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Etisalat boasts a wide range of solutions in many different sectors and has achieved a great deal of success over the years through its ability to find new and innovative ways to serve its customers and keep them up to date with the latest futuristic technologies. It is no doubt that Etisalat deserves to be one the region’s telecom leader and the most valuable brand.

Telecom Review interviewed Dr. Ahmed Bin Ali, Etisalat Group’s Senior Vice President, Corporate Communications, to highlight the success of the organisation following its outstanding financial results for the first half of 2019.

In 2019, what were the main highlights for Etisalat as a brand?

Etisalat Group now operates in 15 countries, with a customer base exceeding 143 million subscribers. Our solid financial results for the first half of 2019 is a testimony of Etisalat’s regional leadership in the telecom sector, we achieved 4.4 billion Dirhams in consolidated net profit and a revenue of 25.9 billion Dirhams.

With our vision to drive the digital future to empower society, Etisalat has always tried to bring the latest technology across our operations, as we have done so in the past when we were the first in the Middle East and North Africa to launch 3G, then 4G and now 5G.

We launched the 5G network back in May 2018. Our plan in 2019 is to rollout and install 1000 base stations for 5G in the UAE during the early stages of the rollout.

In fact, Etisalat plans to make the Expo 2020 area of Dubai the first and most connected spot on Earth. With this aim, Expo 2020 has been named the first commercial entity to launch 5G technology within their area in mid-2018. In addition to this, we connected the new Abu Dhabi Airport with a 5G network and it will be the first airport in the area to offer the access to 5G services for customers.

Etisalat also announced the availability of 5G coverage in the world’s tallest and iconic tower ‘Burj Khalifa’ showcasing readiness of the state-of-the-art 5G network and compatibility with industry leading 5G smartphones.

This 5G call is a major step for Etisalat as it proves the network readiness and availability of the 5G network and services in the country.

In terms of our global emphasis on providing roaming services, we have tried to get our partners connected through our networks with roaming services of around 837 operators in 216 countries, which will essentially give our customers the flexibility in roaming across the globe.

Etisalat also received ‘The Most Valuable Telecoms Brand’ in Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regionby Brand Finance as a recognition for the company’s increase in brand value to $8.3bn-higher than any other telecom brand in the MENA region and the only telecom brand portfolio to break the $10bn brand value mark in the region.

Etisalat is now among the world’s top 20 telecom brands and boasts of an impressive AAA brand rating. With a portfolio of brands such as Etisalat UAE, Etisalat Misr, Mobily, Ufone, Maroc Telecom, PTCL and Etisalat Afghanistan.

Several factors have attributed to the success and growth of Etisalat’s brand value mainly driven by an innovative customer service driven strategy, adapting well to a digital savvy marketplace, leading the 5G revolution and the successful launch of global brand building initiatives. Etisalat has also led digital innovation in the country with its overall strategy focused on ‘Driving the Digital Future to empower societies’ by working on several digital initiatives in digital infrastructure, entertainment and smart cities.

Etisalat has reached out and engaged with its consumers across markets with global branding initiatives by sponsoring global sports teams and clubs aligning with the brand’s priorities of being at the forefront of major sporting events. Etisalat also launched the new positioning campaign ‘Together Matters’ to highlight togetherness among its subscribers in today’s world of connectivity.

As part of its digitisation efforts for consumers, Etisalat provided an efficient personalised retail experience by amplifying the roll out of smart stores in UAE and transforming a brick and mortar retail environment to a digital experience for customers.

Etisalat today has an edge over other operators, as we are able to provide service to our customers in fixed, mobile, satellite and submarine. We are constantly trying to provide our customers with unique solutions and experiences across our footprints.

We have also maintained consistent leadership globally in FTTH penetration setting a benchmark in the global telecom industry. Our network is ranked number one for the highest FTTH penetration among all its global counterparts for a third year in a row.

This puts us a step ahead of other operators in the region and has allowed us to really enrich the services we offer to our customers through providing the latest technology.

Another very important aspect to Etisalat is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). We have tried to build different, tailor-made solutions and CSR projects in different countries where we mainly focused on services pertaining to healthcare, education, environmental-related services and the most important one being the ‘people with determination’.

Etisalat will continue to grow in one of the fastest growing and most emerging markets in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Our goal is to bring transformation with innovative and digital services and solutions to provide our customers and the community with the best in service and technology.

How has Etisalat synergised its efforts across its operations in terms of technology and network?

Etisalat has a solidified position across its operating companies with a superior network, strong core business and new revenue streams. We are committed to bringing the best network to our markets. 

