Etisalat has played a key role in minimising the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on day-to-day affairs and businesses, and it will continue to accelerate digital transformation and innovation to reduce the digital divide gap and increase digital readiness among its subscribers, its top official says.
Hatem Dowidar, acting CEO of Etisalat Group and CEO of Etisalat International, said the company offered full support to its subscribers during the peak of the pandemic to make life easier under the so-called new normal.
“We will continue to serve our customers in the ‘new normal’ making it easier to study, work, entertain and remain connected with family and friends from the comfort of their homes,” Dowidar told Khaleej Times during an interview ahead of Gitex Technology Week.
Empowering the digital future and beyond, he said etisalat is looking forward to being part of the global conversation at Gitex to share its 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 and 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 Expos powered by 5G to be held next year,” Dowidar said. Excerpts from the interview:
What are the special initiatives etisalat adopted and implemented to help organisations navigate during today’s times?
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 nine 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 Telecommunications Regulatory Authority.
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.
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 per cent. The traffic increase in streaming services and video by more than 50 per cent while in social media and gaming it grew more than 80 per cent and 200 per cent, respectively.
What is etisalat doing to accelerate digital transformation and innovation reducing the digital divide gap and increasing digital readiness?
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 800,000 transactions on a monthly basis. Robotic process automation has brought about 98 per cent efficiency enabling employees to become creative, innovative and connect with customers to enhance their experience. Our data centre capacity has also expanded with two new larger energy efficient facilities in Dubai and Al Ain has led to capture more than 50 per cent of the local market DC capacity bringing the total to 10 certified facilities.
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?
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.
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.
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 centre was added to the existing SmartHub facility in Fujairah facilitating customers from financial services, gaming, video streaming and cloud providers.
Can you share insights into etisalat’s efforts in supporting innovation and entrepreneurship?
There is a serious effort internally in building an AI capability; there is a team currently consists of 20 young Emiratis working on internal use cases focused on increasing operational efficiencies, building the capabilities of the next generation of Emirati youth and AI use cases for internal use. 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 startups, IoT developers, government entities, enterprises and end-users to drive digital transformation.
The UAE today has the fastest network in the world. How has etisalat contributed to this global achievement?
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.
Today, etisalat’s mobile network is recognised by Ookla as the fastest in the world, showcasing high speeds all throughout this year. The 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 the third and fourth quarters of 2019 and was recognised in the same year as the leading operator for fastest mobile and broadband network. With a download speed of 115.89mbps 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.
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 per cent and 3G covering 99.82 per cent. FTTH has reached 95.7 per cent 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 per cent covering the main cities in UAE.