Alfa is offering currently one of the fastest 4G connections in the region and worldwide, said Alfa CEO and chairman, Marwan Hayek, in an exclusive interview with Telecom Review, focusing mainly on the Lebanese operator's latest achievements and endeavors aimed at digitalizing operations and networks.
Why was 2017 a great year for Alfa?
Our technology milestones, increase in customer happiness and our financial results, all made 2017 a great year for Alfa. I would call it a "groundbreaking year" where we have, again, set the bar very high.
Our innovative and challenging spirit is what differentiates us, and our commitment to spreading happiness through technology is our gateway to every customer all over Lebanon, and the motive behind all we do and plan to do.
Today, I can proudly say that Alfa offers one of the fastest 4G connections in the region and worldwide. Last year has seen the completion of our 4G LTE-A network which covers today 100 percent of our subscribers with more than 1250 LTE-A connected sites. We are reaching up to 21.1 Mbps on 3G+ and 250 Mbps on 4G+, and we are proud to see Lebanon ranking second among the Arab States in 4G+ speeds, according to the latest OpenSignal report. This, for us, was a major step ahead towards achieving our vision. We were also able to increase our customer base despite the saturation in the market and this is an achievement by itself. Our data subscriptions continue to rise and peaked to 1.5M in 2017, a growth of 57 percent vs. 2013.
Adding to this, and aside from the tech-innovation chapter, one of the major milestones in 2017 was the ISO 39001 in Road Safety Traffic Management. We were the first operator from Lebanon and MENA to acquire it as part of our commitment to the 2030 UN Agenda for Sustainable Development and SDG #3: Good Health and Well-being. This certification comes to cement our longstanding efforts on raising awareness on best traffic safety practices and shedding light on the hazardous impacts of using mobile phones while driving. We are happy to be playing a key role in reducing death and serious injuries related to road traffic crashes, as a responsible corporation which acts in line with its vision.
How is Alfa embracing digital transformation, notably, at the level of its operations and network?
Alfa is at the heart of the digital revolution. When we say this, we mean it. We have a firm commitment of digitizing Lebanon and playing the role of "The Enabler" and "Partner".
The role of telco operators is being reshaped by the upcoming technological revolution and we have realized this early on. We are not a processor of data but rather an enabler and a firm believer in the power of agility. This includes the need to swiftly adapt our practices and operations to the fast changes in the industry and be a real partner to our community in enabling technology innovation.
This is why Alfa was the first to enable 3G+, 4G, 4G LTE-A to customers in Lebanon, and soon, 5G. This high-end infrastructure coupled with our 23+ years' expertise, supported by the international know-how of OTMT and our skilled human capital, puts us on the right path to embrace the upcoming digital revolution and bring into fruition success stories of innovation.
Speaking of the advancement achieved on the network level, I would like to share some interesting figures which show how our network capabilities have skyrocketed. In 2017, three times more data traffic was carried over our network compared to 2016. 4G devices generated 78 percent of this traffic and 50 percent of it was carried over LTE.
Furthermore, the overall data traffic hit a yearly record of 24 Petabytes in 2017 and smartphone penetration rate reached almost 91 percent, exceeding all expectations. Today, more than three out of four Alfa subscribers are using Alfa's network to connect to the internet.
Our aim is to maximize this network capacity further to be ready for all the coming challenges.
Over the next two years, USD150 million in investments are planned in infrastructure development where 500 new 3G+, 4G and 4G LTE-A sites will be installed to optimize our network quality and coverage. In line with this, we are upgrading our billing capabilities to support IoT, convergent features, real-time processing and we are digitizing our legacy archiving activity to optimize our space usage. We have also put our network on an evolutionary path to 5G and we are collaborating with our long-time partners, Ericsson and Nokia, to make our network ready for a commercial 5G rollout very soon.
Another important milestone in this perspective is the MIC Ventures Fund, launched recently with the support of the Council of Ministers and Ministry of Telecom, through which we will be injecting USD48 million over the next four years to support tech startups. This is an important step to spur economic growth and stimulate the startups growth in Lebanon, which we see as a national role to help keep our youth in their land and to combat brain drain.
Customer service is an important pillar for every telecoms operator. How do you manage to keep your customers satisfied?
Our aim is not only to keep our customers' satisfied but also rather happy.
We have built a trust-based relationship with our customers and we tend to understand their needs very well. We are not only responsive to their demands but also we are proactive.
We are glad to see the positive feedback from our customers over our different communication support channels, online and offline.