Etisalat Misr as an example, where we have managed to maintain technology leadership to serve the millions of customers in Egypt by deploying the latest in technology on our 4G network, which will be an important component of our rapid transition to 5G.

The successful launch of 4G services in Egypt was a testimony to our efforts and a key milestone in the country, as it served as a catalyst for economic growth and deliver benefits to the entire society.

In Saudi Arabia, Mobily’s strategic vision under the Saudi Vision 2030 saw investments and partnerships to develop state-of-the-art services and solutions at the same time bolster the advanced network in the country.

What are the main attributing factors for Etisalat’s success this year?

Etisalat’s solid performance this year was an extension for our achievements of last year, and a testimony to the efforts in realising our vision and ambitions toward ‘Driving the digital future to empower societies’.

The consistent efforts and investment in our network has helped position the UAE as a global leader in FTTH penetration among all its international counterparts for a third year in a row.

UAE also leads a global speed index as the country with the fastest fixed broadband speed and connectivity in the region.

Etisalat played a significant role in enhancing UAE’s competitiveness standing in the global fixed broadband speed index. Etisalat doubled the speed for businesses and consumers recently increasing broadband penetration and business productivity in the country.

The launch of 5G will also bring a wealth of opportunities in the socio-economic development of the UAE.  

On the consumer front, what was your focus this year in terms of launching new services?

From prepaid to postpaid, we have launched innovative and efficient packages and benefits for all customers.

Wasel customers can now rollover data and minutes enjoying the benefit of never losing any unused allowance. The new ‘Freedom’ plan for postpaid was another first where customers enjoy unlimited data. Prepaid customers can now make unlimited international calls to unlimited numbers within 15 countries.

On broadband, speeds have doubled in a major upgrade. Etisalat’s broadband speed across the board delivers more than five times the broadband speed of the previous generation.

5G is also opening up opportunities for a plethora of solutions and services that will transform the lives of the customers.

Etisalat also works closely with the community supporting causes that make a larger impact on society, can you provide us with some more insight on this front?

Our commitment to CSR has always remained a major priority, it is integrated into our business activities to create value for subscribers and shareholders as well as communities that Etisalat serves.

Etisalat has played a massive role in relation to community services. We have identified different pillars, some of which include health services, smart education, environmental-related services and also the ‘people of determination’.

When it comes to the ‘people of determination’, we have tried to enrich their user experience by providing them with various services and means of support.

During GITEX last year and through our participation in other events, we provided tailor-made solutions for various segments. Our ability to offer such a great variety of services for all these different sectors essentially gives value to our customers and us a competitive edge. This also gives us an opportunity to serve them with the latest technology that will empower their lives and the society.

Just to cite a few examples of our work through the year,

  • Etisalat UAE Innovation Month
    • Etisalat’s Open Innovation Centre played a key role as a center to showcase initiatives that brought leaders, industry players and experts to young entrepreneurs and students. During the UAE Innovation month, a series of initiatives were conducted across the country, including welcoming university of Dubai students to its ultra-modern Open Innovation Centre in Dubai.
  • Partnership with Madrasa

Etisalat has partnered with Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives to fully support the Madrasa project. The Madrasa e-learning platform is part of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives announced by the UAE Vice President in September in 2017 to fill the gap in understanding science and mathematics among schoolchildren.

  • Digital sponsorship of Think Science

Etisalat was the digital sponsor of Think Science Fairs, organised by Emirates Foundation in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge. It was held in all seven emirates between February and March under the theme 'Seven Fairs for Seven Emirates".

  • EBTIC’s 10th anniversary

EBTIC, founded by Khalifa University, Etisalat and BT, marked its 10th anniversary on April 24. Etisalat works closely with EBTIC to help achieve our vision and strategy of ‘Driving the digital future to empower societies’ and contribute to the next level of development of playing a greater role in the digital lives of consumers and enterprises.

  • Support for Emirates Foundation for Youth and Development

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed received Etisalat and other strategic partners from the private sector that supported the initiatives and programs of the Emirates Foundation for Youth and Development on April 29. Etisalat’s CSR team attended the Emirates Foundation’s Social Investment Forum held on the same day.

  • Participation in ‘Future Pioneers’ initiative

Etisalat is proud to have been part of the ‘Future Pioneers’ initiative, launched by the Abu Dhabi Chamber which aims to provide the next generation with a platform to present their innovations and bring their ideas to life for the long term success of the country.

