks and differentiated customer experience."
Challenges facing operators
The Middle East and Africa is a diverse region and telecom operators adopt different strategies for growth. Due to such diversity, operators require a technology evolution roadmap that is customized yet robust, according to Ericsson, along with tailored spectrum strategy to create value for the whole ecosystem.
Ericsson recognizes the challenges facing operators. Traditional revenue sources are shrinking, and so new revenue streams are being explored. As the world becomes more connected, industries are experiencing an ICT-driven transformation, creating new revenue opportunities for ICT players. Cumulative revenue in the Middle East and Africa is predicted to reach US$242 billion through 2026.
"Looking at the operators we deal with today in the region, they are actually quite advanced when it comes to considering new business models," Rafiah said. "I do not see them as stifling in their thought process. Most of the operators we're dealing with are very entrepreneurial and they know where their pain points are."
Rafiah added, "They will point out their pain point to us and explain how they, for example, don't want to spend so much on OPEX and want to monetize their CAPEX over a certain number of years. We need to work with a different business model to support them. I think telecom operators are very advanced."
Introducing 5G will be an important technology in growing industrial digitalization, according to Ericsson, particularly for use cases dependent on ultra-low latency and high reliability. But not all operators in the Middle East and Africa are at the same level. For instance, Iraq is still limited to 3G, while the UAE is looking to introduce 5G in time for the Expo 2020.
"For the larger operator, it's easier for us to move on to a different platform, such as cloud, and find different business models, because that is how they can move forward," Rafiah said. "The other smaller operators want the same thing, but on a different scale. They're also looking for new business models. For Ericsson, we need to be able to adapt to the requirements of operators faster."
Rafiah added, "Operators that require a long deployment for a project need dedicated resources. This could be for a transformation project that could take two-to-three years in phases. Therefore, the dedication of technical resources and expertise that I give would be very specific and targeted to the types of competence and the number of people."
When it comes to a different kind of operator requiring a smaller project, Rafiah said she's currently considering addressing their needs through indirect channels. "Perhaps this could be a better way, provided we have an ecosystem that will allow the ordering to be done, and the deployment to be done, as well as training for service providers who can do the deployment instead of us," she said.
"I am exploring this idea right now, and by 2018 I should have a more established plan to make sure that all of our customers are addressed in the right way, they are satisfied, and our business with them also makes sense for us - it goes both ways."
Ericsson has signed MoUs with some advanced operators in the region and in these MoUs the company focuses on sharing best practice use cases. Some use cases will be more relevant for some operators and not so much for others, Rafiah explained.
The only way to determine which use cases are suitable for particular operators is to understand where their strengths lie, because in each country it could be different, she said. In Turkey, for instance, agriculture could be an important use case, but not so much for the UAE, where robotics could be more important.
"Ericsson draws upon the experiences that operators have elsewhere in the world that have been more advanced in testing out certain use cases, and then we discuss these methods with operators we are working with in this region to see whether the same practices could work for them," Rafiah said.
"We discuss with operators in this region whether they can monetize certain use cases, and if they say they can, then we can both work towards making deployment a reality."
Providing a good user experience has become an important differentiator for mobile operators in the region. According to Ericsson, it has an impact on subscribers' loyalty and operators' network efficiency score.
Operators are focusing on maintaining efficiently performing networks while generating the best possible return and Ericsson prides itself on being the facilitator for this.