The robust connection and fast speeds we offer are key in attaining this customer happiness. In addition, we are continuously launching services based on a segmentation strategy that enables us to respond to the various tastes of our subscribers. In 2017, we launched more than seven services targeting students, businesses, heavy data users and we have as well special offers for startups. Through these offers, we tend to continuously revise the pricing structure and particularly reduce the effective price of the internet, which explains the high demand on our services and the big growth in the data usage trend.
We are also strengthening our commercial presence and getting closer to our customers by opening new 10 Alfa stores across the Lebanese territory to add to the existing 11. We have introduced a new concept in our stores, a modern and world-class one that offers a unique customer experience which makes their journey at our stores happy and distinguished from start to end.
On our customer support channels and social platforms, we are instantly responding to our subscribers and we connect with them 24/7. Our response rate on Facebook is more than 99 percent in less than 1 hour and our reply ratio over live chat over our website and mobile app exceeds 99 percent. Our latest addition to our customer experience journey roadmap is our state-of-the-art new website launched in 2017 which allows subscribers to manage their accounts and configure their subscriptions intuitively.
Alfa is always active when it comes to CSR initiatives through its Alfa 4-Life program. Can you update us on Alfa's latest initiatives in this field?
Alfa 4-Life is the flagship of our sustainability journey. It shows how the human side of telco can impact lives, change destinies and enable equal opportunities for all.
We are proud of this commitment to our society and its needs, which is part of our DNA and a Pledge 4-Life.
We are championing several SDGs as part of our commitment to the 2030 UN Sustainable Agenda.
We continue to champion the cause of People with Iron Will as part of our commitment to SDG#10: Reduced Inequalities. We have launched more than 25 initiatives in support of their integration over the past years and helped support more than 1500 children and citizens.
These children and people continue to inspire us with their ability to give and create. We remain committed to maximizing the reach and impact of our art therapy programs and mobilizing a strategic awareness strategy, as well as our financial resources to support the integration of these people. They deserve recognition and to be happy and to be given chances and opportunities to be independent, especially financially, which is the butter of our CSR program. We ended last year with a very emotional initiative which aimed at bringing back sight to semi-blind children. We offered them a device that allows them to experience sight and live their life normally. Their reaction was priceless and gave extra meaning to our work.
In parallel, our ISO 39001 certification in Road Safety (in line with SGD #3), was a major milestone as I mentioned before, and it requires us to continuously adapt our operations to be in line with its standards.
You joined UN Global Compact Lebanon Council as the Goal Leader of the UN Sustainable Development Goal #9, and were recently elected as board member of the tri-regional SAMENA Council. What do these two milestones bring to you and to Alfa?
Indeed, these are two milestones I am proud of in my career and mean a lot to me and for Alfa.
The first is a continuation to our efforts in CSR and sustainability. I joined the CSR Council of UN Global Compact Lebanon as Goal Leader of SDG #9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure. The Council consists of 12 council member leaders who come from financial, banking, medical, educational and industrial sectors, without limitation, and it plays a national role in advancing sustainability involvement across Lebanon. I will be working to further strengthen Lebanon's position on the worldwide digital map and telco industry.
My election on SAMENA board is a tribute to all our efforts over the past years. I am proud of all what we have done and all the efforts of the Alfa team.
This election is a privilege which demonstrates the trust of the Council's members in Alfa's leadership and in Lebanon's mobile sector. I am very enthusiastic about being a part of this board and look forward to contributing to the collective efforts of all SAMENA members to further evolve the telecoms Industry in the region. Also, about sharing all milestones and progress we are achieving in Alfa and Lebanon's mobile sector as well as exploring ways of how to bring more innovation to the industry.
After launching LTE-A in Lebanon, you achieved at the TR Summit a new milestone: the first 5G trial in Lebanon. This is indeed a major milestone for Alfa and for Lebanon. Can you tell us more about it?
Indeed, we are the first operator in Lebanon to launch this 5G trial and this is the 9th 5G live trial done in partnership with Ericsson in the MENA region.
This comes as a fruition to the extensive research and work the Alfa team has done, together with Ericsson, after signing the 5G MoU in 2016. Once more, we prove that when we promise, we act.
This 5G trial puts us one step closer to the 5G commercial rollout which we are planning very soon and makes us completely ready for the next digital revolution. It puts us in a pioneering position to enable all IoT and artificial intelligence innovations and allows us to help revolutionize many key vertical industries such as healthcare, transportation and others.