The other special CSR events Etisalat was part of this year added value to overall company objectives, these were mainly:

  • Hosting of Special Olympics ‘Flame of Hope’

Etisalat hosted the last leg of the Special Olympics ‘Flame of Hope’ journey at its headquarters in Abu Dhabi on March 13. Etisalat’s continuous support for People of Determination falls in line with its long-established corporate social responsibility strategy of extending its reach, offers and services across the community.

  • Telecom partner of Arab Media Forum

Etisalat was the official telecom partner of the Arab Media Forum and in its 18th year of participation.  The event was held at the Dubai World Trade Centre under the theme “From now to the future’.

  • Support for UAE government’s Well of Hope

Etisalat is proud to be the first company to take part in the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid initiative “Well of Hope”, a collective effort aimed at government and private sector employees to ensure needy sections of society have access to clean water. Eng Saleh Abdullah Al Abdooli, Etisalat Group CEO, led senior management and staff in virtually pumping water that will be later delivered to countries with water scarcity issues.

CSR-OPCOs

In Morocco, Maroc Telecom initiated various ICT projects in teaching and learning. In association with the Moroccan Ministry of Education, Maroc assisted in implementing educational programs in schools across the country.

Youth development initiatives were also in the limelight in Pakistan, with PTCL collaborating with the School of Leadership to send young children on its annual “Young Leaders” program.

Mobily in Saudi Arabia conducted health awareness sessions, many of which were led by students from local communities, focused on common skin diseases.

MEF recently published the industry’s first global standard defining an SD-WAN service and its attributes. MEF has emerged as the world’s leading communications industry organization shaping the direction and growth of the SD-WAN services market through standardization and upcoming certification of services, technologies and professionals. Telecom Review had the opportunity to interview Pascal Menezes, CTO, MEF, to discuss the standard, its relevance to the market and next steps for driving SD-WAN market innovation.

Read more: MEF: Powerful hybrid networking combines standardized SD-WAN + automated underlay connectivity...

Quality Telecom Services (QTS) provides in-class turnkey telecom services in Lebanon, where it is headquartered, and Iraq. Telecom Review spoke to Issam El Hajal, CEO, QTS, in an exclusive interview to know more about the company’s current projects.

Read more: QTS brings Lebanon closer to fiber and 5G deployments

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Our technology-based societies are advancing at an unprecedented velocity. Human desire for progression and convenience has driven the evolution of incredible artificial intelligence, no longer just a figment of science fiction. With the advancement of smart cities and the internet of things, more and more devices will be connected in our new era of tech expansion such as drones, able to be remote controlled to deliver items or even conduct deadly attacks. Even personalized robots are becoming a reality. What's more, cloud storage has become the new norm, able to record transactions and obtain tons of virtual personal and professional data.

Artificial intelligence
Smart cities, which are popping up all around the world, are paving the way for the Fourth Industrial Revolution: A world of contemporary automation, rapid data exchange and smart manufacturing technologies. Vibrant, modern cities such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai have embraced the smart city concept, using information and communication technologies to enhance performance, boost urban services and empower artificial intelligence (AI). Smart cities encompass broadband networks and e-services to sustain innovation ecosystems, growth and inclusion; therefore, blurring the lines between sci-fi and reality.

Countless sci-fi films have depicted futuristic worlds where robots have reached such a high level of artificial intelligence that they become an integral (and in some cases dangerous) part of society. For decades, the idea of intelligent robots was considered to be an idealistic concept. But with smart cities on the rise and the demand for advanced technology ever-increasing, the need for artificial intelligence is growing, and major technical advancements have proven that present artificial intelligence is well on its way to reaching sci-fi status.

The advancement of multiple datasets and "free or inexpensive" software development tools for researchers to work with, has led to quick advancements in A.I. in recent years. This crucial class of learning technology, known as "neural networks" has gone from being prohibitively expensive to relatively cheap thus, leading to a rapid uptake by tech giants such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. Each operates its own AI lab that conducts important research in the field and then publishes much of it for the academic community to use for future reference.

Google made waves in 2015 with their system that can learn to play and master old Atari games without directions. In addition, Facebook built a system which enables computers to describe images to blind people and Microsoft also contributed to AI advancement with a new Skype system that automatically translates from one language to another.

In 2015, Future Timeline reported on an incredible AI development in one of the most tech-advanced countries in the world. At Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, scientists manufactured and introduced one of the most advanced forms of AI in recent years, and they call her Nadine: A friendly robot "receptionist" able to remember names and previous conversations. Nadine looks very humanlike, with soft skin and brunette hair. She is able to express different emotions and personality traits, and can even recognize people she has previously met.

According to scientists at the university, with further progress in robotics driven by technological improvements in silicon chips, sensors and computation, "Physical social robots like Nadine are poised to become visible in offices and homes in the coming decades." The emergence of artificial intelligence like Nadine tells us one thing: It won't be long before the sci-fi films of the past depict our reality as opposed to a potential future.

In his article, My life with my robot secretary, author Mark Wilson writes for Fast Company about his experience using Clara: "A blob of algorithmic code assembled by the Y Combinator-funded startup Clara Labs." Clara is an AI assistant residing within a users' email whose support is activated by simply copying her into an email, thus introducing her to clients and schedules which are analyzed. The information is used by Clara to schedule meetings and make life easier for busy professionals.

"After the initial setup, where I listed my preferred location for coffee meetings and lunch meetings on Clara's site, all other settings were handled via email," says Wilson. "If I wanted Clara to give me a 15 minute buffer between meetings, I could just write her and tell her."

The extent of this artificial intelligence might seem far-fetched or too incredible for today's standards, and in a way that is the case. Because according to Wilson, an "unspecified" amount of people work at Clara Labs writing copy, checking every email that Clara drafts, and categorizing conversations repeatedly in order to teach Clara etiquette and the "nuance of conversation." Therefore, Clara isn't 100 percent AI, but still remarkably advanced.

Clara Labs founder, Maran Nelson, believes that the human contribution to Clara doesn't demean the scale or power of the Clara AI email system. "We have to get to a place where this thing doesn't need to be 100 percent automated or our company dies," Nelson told Wilson in an interview. "You want to provide an excellent service to a lot of people, even if it takes some time in some cases to give the right answer, intelligently."

Clara may not be fully AI, but is certainly capable of virtually reducing and assisting workload for a massive human force. After working for a month with the Clara system, Wilson's greatest realization was that he didn't really care if Clara was pure AI or not; rather, he felt that the true genius of Clara was that "she's a designed construct that gives everyday people the semantic keys to the power of micro-labor."

Cloud storage
With artificial intelligence on the rise and the need for huge amounts of data to be stored, the development of cloud storage is another significant form of technology that has propelled humanity into a futuristic realm. According to Big Data Made Simple, cloud storage is a service where data is remotely maintained, managed and backed-up.

Cloud allows users to store files online so that they can access information from any location with an internet connection. A recent study conducted with more than 800 business decision makers worldwide came to the conclusion that the number of organizations gaining competitive advantage through high cloud adoption has almost doubled in the past few years. It has been predicted that by 2017, the public cloud services market could exceed $244 billion.

There are various advantages to using cloud storage, according to Baiju NT, the editor and driving force behind Big Data Made Simple. One of the advantages he mentions is usability: "All cloud storage services reviewed in this topic have desktop folders for Macs and PCs. This allows users to drag and drop files between the cloud storage and their local storage." Baiju also mentions bandwidth, which allows users to avoid emailing files to each other, and instead allows them to send a web link through email.

Accessibility is an obvious advantage of cloud, and so is disaster recovery - probably one of the most recognized. "Cloud storage can be used as a back-up plan for businesses by providing a second copy of important files," says Baiju. "These files are stored at a remote location and can be accessed through an internet connection."

Lastly, Baiju mentions cost saving; a huge advantage for organizations where they can reduce annual operating costs by using cloud storage, which only costs about 3 cents per gigabyte to store data internally.

More and more data transactions are moving to the cloud today, with majority of personal and professional information stored online. Therefore, with so much data online, security has emerged as an imminent risk. As more users of cloud become enamored by its ease and individualized access to tools and information, privacy and security could slowly diminish. Hacking information is a very real threat that we face today with so much information being stored online.

But it goes without saying that cloud storage certainly isn't slowing down anytime soon. Just look at Uber, a hugely successful "taxi" company that uses the cloud to drive a mobile workforce allowing them to instantly deploy drivers and respond in real-time to demand. It's no wonder the company is being scolded by traditional taxi companies worldwide.

Cloud has paved the way for greater efficiency in business. Google even claims that its cloud hosts over 4 million applications. Urs Hölzle, the man responsible for building much of Google's technology, including its cloud, has big ambitions for it. "Five years from now, my goal is that all the CIOs of the Citibanks of the world are GCP (Google Cloud Compute) customers," he told the Business Insider. "Not because they were forced to but because they realize it's far better than doing it themselves."

While Amazon currently stands as the market leader in cloud computing services, credited with inventing the market and offering arguably the best cloud service out there, Google reportedly plans to run some of the world's most sophisticated datacenters in a bid to outdo Amazon, in addition to Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, Cisco and every other major IT company. Every tech-giant wants to get in on the lucrative technology.

Drone technology
Drones have also emerged in modern society as a revolutionary form of advanced technology, met with both praise and disdain. Decades ago, the word "drone" referred to the charismatic robots depicted in film like Star Wars. But today, drones are very real and have developed a number of uses such as flying surveillance cameras, delivery messengers and even weapons of war.

Edd Gent, a British science writer, discusses the uncertain but promising future of drone technology. He reflects on the first drone delivery in the United States in 2015 which he says was an "important milestone in the development of the new technology."

Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, first announced his vision for using delivery drones back in 2013 as a convenient way for his online retail corporation to get products to consumers faster and more efficiently. Bezos was later followed by Flirtey, an Australian startup company who partnered with Virginia Tech and NASA to build a drone that was able to carry ten pounds of medical supplies from an airfield in Virginia to a remote clinic about a mile away. Facebook also jumped on the bandwagon with their solar-powered Aquila drone - a massive robotic flier with the same wingspan as a Boeing 737 jetliner designed to circle around the stratosphere (the layer of Earth's atmosphere located between 10 to 48 kilometers above the planet's surface) and uses lasers to beam internet to the most remote corners of the world.

Drones are a modern form of technology, and therefore, have garnered restrictions for safety reasons. Before 2015, strict regulations threatened to halt the burgeoning drone industry. But in February 2015, the FAA, the agency responsible for regulating US airspace "released a proposed framework for the commercial use of small drones," writes Gent. The FAA decided that drones would only be allowed to fly during the day and within operators' visual line of sight. However, the FAA has "sped up turnarounds for so-called Section 333 exemptions that let companies use drones in the interim."

The agency reportedly granted 66 exemptions between September 2014 and March 2015, and soon started fast-tracking applications that were similar to previous requests, now amounting to nearly 2,000 such exemptions. It seems that whatever regulations are put in place, nothing will cease the pursuit of advanced technology and its potential for commercial use - especially when there is potential for profit.

In January 2016, Reuters reported that almost 300,000 recreational US-drone owners registered their unmanned flying vehicles in a new federal database which is intended to assist with addressing a "surge of rogue drone flights near airports and public venues." This particular registration, by the Federal Aviation Administration, was specifically for drones that weigh between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds.

In January 2016, it was reported that US Congress was set to make a stand against the increasing use of drones, now that hundreds of thousands of recreational drones are in use. Amazon and Google, clearly looking to advance their goal of drones delivering packages from warehouse to doorstep, are pushing law makers to allow for experimental testing of drone delivery in sparsely populated areas and more research into development of delivery plans to prove that the use of drones can be safe and even beneficial (or in their case, profitable).

"Companies want to be able to benefit from drones by flying beyond visual line of sight, or near congested areas or over people, in a way that is safe," says Lisa Ellman, a lawyer at Hogan Lovells, which represents commercial drone hardware and software makers. "The FAA is taking steps in that direction, but slowly."
Many people remain wary of drone technology, and some even despise it, especially those who have had to deal with the consequences of drone warfare. In an article by Jack Serle for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in 2015, he reports that at least 2,464 people have been killed by US drone strikes outside the country's declared "war zones" since Barack Obama took office. Since his inception, the total number of people killed is at least 314 civilians, while the number of confirmed strikes under his administration now stands at 456.

The International Affairs Review reports that the use of remotely controlled aerial vehicles as a weapon was first introduced during World War II: The German FX-1400, which consisted of a 2,300 pound bomb dropped form an airplane and controlled by a "mother-ship". The US first used UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) during the Vietnam War, when the Air Force used small, long range drones called Fireflies.

But extensive use of UAVs began with the Global War on Terror, mostly used for intelligence purposes, but also for surprise attacks from above, able to pinpoint an exact location and eliminate a target without interference. The CIA began to use drones to target al Qaeda operatives in the Middle East, particularly in Pakistan. In the article by Andrew Callam, he makes a worthy point: "Unmanned systems may lead to a safer type of warfare for US soldiers, but they will be unable to eliminate the inherent brutality of war."

While some deem modern technology to be ominous and unnecessary, others believe that it is revolutionary and essential for contemporary development. Whatever you think about drones, cloud storage, smart cities and artificial intelligence, you cannot deny that our modern societies are slowly beginning to resemble the sci-fi films of the past; ideas that were once thought to be fiction, that are now becoming reality.

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